Ignas Kukenys from Vilnius, Lithuania, Creative Commons
Source: Ignas Kukenys from Vilnius, Lithuania, Creative Commons

A lot of children are overwhelmed as the new academic year approaches. Even kids who enjoy learning and have always found school easy can worry they won’t be able to manage the work, that other kids won’t like them, or that the new teacher will be too severe or demanding. What can you do to help your child manage his or her worries effectively?

Dr. Diana Brecher is a clinical psychologist at Ryerson University in downtown Toronto who has developed some practical strategies for addressing this question. She’s been inspired by the Positive Psychology movement, and has built a network of support services around mindfulness principles. Here are three ideas for parents, based on her suggestions.

1. Tackling Big Challenges with the Zorro Circle

When your child feels unable to tackle a challenge—a new classroom, a new school, the neighborhood bully, or something else—try the Zorro Circle. Caution: This exercise should be done in a spirit of fun. Your child should feel safe at all times.

You’ll need a mask and two swords (real or imaginary; if real, the sword should be made of foam, soft plastic, or similar). Your child will be Zorro (or Zorra), and you’ll be the famous duelling teacher, Don Diego.

Use one of the swords to draw a small circle around your Zorro in the sand or dirt (or carpet or floor). Hand him a sword, and ask him to stand in the center of the circle. Pick up the other sword yourself, and position yourself to attack your child. His job is to defend the circle, which he’ll be able to do simply by pivoting around the center, holding the sword aloft, and swooshing it through the air, defending it against your encroachment.

Once your child is comfortable defending the small circle, draw a slightly larger circle, where he might have to move forward or back a step to defend the circle.

Repeat with increasingly larger circles, requiring increasingly sophisticated moves, until your Zorro realizes he’s able to become master of the whole yard or room by developing the necessary agility and responses little by little.

Help your child draw the connection from the Zorro Circle game to the challenge he’s facing in his real life, identifying simple, small, manageable goals, one at a time. Help him see that all mastery starts with a small circle, and works outward from there.

2. Changing Habits with the 20-Second Rule

Most of us—including children—have bad habits that fuel our worries. When you notice a habit that’s adding to your child’s worries, suggest she give the 20-second rule a try. That means identifying the first twenty seconds of obstacles to achieving better habits, and then eradicating those obstacles.

In many families, the early morning rush out the door is fraught for everyone. A common contributor: a kid who takes too long getting dressed. If you have one of those, help her get her clothes (and shoes and school supplies) arranged and accessible the night before. When she wakes up in the morning, she won’t have to think about what she’s going to wear. She just has to put the clothes on.

A lot of kids worry about other kids liking them. If you have a child who is too enthusiastic in her approach to kids she’d like as friends, talk about what she might do for twenty seconds after sighting someone she’d like as a friend. Instead of rushing over (in which case she may be seen as aggressive or too eager), she can breathe deeply while she pretends to look for something in her pencil case, or untie and retie her shoes, or slowly put on and take off a sweater. Anything to slow herself down so she greets the other child calmly.

If your child leaves her homework until the morning of the day it’s due, remove the first twenty seconds of finding everything she needs to complete it. Maybe she needs a desk of her own, or a personal drawer where she can put the assignment. On that desk or in that drawer, she should have whatever tools she needs to complete it—pencils, erasers, paper, a ruler. This makes it easier to develop a habit of doing her homework as soon as it’s assigned.

3. Changing Attitudes with Gratitude at Bedtime

Kids who worry usually spend a lot of time thinking about how sad or lost or lonely or hurt they feel. Not surprisingly, the same kids often have trouble sleeping. Help your child turn that around by reinforcing an attitude of gratitude just before he goes to sleep.

As part of your bedtime routine, ask your child to tell you about three good things that have happened that day. After he’s done that, ask, “What role did you play in making those good things happen?” Help him think that through. When good things happen, we’ve almost always participated in one way or another, even if only by being in the right frame of mind to notice.

In doing the bedtime gratitude exercise with your child, you’re getting him to focus on the positive rather than the negative aspects of his experiences. You’re also encouraging him to consider his own role in the events of his life. You’ll probably notice he’s sleeping better, and has a deeper sense of happiness and well-being. It may take some time before he draws the links, but it probably won’t be too long before he tells you how much he likes making good things happen for himself and others.

Sources and More Resources

“Anxiety is Real, and Our Students Feel It,” by Diana Brecher 

“Throwing and Growing,” by Tesni Ellis

The Happiness Advantage, by Shawn Achor

“Locus of Control and the Zorro Circle,” by Steve Nguyen

“Bedtime Checklist for Creative, Curious, Imaginative Kids,” by Dona Matthews

Beyond Intelligence: Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids, by Dona Matthews and Joanne Foster

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