There’s no question that academic expectations for students have become more rigorous in recent years. You may have heard that traditional kindergarten at most public schools is now academically equivalent to what first grade was a generation ago. And it doesn’t get any easier from there. While many students enjoy and rise to the challenge of mastering new subjects, the steadily increasing load of schoolwork, tests and homework can take its toll on even the most eager learners. Meanwhile, for students who have learning disabilities or face challenges outside of the classroom, the situation can feel completely overwhelming.
Nicole Parham is a school psychologist and former teacher who has worked with elementary, middle and high school students of all abilities throughout LAUSD. She explains that students’ first major academic challenge typically occurs in third grade, when students are expected to go beyond learning the mechanics of literacy and math to actually using academic skills to understand content. “Also, in primary grades students commonly demonstrate critical thinking skills orally in pairs and group settings, whereas in upper elementary they will need to demonstrate high-level thinking skills in writing,” Parham says. This transition can ratchet up students’ anxiety levels and present parenting challenges.
Parents might also notice an increase in anxiety during transitions from elementary to middle school and middle to high school, when students face even more dramatic changes in settings, schedules and expectations.
The good news is that parents and students can work together to dial down this anxiety. By planning ahead, developing a few key coping strategies and maintaining an open and honest dialogue as challenges arise, families can enjoy a less stressful and more successful school year.
Getting organized at the beginning of the school year is the first and most important step, as planning ahead and staying on top of assignments will keep some of the academic performance jitters at bay. Parham offers a few tried-and-true organizational strategies for students and parents to work on together:
- Communicate with teachers to stay abreast of assignment due dates and to understand common strategies used in the classroom.
- Try to mirror classroom strategies at home. For example, if your child’s teacher uses the same brainstorming diagram each morning to inspire journal entries, use it at home as well to prevent the frustration of writer’s block.
- Set interim deadlines for big projects. Waiting until the night before the science fair to complete a project will cause anyone to panic, parents included! Breaking long-term projects into smaller, achievable tasks in the days and weeks leading up to the final due date will make them feel less daunting.
Develop Coping Skills
Even the most organized student will occasionally come up against stressful situations, particularly surrounding tests or high-profile projects and assignments. And from time to time, your family may face a perfect storm of work stress on the part of one or more parents, illness, social anxieties or financial burdens on top of your child’s school and homework routine. Under these circumstances, it’s crucial that everyone in the family – parents included – has an arsenal of coping strategies.
“Parents should monitor their own stress levels and model good coping skills, such as taking breaks and planning out the completion of challenging tasks,” says Parham. She also stresses the importance of creating a quiet, predictable homework location and routine.
Yoga and meditation are excellent tools for dealing with stress, as well, and can also help children maintain a calm, ready-to-learn demeanor during school hours. Kelly Wood has offered yoga training to school teachers since 2002 and is co-founder of the nonprofit SCHOOL Inc., which brings weekly 20-minute yoga and mindfulness classes to inner-city public elementary schools in Los Angeles. “If taught appropriately, children are inspired to use the practice of calm breathing at any time and place – home, school, playground, extracurricular activities and so forth,” Wood says.
Wood is a firm believer that schools should incorporate a regular yoga and mindfulness routine into the school day, even if it’s only once a week. “I know from direct experience and feedback that [weekly classes] do translate into positive behavior, constructive self-direction and harmony,” she says, adding that these benefits require consistency. “With continuity, children and teens develop the habit of good or balanced breathing, which is the most helpful facet of the practice to use at any time during their full and over-stimulated days.”
If your child’s school doesn’t offer a yoga or meditation program, you could set aside 30 minutes once or twice a week to practice yoga, breathing or meditation together at home (though that might mean waking up a bit earlier on those days, and facing a bit of grumbling).
Be an Advocate
Your children will likely feel less stressed if they know they can rely on you as an advocate and ally. Encourage them to let you know when they are feeling overwhelmed so that you can assist in problem solving.
Also, watch for signs that your child is doing more than just the usual procrastinating and complaining about school and homework. If she or he is having recurring meltdowns on test days or when it comes time to sit down and do homework, or is showing additional signs of stress such as loss of appetite and trouble sleeping, you might need to intervene. Don’t be afraid to consult your child’s teacher if you are worried that your child is being overburdened with assignments.
Educational psychologist Oona Hanson is a former teacher and coach who created the educational consulting firm Homework That Works and is co-founder of Beacon School For Boys, set to open in Los Angeles in 2016. “One good approach is to ask your child what the purpose of the homework is,” she advises parents trying to determine whether their child’s homework load is appropriate. “Kids should have some sense of why they are doing this work. If neither you nor your child can see the purpose or value, that’s a good time to [talk to] the teacher, in a calm, matter-of-fact way.”
Hanson suggests asking, “I want to help my child understand the goal of this kind of homework assignment. Would you explain it to me?”
While you want to look out for your child’s best interests, however, you don’t want to shelter him from real-world expectations or give him the idea that he is entitled to be treated differently from classmates. It can be helpful to gather information about the school’s homework policy, and to find out whether other students in your child’s class are also struggling.
“For a first conversation with a teacher, I recommend that parents focus on what their own child is experiencing rather than criticize the homework (or the teacher),” Hanson says. “Encourage other parents to share their concerns as well. If the school doesn’t have a homework policy or the policy seems unsatisfactory, then it’s definitely time to talk with other parents and to learn how policy decisions are made at your school.”
Don’t Forget Down Time
Finally, don’t underestimate the value of good old down time. “I’m a big promoter of what the Challenge Success program [at Stanford Graduate School of Education] calls ‘PDF’ – play time, down time, and family time,” says Hanson. “These are critical for kids’ development, and they boost academic performance as well.”
Parham recommends allowing your child some time to relax at home before diving into homework. And even if your family faces an exceptionally busy schedule between work, school and after-school activities, make free time together at home as a family a priority. This could be an opportunity to play games, go for a walk, read for pleasure or do nothing other than sit around and talk.
Taking a look at your schedule and finding a way to accomplish this means that your kids – who are only kids once – will have an opportunity to relax and enjoy a bit of their childhood, stress free. And you will get the chance to enjoy their company before they grow up.
Erin Mahoney Harris is a Santa Monica mom of two, and the author of “Walking L.A.” and the forthcoming “Visit California Farms” (Spring 2016).