By Debbie Gardner
GREATER SPRINGFIELD – For some kids, the start of a new school year signals the beginning of an adventure, a chance to meet new people and do new things.
For others, the impending return to academia is a source of acute anxiety. “I think what parents don’t realize is, even if [going back to school] was fun for them, it can be a nightmare for some kids,” Deborah Yesu, PsyD, a clinical psychologist with a private practice at 168 Denslow Road, in East Longmeadow, said. “All that stuff that’s new every year, for some kids it’s an incredible stressor.”
First day stress
Dr. Rob Robinson, clinical director of Family Care Counseling Associates, located in Post Office Park, Wilbraham, said anything from the prospect of meeting a new teacher and having new kids in his or her class to bigger issues, such as changing buildings to attend middle school, high school, or even college, has the potential to be an anxiety trigger.
“Once the calendar turns to August we see a lot of kids with stress and anxiety,” Robinson, a licensed marriage and family therapist, said. “I try to have kids understand that this kind of anxiety is normal, and should dissipate in a couple of days, or maybe a week.”
Both Yesu and Robinson agree that if a child seems unusually anxious about the prospect of being in a new classroom, grade or school building this year, it might be prudent to be proactive.
“Anytime you can get information ahead of time – who the teacher is, who will be in the class, even getting in touch with the school and asking for a walk-through to find the classroom – schools are very helpful especially if you explain to them that your [child] needs that information ahead of time,” Yesu said.
She said the school’s principal or adjustment counselor could usually provide information that can help calm a child’s fears, especially for those in the primary grades.
Robinson said that for students moving up to the middle school, the prospect of dealing with a locker – and a combination to open that locker – can trigger a lot of stress.
“Some kids really worry about losing the combination and not being able to get into the locker and their whole day going haywire,” Robinson said, noting that the anxiety can even lead to sleepless nights in extreme cases. “It’s a good idea, if you can, to get ahold of the combination and practice it so [your student doesn’t] lose sleep over it.”
Yesu said the idea of practicing situations before the first day of school – anything from rehearsing introductions and conversation starters with a shy child to visualizing the events of the first day of school – can help ease anxiety for concerned students.
“The brain doesn’t know the difference between being there and pretending to be there; rehearsing in your head reduces the stress of the actual event,” she said. “In a time when [he or she] is relaxed, talk about ‘let’s picture you having a good day the first day of school.’”
This kind of controlled exposure to a stressful situation, called stress inoculation, is similar to being immunized against a disease.
“Exposing yourself a little bit to the actual [stressful] situation helps prepare you for success later on,” Yesu said. She added that if a parent finds themselves dealing with a high level of start-the-year anxiety for more than two years, or if the child seems to have difficulty dealing with new situations on a regular basis, it might be time to consider seeing a professional to help the child master some coping skills.
The need to succeed
First-day or new-school jitters aren’t the only time today’s students have to deal with academic-related stress. Recent teen stress studies conducted by two websites, www.TeenHelp.com
both listed school as higher stressors than any other issue in a teen’s life – ahead of talking to parents about personal problems, peer pressure, the prospect of being bullied, or even money worries.
According to TeenHelp.com, 68 percent of Baltimore, Md., teens ranked schoolwork as the part of their lives producing the most stress. Seventy-five percent of the 455 teens between the ages of 13 and 16 who answered a nationwide poll on StageofLife.com cited poor academic performance or not getting good grades as the biggest source of stress for them.
Robinson noted factors such as the cost of higher education in today’s economic climate, the competition among students to take advanced placement or honors courses to get into the “right” college and the goal of qualifying for grants and scholarships are all behind the push to achieve.
“There’s a tremendous amount of stress for many kids to do really well in school … there’s a lot of parents who expect their kids to get A’s in all subjects,” Robinson said. “I think having goals and expectations is clearly a good thing, but I think they should be reasonable and based on a child’s capability academically,” he said.
A clear understanding of a child’s academic ability “is critical to keeping stress in check,” Robinson said, adding that the parents of students with any level of learning disability could benefit from consulting “A Mind at a Time” by Dr. Mel Levine. The book, he said, explains the range of learning styles and progress of academic maturation for children.
Robinson also called the belief that if a child doesn’t get straight A’s he or she won’t get into college misinformed.
“I call it ‘catastrophising’ – this belief that unless everything is perfect and you perform at a high level, there’s no way you are going to be successful,” Robinson said. Students should be encouraged to put effort into their studies – their best effort – but should not be expected to ace every subject.
“Sometimes kids put that [pressure] on themselves, and it can be really formidable, and can lead to things like agitation, sleeplessness, depression, and certainly anxiety,” he added.
Corralling crazy schedules
Robinson said time management is another area of back-to-school stress for both students and parents.
“So many kids have so many activities … sports teams, dance, piano … oftentimes those activities collide with homework and other school obligations,” he said. Robinson added if your child is suddenly having trouble sleeping, or complaining of headaches or stomachaches once your fall schedule begins, it might be a signal their plate is too full.
Robinson feels parents need to be honest with themselves and their child about how much extracurricular activity he or she can handle before what should be fun turns into stress.
“At the beginning of the school year, look at what you have planned with your child and have the courage to drop something,” he said.
Robinson noted it’s also crucial to keep an eye on how much subject work your child is doing at home after school.
“Typically, my rule of thumb is going to be 10 minutes per grade year – a fourth grader should have 40 minutes of homework,” Robinson said, noting that this is a rough average. “I think if it gets to be way beyond [that average for grade level] that’s something parents need to look into in terms of how much work your child is doing in school.”