People talk a lot about getting sick and how it affects a child in school. Common discussions: What do we do for students that miss a few days? What policies are in place for makeup deadlines? How much does one absence hurt a child’s learning?
But what if we discussed how the pressures of school can make some kids sick?
We all know the child with a stomach ache the day of a test, and often her illness is downplayed by both the parents and the teachers. However, being a kid is really tough. As adults, it’s hard for us to remember how all encompassing “minor” stressors could be. I remember losing sleep for weeks when I thought my friends might be upset with me. Or how a friend would cry in the bathroom when she got a C on a test because she didn’t know what more she could possibly do to prepare. And while learning to cope with these things is a normal process of child development, some children end up in concerning territory.
I see many students that struggle with their physical and mental health due to the stressors of school. For some, this is an anxiety that has developed to the point of inhibiting a healthy lifestyle. I have girls that are in school all day, only to come home and spend all evening trudging through homework and staying up until 1-2am. They get up at 5am and start over. That’s not healthy.
I have others that had to give up the “try harder” technique a long time ago, and instead struggle with levels of depression and disengagement. They get out of school and “crash,” often taking after school naps or refusing to come home until late in the evening. They have trouble getting out of bed in the morning to even make it to school, as the whole process is so daunting.
It’s important for parents and students to know this is not acceptable. A big part of raising children is teaching individuals about the balance of being a person. School is their “job,” and it is important, but it is not their life. While they are students, they are also friends, and people with passions for odd interests, and contributors to their community, and loved. There is a lot that goes into a person that has nothing to do with his or her course load.
So what do we do?
- First, I think it is important to not let the parental relationship be all about school.
Especially for those who struggle in school, their every waking moment tends to get absorbed by reminders about those failures. In the morning, mom is asking them about each item they should have done the prior night and packed, and listing reminders for the day. Over dinner, they are getting asked about missing assignments, or recent test grades, or how upset the parents are with their effort and performance. Know when enough is enough.School is important, and trust me, most kids get that. However, if they are struggling then they are already feeling demoralized and questioning if they are smart, and they don’t need the reminders from mom and dad of their failures. What they do need are moments outside of school to not always be about school. How are their friends doing? Are they going to ask anyone to homecoming? Is there a new club they would like to try? A favorite book or show they really like? A little, “I love you, and I know you had a long day” goes a long way.
- Second, address the concerns with the professionals that can help.
Instead of constantly going to your child to ask about and try to address school concerns, try calling your pediatrician. Is it normal for your child to take 5 hours to complete homework each day? Is the string of absences a sign of anxiety or depression? I see so many students that are the oldest in the family, or are the only ones that have any trouble, so parents don’t really have a compass for what that behavior means. A pediatrician does.
If some of the struggles in this post sound familiar, your pediatrician might give a screener for anxiety, depression, or a learning disability. What you might think of as laziness is a real struggle with depression, and what you might think of as avoidance is a real struggle with anxiety. Further, things don’t always look like they are supposed to. I’ve seen kids that present to parents and teachers as “very ADHD” that in reality were struggling with general anxiety. It affected their sleep and appetite, and that caused issues with cognitive performance. I’ve seen kids that seemed to be anxious that, after testing, were found to have processing speeds in the 4th and 5th percentiles. Things took them so much longer, and their work and knowledge was not reflected in their performance and grades, and that made them anxious!
- Put in supports to help your child succeed and restore a healthy lifestyle.
While it might be overwhelming to find out your child does indeed struggle due to a diagnosable issue, it also helps put it all in perspective. Remember, you and your child are on the same team. You both want things to go well. However, for a child with anxiety, depression, or a learning disability, the full demands of school might be too much (well, they might be too much for ANY child or adult, but that’s another post). Fear not, there are many ways that school can be adjusted so that they can succeed .
Options in special education (504, IEPs) are very different from when many of us were kids. Seeking special education for your child does not mean they lose access to advanced classes, or even that any peers know they are in special education. I have children with 5th percentile processing speeds and IEPs that are taking 4-5 AP classes their senior year! Special education can help level the playing field and maintain a healthy balance with school.So if a child is struggling with depression, for example, she could get reduced workload without compromising content. On “good weeks,” she might do everything. But during a bad week, she wouldn’t be required to do all the busy work and minor homework assignments, as her focus should be on learning the major material and on her recovery. Or for some of my students with more severe depression, they don’t have a first or second period so that they can get their needed sleep and make it to school without routinely “failing” to make it on time.
Where should you go to learn more? Your pediatrician, a child psychologist, and the school counselor should all have resources to offer. If you don’t think your child’s needs are being properly addressed by the school, consult with an outside resource familiar with 504/IEPs for input.
If your child doesn’t have a diagnosable issue, but school is still a struggle, then seek input from the school and teachers, and consider outside supports like the school homework club, an educational coach, or a subject tutor if it’s that specific.
Every child struggles in school at some point, and that is normal. But if you think school might be overwhelming your child, it’s time to assess why. The great thing about development is that we can affect so much about a child’s trajectory with proper supports. Don’t ignore the warning signs. Now is the time you get to help your child learn to balance the demands in her life, so it’s time to get on the same side and show them the way to a healthy lifestyle. All of the kids I work with are great kids, and will be good people, and it’s sad so many didn’t feel that way for a portion of their childhood.
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Kristin founded Linder EC in 2008 after working for big subject tutoring companies in the area and feeling that there had to be a better, more holistic approach to education. Kristin is especially interested in learning disabilities and developmental disorders. Kristin’s current graduate work is in Applied Developmental Psychology with a large portion of the course work in Cognitive and Behavioral Neuroscience. She is a member of the Winslab research team at George Mason University. She hopes her work can help bridge the gap between neuroscience research and its applications in education.
Kristin has been featured in interviews in Northern Virginia Magazine, Arlington Magazine, and on radio shows about education. She is launching the podcast Budding Brains: Learning, development, and detours along the way in November of 2017 for a 12-episode season. She was the Face of Educational Coaching 2017, and Linder EC won the Best of Arlington in 2016 and the Best of Northern Virginia in 2017 for tutoring and education.