Many students get anxious about school. Some worry about tests, which is understandable since often they make up the biggest part of the grade in a course. Others worry about doing homework, social situations, or some other aspect of school life.
I got to hear an expert this week speaking about anxiety in adolescents. Dr. Michael Southam-Gerow, a professor in clinical psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University, recently published a new book about regulating emotion in children and teens. I learned a very important point from his talk, and want to share it with you because it could make a big difference for students who worry about school.
Keep in mind that serious anxiety issues need to be evaluated by a professional. I am not advocating treating severe anxiety ourselves; however, I do think that if parents and teachers take appropriate actions when students are worrying about something, it might prevent normal levels of anxiety from developing into severe anxiety.
To understand the key point I learned from Dr. Southam-Gerow, I first need to explain the difference between positive and negative reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is giving a person something they like for a behavior which in turn encourages that behavior. An example of positive reinforcement is when you see your child putting his dirty dishes in the dishwasher and you allow him to have an extra half-hour of screen time before bed. This might make him more likely to do it again.
Negative reinforcement is taking away something they do not like which encourages the behavior just like positive reinforcement encourages behavior. The example Dr. Southam-Gerow used is the sound an alarm makes that goes off in the morning to get us out of bed. The sound is annoying us, and we hit the snooze button. We are no longer annoyed by the alarm, and we go back to sleep. Hitting the snooze button becomes negative reinforcement of our behavior—sleeping. We are encouraged to go back to sleep, and the more we do it, the more we sleep—even when it makes us late for work. Negative reinforcement removes something we do not like and encourages the behavior whether it is good or bad behavior.
Here’s the key point I learned this week. If we allow students to avoid what they are anxious about, then we are actually making their anxiety worse. If your son does not want to go to school and you allow him to stay home, the behavior will be reinforced. He will not want to go to school the next day, either. If your daughter worries about doing her math homework and you allow her to skip it, she will worry even more about the next math assignment. In our attempt to make our child’s life easier, we are actually making it worse.
A much better approach is to attempt to find out the source of our child’s concerns. Why does he not want to go to school? Why does she worry so much about math? We need to identify the reasons and figure out how to alleviate the concern rather than allow the child to avoid what worries her. This sounds so simple, but it can take time. If we cannot figure out the underlying cause, we should seek the help of a professional.
For more about school stress and anxiety, you might enjoy reading:
> Help Your Child Reduce Test Stress
> Deep Breathing To Help With Test Anxiety
I appreciate that Dr. Southam-Gerow read this blog prior to its posting.