SchoolFamily Voices

Join our bloggers as they share their experiences on the challenges and joys of helping children succeed in school.

Helping Teens Manage Stress and Anxiety

In a recent blog I cautioned parents to make sure their teens are not overbooked. I often see students in my office upset and worried; frequently, they cannot tell me what it is they are anxious about. They often want to go home, even though they are not really sick. When I later examine their schedule and consider the extracurricular activities they are involved in, I wonder if they are feeling the results of stress from trying to do too many things. Stress is necessary, for without it we will not be alert to the world around us and push ourselves to achieve. Too much stress, though, is not healthy. Fortunately, our body tells us when it has had too much stress.

A 2013 survey of teens and adults done by the American Psychological Association (APA) revealed that teens today are feeling higher levels of stress than their parents. It also revealed that teens do not realize that being under too much stress is unhealthy for them. Stress can cause headaches and upset stomachs. It can cause you to stay awake when you should be sleeping at night. It can elevate blood pressure and even cause chest pain. It can also exacerbate the symptoms of other diseases such as arthritis and asthma. It can lead to serious feelings of anxiety and depression. (For more information about the physical symptoms of too much stress, read The Effects of Stress on Your Body at WebMD.)

There are some steps to take that can help relieve the stress. Of course, examining the schedule is the first step. It is possible that taking away one or two activities during the school year can be enough to make life more manageable. Teens also need to do something fun and get some exercise every day. The APA says, “School is important, but it’s not everything. When you plan your week, schedule time to get schoolwork done, but also schedule time to have fun. When it’s time to enjoy yourself, try not to worry about school or homework. Focus on having fun.” And, finally, teens need to get enough sleep at night. Everyone is different, but most doctors recommend that teens sleep eight or nine hours every night. There are times when there just is no way to get enough sleep, but that should not be a routine event.

The amount of stress teenagers are under and the resulting anxiety is a major concern in schools everywhere. Parents should not ignore the signs of stress in their children, and they should take steps to alleviate the cause, if possible. Teens tend to feel invincible, so they will not likely worry about how they are feeling and connect it to being under so much pressure. Adolescents need to learn strategies to manage their stress such as exercise, having fun, and getting enough sleep. If you are concerned about your son or daughter, talk to your pediatrician about whether the symptoms they are experiencing could be caused by stress.

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When Being a Perfectionist Is Difficult

If your child is a perfectionist, he may have trouble finishing his work in a timely manner. He may spend inordinate amounts of time trying to make each assignment or test question exactly right. He might feel that if he writes everything he knows about a question, he will get it correct. Usually, the extra effort does not pay off in better grades. In reality, the perfectionist who writes everything he knows often writes lower quality, disorganized answers. Even if the answers are well-written, there is more information given than is needed to answer the question. In some cases, he is not able to complete assignments within the time allowed, which also leads to lower grades. It is frustrating to feel you are working hard to produce excellent work, but it doesn’t receive the grade you are expecting. There are some strategies that may help.

Learn what an excellent answer looks like. Your daughter needs to see an answer that is well-written, concise, and correct. You can ask her teacher to help with this. Her teacher can take the response she gave and highlight what she should keep, cross off what she should delete, and discuss what she needs to add (if anything) for it to get all the possible points. If possible, she can see how another student wrote much less but still got all the points for the question.

Connect the question to the answer. She needs to connect key words in the question to the parts of the answer that respond to the key words. For this question:

“In your opinion, what are the three most important reasons to conserve energy?”

Your child should underline “three,” and “important reasons.” Her answer to that question can reflect these key words like this:

“Three important reasons to conserve energy are….”

By doing this, she will focus her answer on just three responses. She will choose the three she thinks are the most important and not get distracted writing about all six reasons that she actually knows. As she checks her work, she should count the three reasons and mentally connect them to the key words in the question.

Make sure to use study strategies effectively. Students who want everything to be perfect can get stuck studying a few concepts until they can remember them perfectly. Your son may spend so much time worrying about them that he does not get to finish studying all the concepts he needs to study. The gaps in knowledge caused by ineffective study cause anxiety during a test because he knows he doesn’t have everything he needs in the answer. For more information about study strategies read, Teach Your Kids How To Study.

There are times when being a perfectionist is a great asset. It becomes a problem, though, when it keeps you from finishing your work in a timely manner. Students who routinely do this can become anxious from worrying so much about the quality of the work and completing it on time. Learning how to answer questions correctly without over-writing, understanding how to connect key words in the question to the corresponding parts of the answer, and using study time more effectively can help reduce the amount of time spent on homework and when taking tests. This more effective use of time leads to less anxiety and better grades.

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Teens and Marijuana Use: What Parents Should Know

When students smoke marijuana, they typically do not do well in school. I was curious about whether the recent state laws legalizing marijuana for recreational use have affected the number of teens who smoke it regularly. A recent study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health analyzed the results of the Youth Risk Behavioral Surveillance Survey taken before and after the laws were passed. This study determined that the use of marijuana by teens did not change significantly after the laws came into effect. What surprised me, though, was the number of students who report using marijuana in the last month is around 21 percent—two out of every 10 students!

Many teens feel that marijuana helps them deal with the stress of being an adolescent, and it is not dangerous. There is a lot of research that suggests otherwise. Marijuana affects the hippocampus, the part of the brain where certain types of learning occur. This can lead to problems studying and learning new things, and it affects short-term memory. Recent studies show that regular use causes a significant drop in IQ which does not come back after quitting. Marijuana also affects the cerebellum which is the control center for balance and coordination. This causes poor performance in activities such as sports and driving. The third area of the brain that is impacted is the prefrontal cortex, where high level reasoning and problem-solving occur. This explains why people under the influence of marijuana can make poor decisions and engage in risky behaviors.

The effects of smoking marijuana start quickly and last for several hours. Long-term use may impair brain development and lower the IQ. If your child changes from a sweet, cooperative teen who cares about himself and others into one who seems more argumentative or paranoid, it is possible he is smoking marijuana. Other signs are a sudden drop in grades and uncharacteristically poor hygiene. (For more information, see NIDA for Teens.) If you suspect your child might be using, it is important to find out. The first step is a visit to his doctor. Once you know, you can get professional help for your child to help him learn to cope with normal adolescent stress in healthy ways.

See Help Kids Learn To Manage Stress for ideas about healthy ways to deal with stress.

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Some "Tricks" Can Help Teens With Anxiety

In the last few years there seems to be an increasing number of kids who suffer from anxiety. I wanted to learn more about anxiety and how to help these kids. My journey began with a workshop with Dr. Michael Southam-Gerow, a professor in clinical psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University, and reading his book about adolescence and anxiety. Recently, I had an opportunity to meet with Dr. Nancy Macconnachie, an expert on working with teens who are anxious. Dr. Macconnachie explained the biological basis of anxiety and her strategy for working with these adolescents.

According to Dr. Macconnachie, when information enters our brain it first goes to the limbic system, which is the emotion-regulating center. From there it moves to the prefrontal cortex, where we reason and problem-solve. If too much information enters at once, the emotion center becomes overwhelmed and the information is not sent to the thinking system. This is a biological description of anxiety. An anxious person is emotional and cannot reason through the situation. Once this happens, everything becomes a crisis because the student is overwhelmed by emotions. Dr. Macconnachie says we have to teach our students how to handle these emotional times in order to allow the thinking brain to do its job. She says we must “give students a bag of tricks.”

There are some fundamental tricks that all of us need. Number one, according to Dr. Macconnachie, is to get plenty of exercise or active play. Exercise increases the oxygen level in the bloodstream and relaxes tense muscles, both of which reduce adrenalin levels and allow us to function. The second “trick” is to develop a social network of support. Perhaps a parent or close friend can provide emotional support that helps get through the tough times. Other strategies include things like having a creative outlet such as art or music, caring for pets, participating in a spiritual activity like church, or doing community service. Every person’s “bag of tricks” is different. When Dr. Macconnachie works with adolescents, she has them begin to explore what relaxes them and helps them to get through the emotional crises and move to rational thinking and problem-solving.

Being an adolescent is difficult.  Physical changes occur, and teens begin to seek independence from the adults around them. All adolescents are emotional because of these changes in their lives. It is important to develop healthy ways to handle the emotions such as exercise and spending quality time with friends and family. If your teen is experiencing anxiety, it is important to help them develop their personal “bag of tricks” to handle their emotions. Too much anxiety can lead to serious depression.  If you feel your teen is overly stressed, seek the help of a professional who knows the best ways to help.


> How To Reduce School Anxiety

> Help Kids Learn To Manage Stress

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How To Reduce School Anxiety

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.

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Helping Children Deal With Anxiety

Teachers are back at work in many schools getting ready for students to arrive. As I was sitting in one of our professional development workshops this week, the leader said, “We are creating a society full of anxious kids.” This really bothers me—mainly because I have seen so many more children who are anxious in the last few years of teaching. They are anxious about the courses they are in, their teachers, their peers, whatever is going on at home, and just about everything you can think of.

Why are children so anxious? I do not have the answer to this question. But I do have a few ideas about possible reasons for their anxiety. First of all, adolescence is a difficult time in life. Bodies are changing, emotions are intensifying, relationships with peers are becoming more important, and school becomes more difficult and demanding. (For a more thorough description of adolescent development, read Normal Adolescent Development, published by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.) Normally, these changes do not cause severe anxiety. But if the reasoning brain cannot keep concerns and fears about the changes from becoming overwhelming, a student can become overanxious and unable to perform well in school or life.

Another stress on many students is the emphasis on standardized testing. I call these tests “high-stakes tests” because there is so much riding on their outcome. Kids must pass a certain number of them before graduation, teachers are evaluated on the outcome of their students’ testing, and schools can lose their accreditation if their students do not make progress. School, which was once a place where students could enjoy learning for the sake of learning, is now full of anxiety about test performance.

Another source of anxiety for kids is having too much going on. Children who are over-scheduled do not have enough down time for relaxation and play. See my blog on unscheduled time for more on this topic.

Finally, students need to link success to effort. If your child thinks that what happens to her is the result of good or bad luck or because of how smart she is, she will become anxious. She feels she has no control over events in her own life. In truth, however, success relates more to how hard a person works and not as much on how smart she is. Offering praise for her effort is one way you can help. There are no easy answers. As a parent, you can reduce some of the anxiety by assuring your child that you love him and will be there for him when he needs you. You can also control some of these stressors such as cutting down on extracurricular activities and making sure you praise effort rather than “smarts.” However, if reducing the stress when possible is not helping your anxious child, you should seek help from a professional. Do not hesitate to talk to your pediatrician or family doctor if you have concerns.

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5 Ways To Help Young Children With Back-to-School Anxieties

As August approaches, most young students are excited about starting a new school year. They are ready to go. However, some children experience anxiety about going to school. This can affect the entire family. Morning routines can be interrupted and getting him on the bus or dropped off at school can become an ordeal.

Why does this happen? There could be various reasons:

  • Fear of separating from a parent or caregiver
  • Concern that the work will be too hard
  • Fear of missing what’s happening in the family, when they are away at school
  • Worry about responsibilities outside the classroom—for example, getting lunch in the cafeteria
  • Fear that other children might tease or bully them

Here are five easy ways to help your young child ease school anxiety:

  • If the problem is separation from a loved one, try a technique that worked extremely well in my 1st grade classroom. Have the student bring a photo of a family member,  sibling, grandparent, or even a special pet. By keeping the photo on the desk or table, the student was able to have family close by for comfort. Ask your child’s teacher if this is allowed.
  • If possible, bring him to his new class before school starts. Let him see the space and, if the teacher is there, meet his new teacher. Check out the lunchroom and recess areas as well.
  • If you know of another child or children who is going to the same class, see if you could set up a playdate so your child will know at least one familiar face.
  • Have him practice letter recognition and letter sounds, number recognition to 50, writing his name, and other basic skills for academic confidence.
  • Label jackets, lunch boxes, backpacks, etc., so that your child can easily identify her own belongings. This eliminates worry about finding her own things at the end of the school day. (Safety note: Be sure to label items on the inside, as you do not want a stranger to be able to call your child by name.)


Recognizing and acknowledging your child’s fears will help you both look for easy and workable solutions…and keep your morning school routine running smoothly!

> A Stress-Free Morning Routine

> 10 Ways To Help Your Child Successfully Return to School

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Overcoming the Fear of Making an Oral Presentation

Speaking in front of people is frightening for some people. I have faculty members who will gladly teach in front of their students but if I ask them to present something to their peers, they do not want to do it! 

This is the time of year when my students complete a project that culminates in a public presentation of their work. Their audience first is their peers. Next, they present in front of judges and then finally in front of a large group of parents and teachers.

One of my students was particularly worried about the presentations. Together, we came up with a strategy that worked for him. We talked about the importance of public speaking, both in college and later in the workplace. We agreed that he wanted to be able to present his project, that it was important for him now and in the future, and that he was willing to work together toward reaching that goal.

We also discussed that many of the strategies people suggest to overcome fear don’t really work. For example, I have heard my whole life that you should picture people sitting in their underwear. I never understood where that came from, and I question whether it works for anyone. 

To start, we sat down together in a very informal place. (In fact, we sat on the steps out in the hallway.) I asked him questions about his project and allowed him to answer each question. After we did that, I asked him to tell me about it without me asking any questions. Then, he stood up and faced me as he told me about the project again. Finally, he practiced doing the presentation (just to me) using his PowerPoint slideshow. After this practice, he successfully presented in front of the whole class and the large group! He said he was scared half to death, but he did it very well.

The key to this success was taking little steps and building up to being able to speak in front of the group. It will be very interesting to see if he is able to transfer this approach to other presentations later. For now, we are celebrating the success of completing a task he did not think was possible.

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How To Discuss the Tragedy in Colorado With Your Children

Dear SchoolFamily.com readers,

With news of the shooting tragedy in Colorado, our hearts are heavy and our condolences and thoughts go out to all affected by this dreadful event.

One of the toughest things parents can face is how to talk with their children about events as horrific as this. Even before we’ve had a chance to right ourselves and react, sometimes our children—even very young kids—have learned the news from television, newspapers, and sites on the Internet.

To help you discuss this tragedy with your children, we're sharing this informative article from the American Academy of Pediatrics, “Talking to Children About Disasters.”

For children who’ve endured and/or are recovering from a trauma or recent tragedy, our article on “How to Help Your Children Deal With Grief,”offers suggestions from experts on children and grieving, which can help you process difficult feelings with your child. 

How have your children reacted to the news in Colorado? Have you found ways to help them cope and process this tragic event? Please share your thoughts with us, and other SchoolFamily.com readers, by commenting below.

Carol Brooks Ball, Editor, SchoolFamily.com


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Do you allow your children to watch TV or play on the computer before doing their homework?

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Total votes: 4919
The voting for this poll has ended on: June 25, 2016