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School Children’s ‘Stress Control’ Program Upsets Some Parents

March 17, 1985

CLEARWATER, Fla. (AP) _ Before a big exam, thousands of fifth-graders on Florida’s Gulf Coast breathe deep, close their eyes, picture the test and tell themselves: ″I am ready. I have studied.″

In return, they get better grades, says Harry Danielson, guidance supervisor for the Pinellas County School system. The exercises, he says, have a calming effect that helps control anxiety and build confidence.

But some parents call the program ″mind control″ and ″mental child abuse″ and refuse to let their children take part.

Opponents fault tape-recorded instructions telling youngsters to breathe deep and imagine a safe place or a ″wise person″ to whom they can turn in times of trouble. That, they say, is hypnotic and physically threatening.

The controversy recently forced the school board to take another look at the 4-year-old program known as ″quieting reflex,″ or Q.R., which is used for about 4,000 children in at least 28 middle schools.

By a 6-1 vote Wednesday, the board reiterated its support for Q.R., but required schools to inform parents about the program and restricted its use to the weeks before standardized tests.

The concessions didn’t mollify critics.

″It’s a form of tampering with our children’s mind,″ said Hugh Richeson Jr., a lawyer representing parents opposed to the technique. ″You might want to call it mental child abuse.″

Q.R. has two parts: The first uses breathing and muscle control for stress management, and the second uses success imagery to boost confidence.

The objective, Danielson says, is to teach children to modify physiological reaction to tension by reversing tendencies to tighten muscles or take shallow breaths. They are taught to recognize that they’re upset, tell themselves they can handle it, breathe deeply and consciously try to relax.

Then, five times during the two weeks before a specific event, a counselor reads a three-minute script stressing positive things and trying to simulate the event to come.

Four tapes running about 90 minutes are used to prepare children for Q.R.

″If all it is is taking a deep breath, why do you need four tapes?″ asked Richeson during a heated two-hour board session.

″We can’t deny we did a bad job in preparing the parents for this,″ said board member Ron Walker.

″I don’t think we’ve had a single student say he thought it was bad or not good for him,″ Danielson said. ″From most, the feedback is good. Some are bored by it or think it’s schmaltzy.″

But more than 20 families have pulled their children out of the program this year. And they say they are considering legal action to stop the practice. At the board meeting, eight spoke out against Q.R; 13 spoke for it.

Superintendent Scott Rose recommended that it be continued, based on the findings of a review committee of ministers, Parent Teachers Assocation representatives, physicians, clinical psychologists and two professional counselors.

Margaret Holland, a University of South Florida professor in Tampa, helped develop Q.R. after studies showed pupils were becoming more anxious as more emphasis was placed on standardized testing.

Q.R. was instituted in Clearwater in 1980 with 600 fifth-graders in seven schools. Researchers compared tests results from 11 exams with results from pupils in seven schools not using Q.R.

″On nine of the 11 tests, the ones who had Q.R. training were far superior,″ Danielson said. The comparsion was repeated the following year with similar results.

″We’re trying to help kids deal with stress and anxiety in their lives and feel more confident,″ Danielson said. ″These are old ideas. What’s new is the packaging. ... And of course, it doesn’t hurt to remind them to study.″

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