Has your elementary schooler come home worried that if they don’t pass their milestones test they won’t move on to the next grade? Is your middle schooler already worried about getting into college or basing their whole identity on being a star student?
Some school-related stress is normal—and helpful. It gives kids “a little healthy fear that will hopefully motivate them to study for tests, complete homework on time and focus on schoolwork,” says licensed therapist Kathleen Hill. But how can you tell when that stress has gotten out of control? And how do you ease it while still encouraging your child to achieve? Read on for expert tips.
Kids don’t always tell you how they feel or show stress in obvious ways. Remember that behavior is a way of communicating. Look out for these signs in your child:
- Complains of constant stomachaches or headaches
- Acts out in class (such as being the class clown) or at home (refusing to do homework)
- Acts out at bedtime or in the morning because they're worried about going to school (refusing to get dressed, trying to miss the bus, picking on a sibling, etc.)
- “Acts in”—withdrawing or avoiding activities they usually enjoy
- Fidgets a lot or seems overly fixated on school and grades
What can kids do when they find themselves worrying excessively about an assignment, or feeling short of breath as a teacher passes out a test? Hill suggests kids learn a couple of simple calming strategies. “It’s important for kids to get a chance to learn and practice these tools in a relaxed moment, such as at the kitchen table while doing homework, so they will be ready to use them when they feel their anxiety rise,” says Hill.
- Deep breathing: Breathe slowly, counting to 5, in through the nose and out through the mouth. Repeat 2 times.
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation: Clench and unclench muscles. For example: Pretend you are squeezing a small ball in your hands. Hold and squeeze the ball very tightly. Then imagine letting go of the ball, feeling the sensation of your muscles relaxing.
- Grounding: Take a few deep breaths, and then use your senses to notice things. For example: Notice 3 things you can see around you, 2 things you can touch or 1 thing you can hear, etc.
Parents can do a lot to give their kids a healthy outlook on school.
- Adopt healthy habits as a family. Getting enough good rest, eating well and being active all help reduce stress and help kids do better in school. This is especially important during testing time.
- Embrace your child’s non-academic interests. Praise your child's kindness in how they treat peers or siblings. If they like music or sports, consider joining band or a sports team.
- “Allow your child to fail,” Hill says, “and experience the consequences of their decisions. If your third-grader refuses to study for the spelling test, let them struggle on the test, then have a conversation about what happened.”
- Praise effort over outcome. Instead of, “I’m so proud of you for getting an A,” try, “I’m so proud of how hard you worked in that class.” By all means, avoid making high-pressure, dramatic statements such as, “If you don’t do well on your SATs, you will never get into college.”
- Talk openly about how you manage your own anxiety. For example: “I have a big work deadline, but I know I will feel better if I take 15 minutes to go for a walk.” Encourage your child to develop their own toolbox of strategies that will help them cope with stress throughout life.