Even in good times, childhood and adolescence are difficult. But the last three years have been particularly tough for the youth.
For years there has been a global child and adolescent mental health crisis that has only gotten worse. A year after the pandemic began, a national child and adolescent mental health emergency was declared.
Unlike physical ailments, mental health problems tend to go untreated in childhood and continue into adulthood. With the uncertainty clouding our children’s futures, we need social leadership to declare a national emergency to protect our children’s mental health.
Research shows that exercise improves the mental health of children and adolescents. In addition, exercise is effective in treating anxiety and depression in clinical and healthy populations; Develops greater self-esteem and coping with self-efficacy under stress.
Consequently, I have advocated school-based formal exercise training (FET) to promote and protect children’s mental health.
Exercise is essential for physical and mental fitness – but there’s more
Life is stressful, but none of us are born knowing how to handle life’s stresses and function effectively. We as a society have an obligation to provide our children with lifelong tools to maximize the improvement benefits of stress.
But before children can learn to manage and benefit from stress, they must learn that they are being cared for by adults. Regardless of race or socioeconomic status, nurturing builds confidence and makes children eager to learn from parents, teachers, and others who care for them.
FET in a caring environment is essential to preparing children to maximize the benefits of stress. Real life stress is a logical continuation of the apparent stress children experience while playing; They imagine themselves as superheroes or some other superior force pitted against ghost forces.
Gaming is serious business
The game reveals children’s aspirations to become more than just a child. Like artists and athletes, the enthusiasm that children get when they play compels them, like artists and athletes, to boldly convert their emotions into action.
In the spell of gambling there is no difference between appearance and reality. Children become heroic, beautiful, sublime creatures idealized in their imagination.
If an adult dares to break the spell, children will realize they are only playing. Yet the seriousness of play, with all its emotional, ambitious, and idealized aspects, prepares children to take on the stress of real forces in order to become the meaningful force they playfully envision.
FET safely guides children through the dangerous transition from fantasies and pretenses to combat with real powers.
Confronting real forces can be frightening and even deadly, especially for children. Therefore, the learning climate in which your children learn to manage these forces should be a continuation of the safe and caring home environment that you as a parent create for your children.
A well-trained instructor will address children’s normal fears and self-doubts and help children develop the emotional and cognitive skills to deal with self-destructive thoughts and focus on the task of mastering skills.
Caring is learning
It is the expression of caring, assuring your children that the teacher cares about their well-being. By creating a caring/task-related (C/TI) climate, the instructor encourages children’s confidence to rise to the challenge and focus on successfully learning how to perform exercises and athletic skills.
Similarly, children are more intrinsically motivated to learn in this climate, as high effort and personal improvement (eg, mastery of skills) are emphasized and rewarded by the teacher. Children’s intrinsic motivation receives a developmental boost when the teacher puts the children’s focus on learning from mistakes (rather than embarrassment), thereby forcing them to keep trying rather than giving up.
Additionally, the C/TI practice environment encourages a fair and collaborative climate in which children help each other learn from their mistakes, creating more positive interpersonal relationships.
The lifelong value of emotional and cognitive coping skills that children develop in the nurturing climate of their FET is undisputed. Learning to successfully apply these coping skills in stressful situations outside of the controlled exercise environment (like taking a test) is part of FET.
In and out of the training setting, through the application of these coping skills, children develop a sense of ownership as they increasingly experience their success, learning and mastering skills that were initially difficult is the product of their efforts.
In addition, children gain self-empowerment as their pursuit leads to an increasing number of positive experiences for themselves and their peers.
The power of caring has not escaped marketers. Marketers inundate children with more than 40,000 commercials annually, using popular cartoon entertainment characters to combine caring, child play fantasies and false promises of pleasure, fun, happiness, athletic ability and instant gratification to teach children to be consumers.
However, commercial nurturing does not build self-esteem and self-efficacy, but masks the marketing strategy of making children feel like complete losers without promoting the product. Instead of teaching coping skills, commercials teach kids the nagging factor despite the strain it’s likely to put on parent-child relationships.
Similarly, in contrast to the empowering effects of FET, the deceptive false promises of commercial care tend to develop impotence. When children grow into teenagers, they realize they are being duped by marketers, accept it, and feel powerless to do anything about it.
This feeling of powerlessness is characteristic of the mental health problems experienced by children and young people worldwide.
A striking contrast
At a time when child and adolescent mental health has evolved from crisis to national emergency, you might think that policymakers would mandate FET in all elementary and secondary schools. Oddly enough, this is not the case, leaving parents alone when it comes to protecting and promoting their children’s health rights. What to do? Here are a few suggestions.
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Strength in Numbers: Join like-minded parents, your local parent-teacher association, and community health professionals who also understand the lifelong mental and physical health benefits of physical activity for children and young people and are committed to implementing physical education every day deploy.
Demand your children’s health rights: Call on your school board and local government officials to protect and promote your children’s health rights by ensuring their fundamental right to participate in physical education, physical activity and sport.
Demand quality education based on these Institute of Medicine guidelines:
The coaches are certified physical education teachers.
At least 30 minutes of FET per day every school day for elementary school students and 45 minutes of FET per day every school day for middle and high school students.
Realistic fitness standards for student achievement and graduation.
Children will learn to care for their own health and the health of others when they learn that society’s leaders agree with parents and teachers when it comes to caring for their well-being.
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Stephen J Almada, Ed.D. is a health psychologist and the author of Exercise, Life, & Love: The Making of a Sedentary Society