Whether as a primary condition or coexisting with other issues (e.g., ADHD, Learning Differences), anxiety and stress permeate the school experience of many students at all age and grade levels. The continuum moves from rather minor anticipatory anxiety at the beginning of a school year to chronic, debilitation anxiety that renders some students incapable of staying in a traditional school setting. In fact, many students report that signiﬁcant school-related anxiety is an unwanted companion for much of their childhood and adolescence.
Serious problems of self-esteem and depression, as well as a host of medical-related concerns, are too often the result of these anxieties. Current estimates suggest that 10 to 15% of all school age children meet diagnostic criteria for an anxiety disorder.
While some anxiety is a natural part of any new learning process or change in environment, the level of stress for some students is clearly unhealthy and harmful. From the classic The Hurried Child by David Elkind to the more recent writings of Mel Levine (The Myth of Laziness), psychologists and pediatricians have described the detrimental role of excessive anxiety for all children particularly those with learning problems.
Teachers observe over-scheduled and over-stressed kids who are unable to produce work at the level of their ability. Parents deal with the fatigue, irritability, and sleep deprivation of children and adolescents who are trying to keep up with the academic train of school performance. Below are some suggestions for distinguishing between "normal" developmental anxiety related to school versus the “over the top" harmful levels, and what can parents do to identify and intervene early in the process.
1. Listen to your child — not just words, but behavior, moods, and any signiﬁcant changes.
2. Be attuned to your child's temperament - a generally anxious child will have a lower tolerance for the extra stress and competition of school.
3. Evaluate your expectations — in regard to school performance. These need to be realistic, balanced, and "ﬁt" your child.
4. Get a Life! - be proud of your child's academic achievements, but don’t take them too personally or deﬁne yourself by them!
5. Provide help — for extra skill building in social, emotional, or academic areas; sometimes the typical classroom experience is not enough.
6. Remember structure reduces anxiety - in your family life, at school, in his/her schedule, in how you react and relate to it.
7. Support and encourage effort – not just the product of that effort.
8. Insist on regular exercise - for your child. There is no better natural remedy for stress.
9. Be careful about over scheduling and over stimulation — set limits on activities; set boundaries; and minimize the “clutter” of their lives.
10. Don‘t be adversarial - with the school or teacher...the child typically is the loser.
11. But do be an advocate — for your child at school; be aware; stay involved.
12. Keep your mental illness to yourself! — too many kids go to school burdened with their parent's marital and personal problems thus starting the school day already overwhelmed!
Finally, if parents or teachers observe that “too much" anxiety is lasting “too long," it’s time to get help for that child or adolescent. Typically, the school counselor or pediatrician is the best resource to begin the process of helping that young person ﬁnd relief from unhealthy levels of stress.