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.

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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!

Relax Your Grip

“Welcome to 7th grade!” I smiled at the parent entering my classroom.

“Whoosh!” she said.  “I don’t know if I’m ready for this!”

I was about halfway through Before-School Conferences, and already this was the theme that kept popping up.

Some parents dread having their child enter middle school because of what lies ahead:  adolescence and teenager-hood.

Do you remember learning to drive?  The harder you tried to steer the car, the more you went off course.  It wasn’t until you learned to relax and quit fighting the steering wheel that you could be successful.

Parenting a middle schooler is like that; it works best when you learn to relax and quit fighting so hard for control.  The happiest combinations of middle schoolers and parents that sat at my conference table were those where Mom or Dad made suggestions (if they said anything at all) but left final decisions about where to sit and where to put stuff to the student.  These parents communicated that they trusted their kids’ judgment, and the kids responded.

Make your expectations clear, offer suggestions, and then relax a little and give your middle schooler a chance to make the right decision.  Don’t be too quick to assume the worst and overreact, or you could create problems where there were none and slide right off the road.

And remember – to avoid oversteering, keep your eyes on the road ahead, not on what’s right in front of your bumper.

(Reblogged from August 2012)

Do You Think He Has ADD?

alanWhen I am asked this question, I always answer with, “Maybe, but it doesn’t matter to me if he has an official diagnosis.  There are things we can do now to help him improve his focus and organization.”  (I then refer them to their pediatrician for a formal evaluation if they’re still concerned.

I am the person who walks into a room with my coffee cup in hand and loses track of it one minute later, with no recollection of it ever leaving my grip.  Consequently, I have huge empathy for the student whose pens and pencils disappear during the first week of school, or who finishes every assignment on time but can’t find it when it’s time to turn it in.

“I bought her a planner, but she won’t use it!”  This complaint indicates an organized parent who would be lost without her own planner.  Fact is, some of us just aren’t “planner people.”  (Cynthia Tobias calls us “piles and files” people.)  I suggest students try a variety of methods for keeping track of assignments, including sticky notes, digital devices, and a wipe-off board at home.  Some students just keep a blank sheet of paper in their binders and list assignments as they go (then hope the binder goes home with them).  I also encourage students to make use of school websites to find homework due dates.

Sometimes what looks like a focus problem is just a learning style.  In her book The Way They LearnCynthia says that visual learners need to picture the lesson, so they look like they’re daydreaming.  Auditory learners need to talk about the lesson, so they look like they’re interrupting.  Kinesthetic learners need to move, so they look like they’re just fidgeting and not paying attention.

Once students know their own learning style, they can take steps to adapt in the classroom. For example, visual learners might draw picture notes instead of writing words; auditory learners might make up rhymes inside their heads; kinesthetic learners might have a (quiet) fidget toy.

For both focus and organization solutions, experimentation and proving it works are the keys to finding a good system.

Does he have ADD? Perhaps. . .but the more pressing question is – “Does he have the coping skills he needs?”

Back to School Battles

tnwgWhether school has started or will be starting in a few days, chances are the battles have begun.  They may be about what can or cannot be worn to school, which backpack or binder fits into the budget, or what a reasonable bedtime is.

Parents of middle schoolers quickly learn that “Because I said so!” doesn’t win many arguments; in fact, it leads to more arguments – and more battles.  It’s at this point that parents throw up their hands and say, “I don’t know what to do with him anymore!  I just can’t win!”

Remember that line from the movie War Games?  “The only winning move is. . .not to play.”  It’s great advice for dealing with emotional, unpredictable, fast-growing middle schoolers.  Try to avoid as many battles as you can.  Instead, try postponing – “I’ll have to think about that and get back to you this weekend” – but do give a deadline so you don’t sound like you’re just putting them off.  Or negotiate – “You can have that binder, or you can have the shoes you wanted; make a choice.”  Or hold your ground – but use empathy – “I know how much you want that shirt, and I’m sorry I have to disappoint you, but. . .”  (Be sure to give a concrete reason.)

The trouble with loud, messy battles is that you can’t really win.  Just like in thermonuclear war, the winner suffers as much as the loser.  And too many battles can cost you the most valuable prize of all – your relationship with your middle schooler.

Don’t compromise your standards, don’t wimp out on your parenting responsibilities, and don’t spoil your children.  But try to avoid ugly battles that cause more harm than good.  And do everything you can to stay connected to your middle schooler, even when you have to cause some disappointment.

In the meantime. . .”How about a nice game of chess?”

Morning Battles

One of the joys of Empty Nesting is getting up and leaving for school whenever I want to.  But I haven’t forgotten when my mornings went like this:

The alarm rings and I get out of bed, stumble into the the boys’ rooms, and wake them up.  After I shower I discover at least one boy still buried under the covers.  I remind him that I need to get to school early, and I head downstairs for breakfast.  Ten minutes later I find him still in bed, and now I start to threaten:  “If you make me late again, you’re grounded!”  This actually gets him out of bed, but he moves so slowly that I wind up sitting in the car waiting for him.  We leave 10 minutes later than we should, and I find myself dashing through the door at school a few minutes late.

To solve this issue, we tried several options which  met with partial success:  making lunches the night before, setting multiple alarms in their bedrooms, and promising a McDonald’s or Starbucks stop if we left early – all of which I recommend.

But what worked best for Matt, my most difficult morning riser, was sitting down with him and hammering out a customized Incentive Plan.

Because he liked complicated plans, we made it challenging.  If he could get up on time (and “on time” was clearly defined) for five days in a row, he would earn $5.00 toward the video game of his choice.  But if he went four days and then slept late on the fifth, he had to start all over again.  While he enjoyed the complexity of the plan, what he liked best was giving input on how it was going to work.

That’s your key to making mornings easier in your house.  Take the time to explain why tardiness is not acceptable, and then engage your kids in figuring out how to get up and out of the house on time.  When the plan you’ve agreed upon stops working, call a family meeting and come up with a new one.

(If all else fails – invest in a rooster.)

 

Mixed Reviews

The first week – or weeks – of school are ending, and chances are good that parents of middle schoolers can’t decide if it’s been a good start or a bad start!

A second grader will come home from school the first day and say, “Guess what?  Teacher has a rabbit in our class and she says we can pet it on Friday if we’re good.  And on Friday we get to buy popcorn for only 50 cents a bag – can I have 50 cents?  And guess what else? I got to sit on the carpet and read three books this afternoon and Teacher said what a good reader I am!”  And all this information might come pouring out before the parent can even ask how the day went.

The conversation with a middle schooler on the first day might go like this:

Parent:  How was school?

MS: Fine, but it was only the first day.

P:  Was it nice seeing your friends?

MS:  Yeah, but I don’t have Taylor in any of my classes.

P:  What was the best part of your day?

MS:  Well, my math teacher didn’t give us any homework, so that was good.  Nothin’ else was good.

And then day two might sound like this:

Parent:  How did today go?

MS: It was so awesome!  The fire alarm went off during algebra, so we all had to go outside and when we came back in, it was too late for a new assignment!

P:  Oh?

MS:  Yeah, and then at lunch we made Heather laugh so hard she blew milk out of her nose, and Todd fell out of his seat because he was laughing so hard.

P: Sounds like an interesting day.

Ms:  Yeah, I can’t wait to see what happens tomorrow!

There are a couple things going on here.  First of all, it’s not always cool to like school too much.  (In middle school it may not be cool to like anything too much, lest you bring upon you the scorn of your peers.)  Secondly, while a parent may want to know about teachers and classes, a middle schooler is mostly interested in friends and social goings-on.

The best thing a parent can do is sound interested in whatever is shared with excitement.  Try to show you understand why it was so funny/dumb/irritating, and you’ll be sure to hear more stories about fire drills and spewing food!