Learning to cope with stress, aged 11

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Children as young as 11 are being taught stress management and relaxation techniques to help them cope with the growing pressures of exams, schoolwork and family break-ups.

Classes being held during summer schools for disadvantaged youngsters, include tips on tensing and releasing muscles to the sound of calming music. Students are encouraged to use the techniques when exam nerves or homelife problems strike.

The stress management lessons are part of a range of activities being offered in Scottish summer schools to help students at, or about to begin, secondary school to get the most from their educational careers.

The 1,000 11- to 17-year-olds taking part also study revision techniques, communications skills and assertiveness training, as well as taking part in sports and trips.

A senior academic and government advisor evaluating the project, which is organised and part-funded by the Prince of Wales's charity The Prince's Trust, yesterday suggested that lessons on recognising and combating stress should be part of every child's education.

Professor John MacBeath, of the Quality in Education Unit at Strathclyde University and a member of the Government's standards task force, said: "Kids nowadays experience stress that kids didn't before. If you simply take family break-up, we know that separation, divorce or the death of a parent are hugely stressful for kids [and] ... kids sitting in classrooms are actually suffering from such high stress that physiologically for them it is absolutely impossible to work."

The strains caused by exams were also treated too casually by adults, with too little preparation of students for the stress they would face, Professor MacBeath added. Parental or teacher expectations could worry some youngsters, who feared failure and humiliation.

Relaxation techniques taught at the summer schools involve students lying on the floor in a cleared classroom, listening to restful music and learning how to tense and relax muscles in groups from head to toe.

The hour-long classes, which are optional, but taken by most students, also include discussions on the nature of stress and how to beat it by improving time management and study skills.

Shona Thomson, programme co-ordinator for a summer school at Balerno Community High School in Edinburgh - one of 15 venues for the project around Scotland - said students had responded very positively to the scheme, including the relaxation classes. "Students love it. They find it interesting and different and really relaxing. One or two even nodded off, it was so peaceful."

Parents had been stunned that their children, who often could not be persuaded to attend school regularly during term time, should be keen to turn up in the holidays, she added. As well as advice on schoolwork, the Balerno course offered the chance to interview and video sports stars, surf the Internet and try rockclimbing.

The Scottish summer schools, now in their third year, are backed by more than pounds 50,000 from the Prince's Trust and by money from local authorities.

Their closest English counterparts are the new literacy summer schools, launched by the Government this summer and designed to help 11-year-olds struggling with reading and writing to get up to speed before starting secondary school in September.