Is school stressing your kids out? 7 tips for managing school-related stress

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Child with learning difficulties.

Child with learning difficulties.

because-I-said-so-REDStarting school each fall is like starting a new job. The first few weeks are often exciting but it can be stressful to adjust to a new routine and get a grip on the realities of the job. By mid-September, students that were once excited about school may feel stress and anxiety about homework and tests. Try these suggestions from Utah Valley school psychologists to help your kids keep their cool about school:

If your child is stressed about going to school …

Give them a grace period.

Kids may act out in strange ways as they adjust to a new school-year routine, says Deon Leavy, school psychologist with the Alpine School District. “It’s not uncommon for the first few weeks of school for parents to see changes in the children’s behavior. You might see a fourth-grader throw a temper tantrum or a second-grader wet the bed.” As the new routine becomes familiar these developmental regressions should stop. If they persist or there are other red flags, don’t hesitate to meet with a teacher, principal or school counselor for help, Leavy says.

Establish a schedule as quickly as possible.

Stick with a doable daily schedule as much as possible. “Having consistent bedtimes, consistent mealtimes, consistent practice the piano times, consistent homework times helps kids transition,” Leavy says. Don’t make too many changes to a child’s schedule all at once. “Keep the anchors in place,” she says.

If your child is cranky and low-functioning at the end of the day …

Make sure they are getting enough sleep.

There is a clear connection between a lack of sleep and an increase in anxiety, Leavy says. Sometimes a lack of sleep is apparent, but more often it’s a loss of sleep over time that does a student in. Ensuring your student gets enough sleep can really help them cope. “It’s kind of a vicious cycle where increased stress impacts an ability to sleep which increases stress which impacts the ability to sleep,” Leavy says.

If your child feels anxiety about homework and tests …

Get (or stay) involved.

Try to have ongoing conversations about school, says Brent Coffman, a Nebo School District psychologist and administrator. Ask what they are excited about, what they find interesting at school, who they sit with at lunch. This is likely easier with younger grade school children; tweens and teens may not be as chatty. That’s when parents need to be proactive, Coffman says. “If you haven’t seen them pull out a book all week, as a parent you need to be proactive and ask if there are things they need help on or things they don’t understand.” Set a regular time to be available with homework questions, or if you don’t have time, sign them up with a lab or tutor. “Don’t wait for bad test scores to come back. Be on the front end of that and let them know you are there as a support for them,” he says.

If your child has social stress at school…

Add a hobby or extracurricular activity.

Studies show that students involved with a hobby or after-school activity tend to engage more successfully in school, Coffman says. “It’s a nice way to relive stress and be involved with other people,” he says. “It can become a place where they can talk about things and not have it relate directly to school.” But be careful not to overdo it — too many activities and a packed schedule will ultimately lead to more stress.

If your child puts to much pressure on themselves:

Praise their efforts, not their results.

Sometimes kids and teens start to think they have to get everything right all the time in order to be validated. Not only is this behavior stressful for a child, it also causes a lack of empathy for others and decreased self-worth for the child, Leavy says. “Put more emphasis on the effort and the learning process rather than telling them ‘great job,’ ” she says. Replace that vague term with a recitation of why you are thankful for them. “Let them know you are thankful they get up every day and go to school, you’re thankful that they do their homework, you’re thankful that they try even when they make mistakes.”

Be positive.

It can be deflating as a parent when your child under performs, but resist the urge to rub it in or use negative reinforcement. “For most kids it kind of sucks the life right out of them when they are negatively prodded along,” Coffmann says. Instead of telling a teen how they’ve damaged their future, discuss what they’ve learned from the experience, how they can prepare better and point out resources that are available to them.

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Natalie Hollingshead is a former magazine editor turned freelance writer and editor. She writes regularly about home, family, food and travel for a handful of publications, and is co-author of the book "Happy Homemaking” (Cedar Fort, 2012) with Elyssa Andrus. A native of Alberta, Canada, Natalie lives in Orem with her husband and their three children.

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