Less Anxiety; More Success

 

In a recent radio interview I was asked how students were different from when I began teaching over 30 years ago. One major change I’ve observed is that students suffer more anxiety today. It impacts their learning if they miss school, and when they are in class they struggle to focus. For those with serious anxiety disorders, professional help is a must, but for many students some changes at home can make a big difference. Here are four strategies to help your teen or preteen reduce anxiety and increase learning this year.

More reading. We live in a visual world, where we turn to YouTube for instructions instead of reading the manual, and we video chat instead of writing letters. But there are still benefits to reading words on a page, whether in an ebook or on paper. As readers create images in their brains, imagination and visualization skills increase. Mentally visiting other worlds, both make-believe and real, can reduce anxiety by providing a distraction and a chance to forget one’s problems for a while. Reading also builds vocabulary and writing skills. Non-fiction increases knowledge and can make one an expert on a favorite topic (“Did you know. . .?”). In my classroom I turn on soft instrumental music and turn down the lights, and the atmosphere becomes calm and peaceful. Students actually sigh with pleasure as they settle in to read.

More sleep. Because they’re still growing, teens need 8-10 hours of sleep a night, which they rarely get. But sleep is important for more than just growth. According to the National Sleep Foundation, “Mental health is both impacted by and impacts how well a person sleeps.” Teens who don’t get enough sleep are more prone to anxiety and depression. Not surprisingly, the biggest robber of adequate sleep is technology. Teens who take their phones to bed with them can be up past midnight using Snapchat to text–or sext–their friends, or they’re watching videos and playing games. Phones should be handed over to parents or parked in a designated spot at bedtime. Getting enough sleep also helps with focus, learning, and appearance. The latter might be enough to convince self-conscious teens to go to bed earlier, as a lack of sleep affects skin and hair quality. Because of changes in their circadian rhythm, teens may not fall asleep until 11:00 or later, but bedtimes should still be earlier, as even resting in a dark room has benefits.

Less social media. There’s growing evidence that more time spent on social media means more unhappiness for teens (check out an article from Child Mind Institute), often caused by feelings of insecurity and inadequacy when comparing one’s life to others’. Young teens also absorb information from Tumblr or Reddit without the experience or maturity to filter fact from sensationalism. It’s an interesting paradox that while social media keeps them more connected to one another, it also increases feelings of rejection if their posts are ignored or don’t get as many likes as their friends’ posts. Stalking and trolling (leaving mean comments) can also lead to hurt feelings. All of these emotions and relationship issues carry over into the classroom, making focusing on classwork difficult.

Less conflict. What are your battles? Homework? Chores? Appropriate clothing? Arguing and anger produce stress, which causes physical changes, including a rise in cortisol. Among other things, too much cortisol can interfere with learning and memory. Yelling and threatening will never result in a teen saying, “You’re right. I’ll change.” Okay, nothing makes them reply that way, but staying calm while holding firm to your values will get you further. Refrain from sarcasm and statements like “What are you thinking? You’re hopeless! I’m done with you!” that only cause defensiveness. Making your point is more important than issuing consequences or angering your teen, and stiffer penalties can lead to rebellion rather than compliance. Begin with clear expectations and don’t overreact to their responses. Expect respect, but if your teen glares at you or walks away muttering, just let it go. Regardless of how it appears, assume you’ve been heard. When you have to ground him or take away her phone, do it calmly and with few words. As Cynthia Tobias says, “Issue more tickets and give fewer lectures.” Years ago I compiled a “No-No List” of common mistakes parents make in trying to communicate; you can find it here.

 

Anxiety affects students regardless of their capabilities. Anything we can do both at home and in the classroom to ease their way can have a lifelong impact. But if you’re going to make changes, be sure to do so with the cooperation of your teen or preteen. Instead of demanding they read more, go to bed earlier, and spend less time on their phones, involve them in a discussion and invite their input. Problem-solve together and come up with a plan. That way, you’ll also have less conflict–and more success!

Sue currently teaches middle school at Concordia Lutheran School in Tacoma, Washington; she and Cynthia Tobias are co-authors of  Middle School, the Inside Story: What Kids Tell Us But Don’t Tell You, available online and in bookstores.

In Their Shoes

It was 2:30 on Thursday afternoon, and I could barely stay awake. I needed to use the restroom, but I tried to focus on the class discussion and think of something intelligent to contribute.

I wasn’t the teacher; I was a student in Phoenix, learning a new method for teaching science. Our class ran from 8:30 to 3:30 every day, giving me a fresh appreciation for what my students endure.

Three insights I gained:

Groups are challenging. Though the curriculum included many hands-on activities, it was hard being with the same people every day and having little control. We worked in groups which changed every few days, and by Monday of the second week I had definite ideas about which group members I preferred. As an adult, I could tolerate annoying behavior and keep my mouth shut (it helped that this was short-term), but imagine being a moody middle schooler, knowing you were stuck with these people for a school year. While learning to work in groups is an important skill, group work can be stressful for everyone.

My vow: I will make sure I have a good balance of individual and group projects, and I will listen with empathy when students complain, rather than dismissing them with, “We all need to learn how to work together!”

School means too much sitting. My students have office chairs, but it’s still hard on one’s legs and tailbone to sit for so many hours. In Phoenix we had frequent breaks (and an hour for lunch), but I dreaded plopping into that chair every morning. Because of growing limbs and muscles, adolescents can be in agony if denied movement for too long, so I shouldn’t be surprised when they whine and ask to take another break. As a teacher in constant motion around the classroom, it’s easy for me to forget how long they’ve been sitting.

Mvow:  I will offer plenty of opportunities for movement throughout the day and will be more sensitive to the amount of time they spend in their seats. While they may look like they’re listening, odds are good they’re wishing they could get up and move.

Cell phones are both a blessing and a pain. I loved being able to check my email constantly, because our teacher trusted that we would be smart about our smartphones. When I got bored or irritated by the discussion, I could take a quick look at Facebook or Instagram to pass the time.  However, some of the teachers were on their phones too often, even hiding them behind display boards during group presentations. My students are used to being connected all day long, and while it’s good for them to unplug, it’s also important to teach them phone etiquette.

My vow: Though I will continue to ban phone usage in my classroom, I may – may – consider allowing small “phone check” periods at lunch, if they prove to me they can handle it. I still find it important to limit screen time, but I also appreciate the desire to check in with the “outside world.”

I consider myself a student-centered teacher, but it’s still easy to forget how things look and feel from their side. It’s my goal this year to keep putting myself in their shoes so they, their feet – and even their seats – are more comfortable!

What Middle Schoolers Do–and Don’t–Need for School

It’s a rare parent who can find the school supplies list at the end of summer, let alone remember to take it along to the store.

And some strange items have shown up on lists recently; I’ve heard of potting soil, gluten-free paint, and Q-tips, to name a few. You may be the parent who follows the list to the letter, even confirming with the teacher which brand of pencils is preferred. Or you may be the “close enough” parent who says, “What does it matter which kind of calculator you buy?” You may wonder how much on the list is essential and how much is fluff. Here are what I consider necessities for a successful start to the year, along with what you can leave out, including items you won’t find on any supply list.

Needed: New Supplies. My husband and I argued every year about buying new pens and pencils. “There’s still a drawer full of them downstairs!” he’d complain. Having shiny new writing utensils and a binder picked out by the student can be inspiring at the beginning of a new year. Opening packages of pens or sharpening new pencils helps build anticipation, and getting everything ready to take to school is satisfying. Don’t wait until the last minute so that your child has to open things at school; the mess can be embarrassing, and it takes time away from socializing.

Not Needed: Expensive, Fancy Supplies. They’ll either be lost or stolen, which will create conflict at home. Or they’ll be borrowed constantly, which can be distracting or annoying to the owner. Buying one expensive item (fancy pens, cool binder, snazzy lunch bag) isn’t a bad idea, but don’t go overboard on everything.

Needed: A Form of Organization. Whether it’s a planner, a calendar, an electronic system, or several pads of Post-Its, every student needs to develop a system that works and then stick with it. It’s not just the teacher’s job to make sure it gets used; be sure you’re asking to see the method at home. “Show me where you wrote your assignments, please” is a valid request.

Not Needed: Your Preferred Planning Method. In our book, we tell a story about a mom who set up a beautiful notebook for her son with color-coded dividers for every subject. When asked why he wasn’t using it, he admitted he’d lost it. Your method does no good if they aren’t invested in it, and not all kids are planner people. Maybe Post-Its with page numbers stuck right in the math book work better, or writing everything on a whiteboard calendar. The point is that they find a method that matches their learning style, and they acquire the discipline to stick with it. Be ready for a trial and error period!

Needed: Accountability. Getting to school on time, completing homework, respecting authority–these are examples of non-negotiables that develop into important life skills. Don’t be too quick to blame the teacher or anybody else when your child struggles in these areas, but do be ready to make a fresh start with a new plan every time it becomes an issue. Use incentives if it helps: “What’s it worth to you to have no tardies for a week?” and consequences when necessary: “I’m sorry, but this F due to missing assignments means you’ll have to miss that party this weekend and catch up.”

Not Needed: Overparenting. When middle schoolers complain about unfairness in the classroom or low grades on tests, they should be the ones talking to the teacher. Resist the urge to shoot off an email or make an angry phone call. Ask your middle schooler, “How are you going to handle this?” and encourage a before- or after-school meeting between teacher and student. If a report card surprises you with less-than-desirable grades, begin by asking your child what happened instead of ringing up the teacher. If your middle schooler is having social issues (“Olivia won’t sit with me at lunch”), hold off a bit and encourage her to work it out with her friends. Involve the teacher only when there’s bullying involved or it’s causing serious depression or anxiety or at home. The key word is “serious,” as in lasting for more than one day or causing eating disorders or other health issues.

Needed: Support. Because of growth spurts and body changes, hormones and social upheavals, these are tough years for all kids. Speak encouragement when you can, share stories of your own middle school years when appropriate, use empathy as often as possible, and give hugs when you’re allowed. Middle schoolers are tough on themselves, often feeling like they don’t measure up to their peers, and they need to hear from you that they’re okay and everything will get better.

Not Needed: Discouragement. Be judicious with your criticism, saving it for important moral and safety issues. Don’t like the way his hair sticks up? If it gives him confidence at school, let it go. Wish she’d clean up after herself more? Keep asking politely and realize it’s more lack of awareness than laziness or defiance. Frustrated by school behavior or grades? Put the responsibility for change back on your middle schooler and work with him to improve. Middle schoolers crave control over their own lives, so give it where you can (negotiable bedtime) and you’ll find it’s easier to hang onto it where you need to (no riding in cars with teenage drivers).

As you stock up on gel pens, ear buds, Kleenex, EOS lip balm, and Sharpies, take some time to think about what you can’t buy at Target, like accountability, encouragement, and empathy. Those may be back-to-school items your middle schooler needs the most!

Middle School? Challenge Accepted! 5 Helpful Tips for Parents

clsrmOn the first day of 7th grade my English teacher declared, “I hate 7th graders. They’re whiny, immature, and just generally unpleasant.”  As I listened to scary Mrs. Gunderson lay down her classroom rules in a no-nonsense, don’t-you-dare-interrupt voice, I was terrified.

The first weeks of middle school can be harrowing both for students and for their parents.  Here are five things parents can do to ease the transition.

1. Use the Technology

Most middle schools offer parents the opportunity to check schedules, view the school calendar, and look at homework assignments online.   The office and the teachers will probably send regular emails. Familiarize yourself with how these work, and learn to use them regularly.  Don’t rely on your middle schooler to be your main source of info.

2. Keep Calm and Don’t Overreact

When I ranted about my Truly Awful Teacher, my mom advised me to wait and see.  Today’s parents might complain to the principal or fire off an email to Mrs. Gunderson, but it’s better to wait.  Middle schoolers experience many new things in those early weeks, some scary and some awesome, but their first impressions aren’t always correct.  Listen with empathy, keeping comments to, “Wow, that does sound tough,” or “Bet that made you happy.”  Their emotions are going to be all over the place, and they’ll need you to be the stabilizer in their lives.

3. Expect Exhaustion

No matter how well it’s going, adjusting to new schedules, teachers, classmates, and buildings is going to wear out your middle schooler.  Sports, music, honors or remedial classes, and getting up earlier will also take a toll.  Consider lightening up on chores and be prepared to attribute moodiness to fatigue.  Insisting that phones be parked outside of the bedroom can head off late-night texting which would cut into sleeping hours.

4. Take a Step Back

Teach your middle schooler to stop in the doorway every morning and think, “Do I have everything?”  Middle schoolers are notorious for forgetting obvious items like homework, lunches—and even backpacks.  Rather than doing their thinking for them, give them the chance to check themselves.  After school, instead of saying, “Better get your homework done,” ask, “What’s your homework plan for tonight?”  Again, this allows self-monitoring rather than parental ruling.  If the answer is, “Not doing it,” just laugh and wait.  If the plan is unrealistic, calmly offer better options:  “Really?  Starting at 10 o’clock might not work, since you have band at 7:00 tomorrow morning.  Maybe you want to do some now and some later?”  Remember, middle schoolers still need helpful suggestions but they’ll resist being told what to do.

5. Ask the Right Questions

If your first words to your middle schooler are, “How was school?”  you’ll probably just hear “Fine.”  Wait a while and allow some processing time, then ask more specific questions:  “What was the best thing that happened at school?”  “Whose class do you like best?” “See anything strange or funny in the hallway?”  Beware of asking too many questions, though, because middle schoolers don’t like to be interrogated any more than you do.  Extroverts will want to tell their story in their own way, but introverts will want to tell you in their own time.  Watch for openings and don’t commit the sin of interrupting before they finish.

By the end of the first month, Scary Mrs. Gunderson was one of my favorite teachers.  She wasn’t really a tyrant; in fact, she had a great sense of humor and made learning interesting.  Many middle schoolers will experience similar turnarounds in their thinking, so ride out their changeable feelings and be the source of calm and comfort.  Even if the beginning is rocky, things will soon smooth out as your middle schooler settles into the new routine.

Just in time for progress reports.

Speaking in the Second Person


ptc-3I hold student-led conferences, where I expect students to talk about their accomplishments and their plans to improve.  Most parents appreciate this, but sometimes they will address questions to me as if the student weren’t present:  “What do you think he could do to raise his math grade?”  “How is her behavior in class?”  I always direct the question to the student: “How do you think you’re doing? What’s your plan for improvement?”

This disappoints parents at first, but after I let the students speak and then chime in afterward with my input, they’re usually satisfied.  Sometimes I remind students of conversations we’ve had; other times I offer suggestions.  But I never talk about them with their parents as if they aren’t present at the table.

It’s a habit we get into when our children are babies, too young to understand what we’re saying.  As they get older, we adapt by s-p-e-l-l-i-n-g or using half sentences: “Did you take care of his. . .?”  There comes a point, however, when it’s just not okay to talk about them as if they’re not there, and that time arrives somewhere in elementary school.

If it’s a conversation about your kids that you don’t want them involved in, hold it when they’re not present.  If they’re in the room and it’s actually about them, include them in the conversation.  Allow them to tell their side of the story, and then involve them in seeking solutions where needed.

At the beginning of every conference, I remind my students that they’re in charge.  Since every conversation is about them, doesn’t it make sense that every conversation should include them?

When a Red Sweatshirt Makes a Big Difference

swshirtsLast week our 8th grade class sweatshirts arrived.  With a big “15” containing everyone’s name on the back, the shirts are seen as a symbol of class pride and unity.  As we headed outside for a class photo, one student looked around at the sea of red and said, “This just feels so cool.  Like. . .we all just belong together.”

The desire to belong is a basic human need, but it’s especially strong in adolescence. Teens seek places where they can “belong together,” and it’s critical that they find positive experiences, such as singing in the choir, rather than negative ones, like joining a gang.

Teens who are part of a soccer team, an orchestra, a robotics club, or the cast of a play are less likely to be involved in risky behaviors.  Search “positive benefits of extracurricular activities” on the Internet and you’ll find dozens of articles saying students who participate in after-school clubs and teams do better both inside and outside of school.

Of course balance is important, and parents need to be alert for overcommitted kids, but finding a niche where it’s possible to make new friends and share common goals is a must.

By having an identity as part of a group, teens gain a sense of value that can carry over into other areas of their lives.  The “uniform” can be a dress shirt and tie, a team T-shirt, or even a class sweatshirt–whatever it takes to mark them as “belonging.”

swshirts2

In Praise of Parents

1939604_10204899660594615_5063056642471817184_n“I know I need to let her be more independent in middle school, but it feels like she needs me now more than ever!”

When Cynthia Tobias and I speak with parents of middle schoolers, we often hear the above sentiment.  While there are “helicopter parents” on one side of the continuum and “don’t care” parents on the other, most parents fall right in the middle as they try to find the balance between too much control and too little.

The frustrating part of parenting is you don’t know if you’re doing it right until many years later.  The reality is that sometimes you’re going to do it wrong: you’re going to be too controlling or too lenient.  Getting into a big ugly argument about how high your 14-year-old’s heels are?  Probably a mistake.  Dropping her off at the movies with a group of friends and no adults?  Also probably a mistake.

Here’s the good news:  no single situation is going to determine the outcome of your child’s life.  You will have many opportunities to try again, and it’s perfectly okay to admit to your child that you messed up and need to apologize (which is good modeling).  You may even need to revise the penalty you handed down.  Don’t give up–hang in there and make the effort to have a good relationship with your teen or pre-teen.  At this age kids still need their parents (even though they may not admit it or act like it), and it’s important for parents to communicate their love and support, no matter what.

Today I sat in conferences with 8th graders and their parents, none of whom acted disappointment in their kids.  Instead, they said, “What’s your plan to improve?” and “Looks like you’ve got a good handle on things!”  It’s my experience that the majority of parents are doing the best they can to figure out how to help their teens (and themselves)cope with all the changes that middle school brings.  In my opinion, these are the best type of parents.

(Along with the ones who come to conferences with Starbucks for the teacher. . .)