Ah, the scent of fresh erasers, clean backpacks, and new notebooks.
It’s the perfume of the season, going back to school.
But that’s not all that’s in the air.
Nearly half of all high school students report that they feel significant stress during the school year.
You might be tempted to blow off your child’s perception of their stress; after all, you might think, just wait until there’s a mortgage to pay and cars to buy and bosses to please. But when psychologists take a look at the date, it turns out teens today are reporting higher levels of stress than adults do.
Says Dr. Normal B. Anderson, CEO of the American Psychological Association, “It is alarming that the teen stress experience is so similar to that of adults. It is even more concerning that they seem to underestimate the potential impact that stress has on their physical and mental health.”
And those are just the stats and concerns from before the pandemic. Researchers are just now beginning to learn about the effects on students during the pandemic and how it has impacted kids back in the classroom today. In fact, college students reported a huge jump in their stress and anxiety levels during the pandemic, with 89% saying they were experiencing those feelings. Now that students have returned to the classroom, the effects of distance learning with the added stress of returning to the classroom environment will give researchers an unprecedented look at education and stress.
So what can you do to help your student when feelings of stress and anxiety come their way? Check out this top stressors for students and how you can help:
Homework and Tests
There’s plenty of debate and many opinions regarding the amount of homework and testing for students today. And students report the workload is one of the top areas where they feel anxiety and stress. Some school districts have responded by pulling back on the amount of homework students are expected to complete in their after-school hours. Other schools have maintained the level of assignments and are increasing their educational scopes.
Whatever approach your child’s school is taking, there are still bound to be times that feel overwhelming.
Sit down with your student and go over what the expectations are for the upcoming semester. If your child is in elementary grades, you can ask your child’s teacher for an overview. If your child is in middle school or high school classes, their teachers should be providing syllabuses at the beginning of the semester. Chart out with your child when major assignments are due, when papers are going to need to be turned in, and when that all-consuming science fair project needs to be completed. Getting these things on the calendar early can help both you and your student feel more prepared for what’s on the docket.
You’ll also want to create dedicated times for homework. For some kids, depending on their ages and personalities, cranking through the homework when they first get home from school is the best way to take advantage of the learning momentum they already have going and to free up the rest of the evening. Other kids may need a bit of a breather before diving right into the books. Whichever approach suits your child best, make this study time consistent in your family flow. As your child matures, you may not need to oversee this time as much, as they will hopefully take on the habit as their own. But be realistic about your child and how much oversight they need, whatever their grade or stage.
If the homework load seems particularly out of proportion, talk with your child’s teacher about strategies for helping your child experience an academic win. Devoted educators should want your child to have a great experience in the classroom and with the homework expectations. If your child’s capacity and the teacher’s expectations aren’t aligned, consider requesting your child be moved to a different classroom.
Statistically, students who struggle more with being organized feel greater levels of stress. They get surprised by due dates, can’t find homework assignments in their dumpster-fire backpacks, lose books, lose pencils, lose their lunch money…and it’s enough to make you want to lose your mind.
There are kids who struggle with executive function tasks, like keeping up with their school resources. It doesn’t mean you let them off the hook, but it does mean they may need more coaching and accountability from you while their brains mature and their functional ability grows. Notice the terms coaching and accountability. Not ‘doing it for them.’ Your student needs to know that you are there to cheer them on, to help with some support, but that ultimately, they need to be responsible for their work and materials. Coaching and accountability could mean that you help them put their shoes and supplies in a specific spot in your entry way or mud room. Coaching and accountability could mean helping them set alarms on their devices to remind them to study for their weekly spelling test. Coaching and accountability could look like helping them develop a checklist for the morning before they leave for school, a checklist for when they are preparing to come home from class, and a checklist for the evening that includes laying out their clothes for the next day, gathering their materials, and helping pack their lunch. It could be setting up a specific station at the front door where they are to always place their backpack.
Solid organizational tools are a fantastic antidote to stressful mornings. But be aware; you will likely have to be heavily involved in the organizational process and help provide accountability for quite a while as these habits build. Yes, that means that this habit onboarding process could be pretty stressful for you, ironically. But in the long run, helping your student with strategies for staying organized will help stave off a lot of school chaos in the future.
Speaking up in class
It’s important to remember that some people are naturally extroverted and some people are naturally introverted. And there’s nothing wrong with either personality type. Unfortunately, our culture seems to put a premium on extroverts and those who are adept at public speaking, making presentations, and speaking up in class to answer questions. It’s what has been called Extrovert Bias, and is considered a type of invisible discrimination. For students who are naturally more introverted, they find that class expectations and settings are often set up to benefit their more outspoken fellow pupils. To require introverted students to engage at the same level as their extroverted peers can cause significant stress. While you may find that discussing this issue with your child’s teacher can help enlighten them about your child’s personality, you may also find pushback.
If there are public speaking and performance requirements for your child, be sure to let them rehearse with you multiple times; the more your child’s brain can associate your encouragement with the repetition of, say, their book report presentation, the more confidence they’ll be able to take back to the classroom. You may also want to explore having a counselor or therapist work with your child. In all of it, remember; introversion is not something your child needs to be pushed past. It’s an important and valuable part of their personality. Hopefully, our educational system will one day catch up to valuing both the extroverts and introverts in our culture.
It can be all too easy to brush off the social maze of school years as kids’ stuff. But your child’s experiences with friend groups, peer pressure, bullies, and rejection play a huge role in their scholastic experience. Your child may be doing well on the academic front, but issues with friends can sideline their whole experience. Or you may find your child is struggling to get homework completed and to speak up in class only to then discover that it has more to do with aggressive behavior by one of their classmates than with having difficulty with the curriculum material. The top thing you can do for your child if they’re struggling with friends at school? Listen. Not every situation calls for a parent to get involved. Simply allowing your child to verbally process the situation with you, without you dominating the conversation with advice, can go a long way in helping relieve the stress they may be feeling.
If your child is being bullied or threatened, it’s critical to engage your child’s teacher and principal as soon as possible. Being bullied is a significant stressor in the school environment. Thankfully, we seem to have become more proactive in our educational thinking when it comes to aggressive behavior on the part of kids. While you might still find those who want to minimize a bullying experience as, “Kids will be kids,” research has shown the impact of bullying on students. Educate yourself on the latest research, make the phone call to the school’s office, and advocate for your child. (And don’t miss this: you might learn that your child is the aggressor in the classroom. Check out this fantastic podcast episode for ideas on how to handle this kind of discovery.)
While this list is by no means exhaustive when it comes to the stressors and anxieties kids face in school today, these are four at the top of the list. Staying away, providing coaching and accountability, embracing your child for who they are and their personality, and helping navigate the social challenges that come their way can help your child to know that you are there for them when things feel overwhelming. It all goes a long way in helping you and yours child deal with the emotions that can come up through the school year.
Julie Lyles Carr is a best-selling author, podcaster, and entrepreneur living in Austin, Texas, with her husband Mike Carr. They have eight kids, two unfriendly cats, and an antique dachshund.