Students are heading back to school, which can be a source of stress for many kids and teens. Whether they feel overwhelmed by the amount of work a project requires or they feel anxious about taking a test in a subject that they struggle with, academic stress can be a challenge. Luckily, there are lots of ways to help your children manage their school work without overwhelming anxiety or stress.

When children experience academic stress in school, they may make statements such as, “I forget to hand in my homework a lot, and then I lose points on my grade,” “All my friends understand the work and I don’t, so I must be stupid,” or “I can’t remember all of my test dates and when my projects are due.” It may seem like an excuse or a lack of responsibility, but that may not be the case. Sometimes these children are experiencing academic stressors that are causing them to experience anxiety that they need help to manage.

Before assuming that your child isn’t putting in enough time to study, and before getting into arguments or giving consequences for poor grades, it can be helpful to first meet with the teacher to see if your child may need extra support to better understand the concepts taught. If the teacher does feel that your child “just needs to put in more effort,” this is then a good discussion to have with your child.  Ask about your child’s perception of the problem.  Sometimes children have incredible insight when someone asks the right questions.  Once you hear the issue, you’ll have a better idea of how to proceed.  If your child says “everything’s fine,” then you may need to be a bit more of a detective.

As your child studies or does homework, think about whether:

  • there are too many distractions (e.g., TV, phone, etc.);
  • your child often starts to study and then realizes that he forgot a book at school;
  • your child seems to stare at the work and not know how to get started;
  • your child waits until the last minute, then tries to cram the night before a test.

Many children need parental guidance on how to develop executive functioning skills, such as how to get organized with materials, set aside time to study or to complete projects, prioritize the work, and break down long-term projects into smaller segments.

If your child struggles to set aside time to complete work, try using a week-at-a-glance calendar (or even a month-at-a-glance one) and put in all of your child’s activities for that week/month.  Then, jointly with your child, decide when studying will be done. Visual reminders can sometimes be a great tool as students seek to become organized.

Sometimes children have a hard time prioritizing and sequencing the steps needed to complete work. A fun way to teach this is by demonstrating with a hands-on metaphor, like baking a cake.  Write each step for baking a cake on an index card, then make sure they are in the right order.  Go through each step with your child as you bake the cake together, and explain as you go how schoolwork can be thought of in the same way. For instance, you don’t want to put ingredients into the mixing bowl only to realize that you have no eggs in the house, and your child doesn’t want to get all her homework materials out just to realize that she had forgotten a book at school!  If your child likes this strategy, she can also use index cards to write out homework assignments and then move the cards into an order that makes sense to her as she starts to work on her homework on that night (hardest work first? Last? Interspersed?).

For long-term projects, you may want to draw a ladder and have your child write small components of the project on each step so that he doesn’t feel overwhelmed on any one day, but feels that he has manageable tasks and can complete them more comfortably.

Overall, the most important part of dealing with stress is having self-confidence.  Watch that your child doesn’t compare himself too much to peers, doesn’t expect perfection (which can lead to constant disappointment when it is not attained), doesn’t use self-directed insults (e.g., “I’m so dumb!”), and doesn’t feel that he has to do the work without asking for help.

Take time to discuss these actions if you notice them in your child, so that she can focus on more confidence-building strategies (e.g., positive self-talk such as, “I tried and even though I didn’t get the lead in the play, I had the courage to try!”). And if your child continues to struggle with anxiety, or if their anxiety increases despite these efforts, you may consider arranging a conversation with their teacher, guidance counselor, or school psychologist to discuss more options.

by Wendy Moss, PhD, ABPP

This Article's Author

Wendy L. Moss, Ph.D., ABPP, FAASP is a clinical as well as a school psychologist. In addition, she is a diplomate in school psychology through the American Board of Professional Psychology and won the Frank Plumeau School Psychologist of the Year Award (2017) through the New York Association of School Psychologists. Dr. Moss authored or co-authored eight books. Books for children focus on how to gain confidence, how to be resilient, ways to navigate through the tween years, ways to handle academic stresses, how to cope with a learning challenge, and ways to cope with a physical disability. She also wrote a book for teachers so that they can better understand their students and, most recently, a book for parents on how to raise self-confident, independent children.

Related Books from Magination Press

  • APA School Made Easy book cover

    School Made Easier: A Kid’s Guide to Study Strategies and Anxiety-Busting Tools

    by Wendy L. Moss, PhD and Robin Deluca-Acconi, LCSW

    Do you ever get nervous before a big test?
    Do you get butterflies in your stomach before giving a presentation?
    Do you ever lose track of papers?
    Do you cram to finish long-term assignments at the last minute?
    If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, this book is for you!

    School Made Easier will show you how to:

    Understand your academic stressUse “mind games” to feel less stressed and more confidentProblem-solve to cope with stressful situationsOrganize your papers and filesUse executive functioning skills to make homework and studying easierManage your time wiselyStudy more effectivelyStay calm and cool on test day
    And much more!

    Take a look inside, and start reducing your anxiety and increasing your confidence in school.

    Believe it or not, school can be less stressful — and even fun! (ages 8-13)