school success

Back To School Means Back To Stress


The first week of school is underway in many local school districts and for most families back to school means back to stress.  As a Learning Specialist and former Clinical Psychotherapist, the inner part of peoples' lives is always a top priority for me.  I know that high levels of stress compromise learning and disrupt family harmony.  I'm always on the look out for signs and symptoms that a student of mine is buckling under the stress of school.

In recent weeks most of my summertime students have been expressing real dread about the coming school year.  One 3rd grade student likened it to 'going back to prison.' In his heartbreaking words he spoke about how great it was to be out of prison over the summer, but how awful it felt to be returning. For him, like so any other children, back to school means back to stress.

Whether or not your a child is a non-traditional learner which puts them at risk for academic difficulties, your child is likely more stressed than you realize. Even the gifted learners who excel at school experience a huge hike in stress when school resumes.  Gifted learners  are concerned about maintaining their good grades and being the best in their extra-curricular activities. Believe it or not, being gifted is a huge source of stress for many children and teens. For kids with at-risk OptiKodes, school is a return to a grueling, day by day battle to learn the traditional way.  Their Functional Styles - otherwise known as an OptiKode - are not clear to teachers, much less parents, so they are like fish out of water, swimming upstream for 9 long months!  

What can parents do to help children withstand the effects of school-based stress? Here are a few ideas that will help you play a needed role in minimizing school stress load in your children's lives:

  1. Monitor how you check-in with your kids - don't just focus on their grades or tests and getting homework done promptly after school. Key into your kids' mood and mirror them. For example: "You look like you may have had a very hard day; what would help you recharge before starting homework?"  Or, "You've already worked really hard today. Let's have some fun before we begin homework. Everyone does better after getting a break to do something they like."
  2. Help kids get in touch with pressure by modeling that when you are under pressure yourself. For example: "Wow, today was totally overwhelming for me. I never felt like I could catch up and my boss didn't give me good feedback after I worked hard on a project." Or, "Sometimes I just feel like quitting work when I have a rough day.  I need to do something really nice for myself right now to feel better.  If I take care of myself, I'll probably feel like going back to work tomorrow."
  3. Create a 'mood wall' where you mount a dry erase board or coat it with chalk board paint in a color your kids like. Encourage them to draw pictures or write words, poetry or sentences that express their stress and concerns. Be sure and add yours. Set up a regular time when your kids can tell you about what they put on the wall and you can do the same. This kind of practice models emotional intelligence and coping skills - two important things that school does little to teach.

Kids in today's high-pressure school system need to have a safe place to express their feelings and know parents care.  Without an ear to hear their troubles, kids internalize their stress which then crops up in anger, depression, anxiety and worse. Back to School doesn't have to mean back to stress. Attuned parents play an important role in listening closely and offering their children deep emotional support.

Changing Schools - How to Navigate This Tough Decision

As a Learning Specialist, school placement frequently comes up as an important issue with the families in my practice.  When a child is falling behind and is showing clear signs of  resistance to going to school, it is time to consider whether the fit between the child and their current school is right. 

As stressful as considering changing schools can be, there are real guidelines that can help determine if a new school placement is necessary. In my work, I guide parents through a decision funnel that looks at 5 important factors.  If more than two factors are present, a school change is possibly needed.  If three or more factors are present, a school change should be made if at all possible.  The factors I use are:

  •   A child is a non-traditional learner 'as defined by their OptiKode' and is   struggling
  •    A child  has learning disabilities that can not be  supported with an IEP  at   school
  •    Despite attempted academic interventions, the child's well-being is      deteriorating
  •  There is an intractable power struggle between school staff and the  child/family
  •  The child and  family have a sense that another school would ignite a love  of learning

Once these factors are considered and a parent sees the need for a school change, the next important consideration is obvious - which school? The good news is that in the surrounding area there are a variety of schools to consider.  One is Eagle Peak Montessori in Walnut Creek. Eagle Peak is a free, charter school that does a marvelous job combining the best of the Montessori philosophy while still addressing the California State Standards. Nonetheless, Eagle Peak is not  the best fit for a child who has attention deficit or another processing disorder which makes being self-driven and independent difficult. Horizons Home School is another good free public school option which has helped many non-traditional students get the most out of high school.  However, Horizons Home School would not be the best fit for a highly social child who needs a great deal of peer interaction to thrive.

 Currently I have a family with 6 children, 2 of whom in my mind would do better in an alternative school placement.  We are beginning the process now and I suspect that these 2 children will be attending another school before year's end.   I know how hard it is to go through this process; thankfully  I have not as yet had a 'fail' - a placement that wasn't a good fit, or worse yet, was a disaster.  As a former psychotherapist I enjoy attuning to and supporting families as they navigate this tough decision.  I also use the individual OptiKodes of each student to find the right school that will ignite each child's love of learning.