Ten ways to help your primary school-aged child relax and sleep well

Understanding how to slow down and relax is a very important skill in today’s over-scheduled, over-stressed world. This does not just apply to adults and high-schoolers, but also to primary school aged children. Below I make some suggestions for helping your primary school aged child to relax, sleep well and deal with anxiety.

These suggestions are ones that my family has tried and found to be useful. You and your family may have your own techniques. I’d love to know what works for you.

Relax
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1. Get outside

If your child needs to relax, the first approach I suggest is to increase their time outside.

We all know it, don’t we? Time outside is good for us. Study after study corroborates this statement. But, when we are planning our days and weeks, how much importance do we actually assign to being outside?

Time outside in a natural environment has been shown to have benefits for cognitive development and health (including mental, emotional and physical health), especially for children with AD/HD characteristics.

Do you need to hear more? “Psychological benefits include reduced stress and anxiety, improvements to mood, increased perceived wellbeing, improved concentration and attention, and cognitive restoration.” That’s from the MindMatters website.

Of course we have to minimise risks by being sensible about sun protection, airborne allergens, insect bites and (in the Northern Beaches of Sydney) ticks. But, if you think your child needs to relax more, maybe do a trial fortnight when you are spending significant amounts of time outside, and see if that makes a difference.

 

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2. Cut down on scheduled time

Unstructured time to play can help your child to relax.

Many of us depend on our cars to get from one place to another. As a consequence, we schedule one activity after the other, driving in between activities without a break. But what if you learned that unstructured play was actually better for your child than filling all their time with scheduled activities?

See this summary article for the reasons why your child should be allowed unstructured time to play.

Don’t have time to read the article? Unstructured play improves memory, allows brain cells to grow, increases attention during academic tasks, aids mathematical and language development and promotes problem-solving, self-regulation and reasoning.

More time to play in childhood has also been linked to higher self-esteem and social success in adulthood.

This really does mean unstructured time – sports training and physical education classes are not the same as free play.

Here’s an article by Australian researchers about the benefits of unsupervised outdoor play.

How much time does your child actually have to play without being supervised or directed? Are there activities you could cut out, if even just for one term, to allow them this time?

 

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3. Cut down on car use. Walk or cycle instead.

Walking and cycling can also help your child to relax. When you walk or cycle with your child, you are spending time together outside, you are gently exercising, they can talk to you with reduced time pressure, and you both have the opportunity to notice things that you might not have noticed otherwise.

I remember with fondness when I used to walk my son to pre-school along Manly’s East Esplanade. We noticed and discussed different things each day. A highlight in the spring time was spotting a gull’s nest and watching the baby gulls grow and develop.

I know it can be hard to cut down on car usage. In my family we have two ‘car-free days’ a week. The other three week days are pretty full on and it is hard to work out how we could manage them without a car. Eventually, however, I’d like to invert that and end up with just two car days a week.

And there’s an extra, but hugely important bonus when you take this approach – you cut down on greenhouse gas emissions too.

Mind Full, or Mindful? by Heidi Forbes Öste on Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/forbesoste/15655214702
Mind Full, or Mindful? by Heidi Forbes Öste on Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/forbesoste/15655214702

4. Relax Kids

Mindfulness, positive affirmations and yoga can also help your child to relax. Relax Kids coaches run classes across the world that combine these approaches. One of my sons attended classes when we lived in England and we all found them hugely beneficial. If you don’t have a Relax Kids coach near you, you can shop for their products here. Or look here for downloadable printables specifically for relaxation. We have a couple of their CDs and have also downloaded short guided relaxations onto our computer.

Look out for the Relax Kids 21 day program for families, with an exercise, an affirmation and a tip for each day. You can follow Relax Kids on Facebook or follow their blog. Sometimes they have free offers, especially around Christmas time.

Sleep well

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5. Exercise, but not right before bedtime.

In order to sleep well, your child needs to be physically tired. Recommendations are that children should have at least 1 hour of physical exercise per day. Many children get far more than that. Some don’t. Anecdotally, I certainly notice it is harder to get my children to sleep on the days when they have been inside and less active than usual.

But be aware that exercise releases cortisol and if you do this right before bedtime it will keep your child’s heart and brain racing just as they are supposed to be winding down.

My Bedtime Bear, by Russell Tucker on Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/russell300d/267199497 CC by-nd 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/legalcode
My Bedtime Bear, by Russell Tucker on Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/russell300d/267199497 CC by-nd 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/legalcode

6. Bright lights in the morning, dim lights before bed

Manipulate your child’s daily routine to work with, not against their circadian rhythm. Our sensitivity to light reduces as we grow older, but for children and young adults the circadian rhythm is very closely linked with exposure to bright light. You want bright lights in the morning  (ideally daylight) but dimmer lights in the evening to aid in the production of melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that is closely linked with sleep-wake cycles. In people with normal sleep cycles, it is produced in the evening and peaks around 3 am.

Blue lights, such as those emitted by computer screens, smart phones, tablets and LEDs, have been shown to have a stronger effect on suppressing melatonin production. Try to turn off all these devices at least an hour before your child’s bedtime (and preferably two or more) and reduce lights in the bedroom before sleep.

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Sleeping girl image used with permission from http://www.dinosnores.com.au

 

7. Dinosnores

The Dinosnores sleepy stories have been great for my children. The first time I played ‘Dragon’ to my youngest son he was asleep in 10 minutes. I like these better for bedtime than other shorter relaxations, as they are specifically designed for bedtimes.

The Dinosnores stories take your child through techniques that are known to work, such as deepening their breathing, and rotating awareness around the body.

For each CD or download, there is a 20-30 minute story followed by roughly 30 minutes of ambient sounds. This is great for children who do not sleep very deeply, as the ambient sounds can encourage them back to sleep without them waking fully.

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8. Relax melodies

This app for smart phones is popular in my house as the children can create their own combination of sounds for falling asleep. I usually leave it playing on my phone while I creep out of the room, then retrieve my phone before I go to bed myself.

Don't worry, Heather by David Mellis on Flickr. No modifications. https://www.flickr.com/photos/mellis/213058932 CC by 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode
Don’t worry, Heather by David Mellis on Flickr. No modifications. https://www.flickr.com/photos/mellis/213058932 CC by 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

9. Acknowledge your child’s worries

All these techniques are not going to work if your child has worries going round and round in their head. For both adults and children, it helps to name your worries before trying to sleep. This doesn’t necessarily mean you solve the problems, but at least you are acknowledging them. Your child might like to whisper their problems to some worry dolls. Or you could write down worries and then throw the paper away.

You and your child can discuss their concerns about the next day and plan what you are going to do.

You can also finish the day on a positive note by thinking of three things that you are thankful for, and maybe writing these positive things in a diary.

Anxiety

As I said in a previous blog post, these suggestions do not take the place of professional help, but my children have found the program below very helpful for understanding and dealing with anxiety.

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10. GoZen!

This program uses animated videos to explain to children (and their parents) how their nervous system works and to give them tools to deal with anxiety. The tools are based on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) but the language is suitable for children. For example, instead of ‘Negative Automatic Thoughts’ we talk about ‘Thought Holes’. As children start to identify what is going on with their thoughts, they can learn how to address these thoughts and therefore change the way they feel and behave. We have found GoZen! very helpful in providing a shared language for talking about our thoughts and reactions to certain situations.

Four ways to improve your performance in exams – backed up by research

 

Sleep
“Sleep: what she likes to do the most” by Mislav Marohnić https://www.flickr.com/photos/mislav-marohnic/3406902041

Sleep

In 2014 Belgian researchers conducted some rigorous research into sleep and how it affects exam performance. They asked students to fill out the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index and also asked many questions about study habits, health, socioeconomic backgrounds and parental sleep habits. They gathered data from exams for various courses.There was a clear difference between those who slept well and those who did not, even when the researchers corrected for other variables.

Effectiveness: Students who extended their sleep duration from six to seven hours saw an average increase of 1.7 points (on a scale of 20) for each exam. So say you would have scored 50% otherwise? You could potentially increase your mark by 8.5% by sleeping an extra hour the night before the exam.

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‘Meditation’ by Sebastien Wiertz. https://www.flickr.com/photos/wiertz/6093566215

Meditation/Visualisation

A study in 2013 by researchers in Pennsylvania found that, for a hands-on computer applications exam, a group of students who were told to sit down, breathe deeply and envisage getting an A in the exam performed better than those who were allowed to study for 5 minutes, or those who exercised vigorously for 5 minutes, prior to the exam.

Effectiveness: The mean result within the meditation group was more than 5% better than the control group.

In a different study, students who received mindfulness training in the two weeks leading up to their exams significantly increased their score on a standardised test, compared to students who had received the same amount of training in nutrition.

Effectiveness: I can’t convert this to a percentage score, but the students who did mindfulness training gained on average a 16% percentile boost after the training, i.e. their final score moved them higher in the exam population than they would have been previously, beating 16% more students.

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Hydration

It’s essential to be hydrated before and during an exam. Dehydration can affect your attention, psychomotor skills, immediate memory skills, and assessment of your state of mind. All these effects will have a negative impact in an exam.

An English study in 2012 found that students who brought water into their exam scored on more than those who did not. Unlike the studies above for meditation, these results were controlled using ability on previous results.

Effectiveness: The news article doesn’t report the results very clearly, but it appears that those who brought water into the exam scored on average 4.8% higher than those who did not.

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Nutrition

Around exam time you will find many articles telling you what kind of food to eat for breakfast. These are not necessarily based on research. We know the function of different components in our food (macronutrients like fat, carbohydrates and protein and micronutrients like vitamins and minerals) but we can’t assume that eating particular foods in the morning will have a miraculous effect on your exam results.

Most of the studies seem to be on children with low socio-economic-status (SES) and many are not designed well. I found one study on dieting women which showed that low-carb diets had a negative effect on memory-related tasks and reaction time. There is a more recent systematic review that shows that (a) if a child or adolescent usually skips breakfast, having breakfast in the morning can have a short-term positive effect on tasks requiring attention, executive function and memory and (b) this effect is still valid even if you correct for low SES.

Effectiveness: I can’t find a percentage improvement in the abstracts, but the article above says that the improvements were best for mathematics and arithmetic tests.

I conclude that it is worth having breakfast on the morning of your examination, especially if you are doing a maths exam, and even if you do not usually have breakfast. Eat well and don’t skip carbs, but try to choose low GI foods as they will release glucose more steadily to your body during the day.