3 Ways to Help Your Child Excel in School This Year
Coaching your child or teen to manage their anxiety and thrive at school.
Posted August 23, 2022 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
- Anxiety disorders in children and teens have risen by 20 percent in recent years.
- Left to escalate, anxiety will get in the way of a child's ability to succeed in school.
- Tools focused on preparation, mindfulness, self-compassion, and grit help children lower anxiety.
Based on my over 30 years as a child, teen, and family psychologist, I have seen anxiety take a devastating toll on how children and teens manage the challenges they face at school. Chronic anxiety can interfere with the ability to focus and learn, causing school problems that can have a lifelong negative impact.
This rise in anxiety is a real problem for our youth. Further, it can lead to serious mental health problems—depression, substance use, and even suicide. According to the National Institutes of Health, nearly 1 in 3 of all adolescents ages 13 to 18 will experience an anxiety disorder. These numbers have been rising steadily, with anxiety disorders in children and teens up 20 percent in recent years.
Schooling Your Child to Manage Anxiety
Anxiety for kids can occur when facing school demands, managing social pressures, dealing with family members, or struggling with self-esteem. When children are too emotionally distressed to focus, listen, and meaningfully interact, however, this level of anxiety can severely impact their lives, now and as teens and adults.
Ironically, the worst part of anxiety is having anxiety about the anxiety itself. The metaphor of a snowball being rolled down a hill is one that I use to illustrate how unchecked anxiety rapidly grows. As I discuss in my book, The Anxiety, Depression, & Anger Toolbox for Teens, combining mindfulness, healthy self-talk, and grit-building activities strongly helps children and teens manage anxiety.
Children can learn to cope with anxiety by learning two crucial skills: calming down and solving problems. In my opinion, these are the two most crucial skills for all of us to function and thrive in our world.
Below are three techniques incorporating both calming down and problem-solving skills that I use with children and their parents to help children manage anxiety:
1. Anxiety's Toughest Adversaries: Preparation and Routines
Children prone to anxiety generally find transitions difficult: e.g., going from home to school. While most kids in this COVID era have now returned to physically attending school, the value of prepping for transitions applies to online learning as well.
Some kids benefit, within reason, from extra “warm-up” time. It really is OK to arrive at places early to have a chance to feel ready ahead of time. For those kids, physically attending school and struggling with avoidance-related anxiety, I recommend driving them to school and simulating going in at least once on the weekend to keep the awareness of the routine strong.
Anxious children do not cope well with a disorganized, spontaneous family lifestyle. Regular routines give a sense of control to both parent and child. Routines and schedules can help children regulate their emotions because they will know what to expect each day (Barlow, 2002, Hemmeter, et. al. 2006, and Head Start, 2022)
2. Teach Mindfulness and Self-Compassion.
Mindfulness exercises help children develop concentration, self-awareness, and the ability to relax. The more children can learn to focus on comforting images and sensations, the less they will focus on their anxiety. I like to help children learn mindfulness in a fun way. One way I do this is to have them imagine squeezing the juice out of a lemon. Another calming visualization is to focus on a flickering candle. Belly breathing really helps reboot that reacting brain as well.
From a self-compassion standpoint, it is helpful to teach children to acknowledge mistakes and talk to themselves kindly about errors. If they are stuck and say, “I don’t know,” then have them share what they would say to a friend. Often compassion is more easily expressed with friends than ourselves. Learning self-compassion is an essential skill for reducing anxiety in children. Research shows that self-compassion lowers anxiety and actually increases the chances of success.
3. Encourage Saying “Nevertheless.”
The word “nevertheless” helps combat discouragement and turns potentially disastrous days into productive ones. It builds grit and is good for your child’s self-esteem. Here’s how to coach your child with it:
"Yeah, it did not go well when I went to do my math homework. Nevertheless, I am going to keep working on it and try even harder. And, if that does not help, I can ask my teacher for extra help and let them know I am really trying hard."
Here are two more examples of the power of using Nevertheless:
- "I am going to fail this test; it is no use studying. Nevertheless, I have a better chance to pass if I try."
- "I made an error last week in baseball; nevertheless, I'm going to work on my fielding in practice."
It is my hope that these above strategies will be helpful in coaching your child to lower anxiety. For persistent problems, please consult a qualified mental health professional.
To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
Barlow, D. H. (2002). Anxiety and its disorders: The nature and treatment of anxiety and panic (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Hemmeter, Mary Louise (2006); Michaelene Ostrosky, and Lise Fox. "Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning: A Conceptual Model for Intervention."School Psychology Review 35(4) : 583–601.
The Importance of Schedules and Routines (2022), https://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/about-us/article/importance-schedules-rou…, Head Start.