While we are working with the school to help our kids adjust, we can’t forget the rest of the time that our children spend with us. After all, while they spend a lot of time in school, they spend more time at home. That fact raises the question of what we can do to help our kids succeed in school. Some of our kids will have full-fledged anxiety disorders, while others will have social anxiety about the beginning of a new school year. Still others will have common fears such as not getting good grades, missing familiar faces, or figuring out new routines. You may see your kids avoiding, either by outright school refusal or a lot of physical symptoms of anxiety, such as tummy aches. Whatever your child's anxiety symptoms, there are at least three powerful ways that you can help your children adapt to the school season.
Focus on the whole child
• School work is only one yardstick for our kids - School is essential for our kids and school attendance is mandatory, but school is not (and should not be) their whole lives. When we focus on school problems, we may inadvertently communicate that their value is based mostly on their grades. Our young people have a vast number of facets to their personalities. School grades can’t possibly capture their compassion, humor, curiosity, or character. We can’t let one limited measurement define them. They don’t have the maturity to keep their school journey in perspective; it will be our job to do that for them. Grades certainly are an important indicator of how our kids are doing, and maybe even what they are learning, but they are not the only measure of our kids’ growth. It is important, then, for us to keep our eyes on the other measures of how our children are functioning and every important milestone in their lives.
• Help them remember other important yardsticks - Not only do we need to remember all the yardsticks other than school that apply to our kids, but we need to remind them of the things that matter. Characteristics such as kindness, empathy, and perseverance not only are in their control, but achieving those virtues will prove to be more important life skills than school grades. Our kids may need extra support and reminders from us to believe that they have more positive attributes than show up in their grades, but helping them shift their focus to important character attributes may be one of the best things parents can do to ease anxiety. To paraphrase a common saying, let's help our kids keep the main things the main thing.
• Get professional help if you need it -- Even if your child doesn't have a diagnosable anxiety disorder or other issue, family therapy may be helpful. A good therapist can help you keep your focus on what's important in everyday life with your child. A therapist also can help you assess when your child's behavior is a normal part of growing up and when signs of anxiety need more direct responses.
Focus on relationships
• Relationships trump school - Just as we can’t let our kids’ school degree of school success define their value, we also can’t let it define our relationships with them. Don’t let school grades be all that our kids hear us talk about. Furthermore, sometimes when we pick our battles with our kids, we may need to worry about something other than whether they have an A, a B or a C in a particular subject. There may be days when homework needs to take a second seat to a long talk about what’s on their minds or working together on a family project. There may even be days when we need to concentrate on the fun things in life to give everyone a break or help keep life in perspective.
• Their schoolwork may not be our problem - With blended families, we also need to remember that dealing with homework may not be our job. School is one of those stress points where the biological parent generally needs to take the lead. As stepparents, we should encourage our kids and back up our spouses’ rules, but it’s not our job to nag kids about school. Homework definitely is one situation where our relationship needs to be our highest priority. At the end of the day, providing emotional and social support for our children is be the most important part of our parenting journey.
• Relationships are the most important part of our lives - Yes, we all want our kids to live up to their potential, and it can be frustrating watching them settle for second-best. But when it comes down to it, very few people live up to their potential. Those people who do live up to their potential in one area usually have to sacrifice in other areas of their lives, and those areas usually are important relationships. Part of our job is to show our kids how to make relationships a priority and not let success or failure in school (their equivalent of a job) overshadow everything else in their lives. The best place to start is for us to keep our emotional connection with them as our top priority.
Find areas for them to succeed
• Concentrate on small wins - Another important principle for helping kids with school anxiety is to find small wins for them. As an article in the Harvard Business Review explained, “Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.” That principle is no less powerful outside the work place. One of the most important things we can do for our kids is to help them learn skills and accomplish tasks. That tangible success will raise not only their mood but also their self-esteem. The nature of the universe being what it is, we don’t get the big wins without the small wins along the way. Learn to find and praise our kids for small wins, whether it’s noticing their being kind to someone or thanking them for taking out the trash without being reminded.
• Find success outside school - Of course, if we can help them find small wins at school, that will be the most direct way to calm their fears about school. But we also need to help them find wins in other areas. If they succeed in positive activities outside school, then the increased self-confidence usually carries over into other areas of their lives. Hobbies and extracurricular activities can be fertile ground for success for our kids. Something as simple as volunteering for a reputable nonprofit can build self-esteem by helping kids become part of a project larger than themselves. Any of these avenues can be an important way for our kids to find the sort of success that builds resilience and self-esteem.
• Help kids learn to help themselves - Another technique that fits into this principle is helping children find ways to help themselves. For example, maybe they can learn and use self-calming techniques for anxiety episodes. A good therapist can teach you and your child ways that children can calm themselves down when they are feeling anxious. These techniques usually have the added benefit of helping children feel more in control of their bodies and their reactions to stress.
You know your child better than anyone else. Use that knowledge to find meaningful small wins for your children. Help them understand that small steps of progress are just as important as big achievements. The more small wins they can rack up, the more likely they are to build their resilience and self-esteem, and the less trauma they will suffer from any struggles in school.
These three principles will give us a good start toward helping our kids find success in school. In my next post, I'll talk about some other important techniques that we can use to help our kids over the following weeks of school.