How to Help Your Child Deal With Academic Anxiety

Has your elementary schooler come home worried that if she doesn’t pass her milestones test she won’t move on to the next grade? Is your middle schooler already worried about getting into college or basing his 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 Kathleen Hill, licensed therapist with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Strong4Life. 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. 

Signs of academic anxiety

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 she’s 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 she usually enjoys
  • Fidgets a lot or seems overly fixated on school and grades

Overcoming anxiety in the moment

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.

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Download a deep breathing tip sheet.
Download a progressive muscle relaxation tip sheet.
Download a grounding tip sheet.

Overcoming anxiety in the long run

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 her kindness in how she treats peers or siblings. If she likes music or sports, consider joining band or a team.
  • Allow your child to fail,” Hill says, “and experience the consequences of her decisions. If your third-grader refuses to study for the spelling test, let her 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 take a walk.” Encourage your child to develop her own toolbox of strategies that will help her cope with stress throughout life.

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Download a list of coping skills.