What You Need to Do If Your Kid Is Overwhelmed at School
When I was a teacher, one of the things I had to consistently remind people of was that we expected a lot from our students. When you stop and think about all that they are being required to do, it can seem a bit daunting, especially at the younger grades. Every day, kids are expected to arrive on time, remember various adults' special rules, interact positively with their peers, sit still for questionably long periods, and learn new information and skills.
Naturally, the rigid school atmosphere can make some children feel completely overwhelmed. When a student is stressed at school, that can often bleed over into the rest of their life, forever impacting their relationship with education. It's important for parents to aid their kids as early as possible, and having seen this process as an educator, here is what I suggest.
1. Before anything else, listen to your kid.
This might seem like a no-brainer, but you'd be surprised how many parents reach out to adults before they even bother to talk to their kid. There are some clear signs that a child may be stressed at school that a parent should look for. Some students might exhibit uncharacteristic and temperamental outbursts, cry, or explicitly tell their parents how they're feeling.
Other children might embed or code their frustration. Listen for consistent problems; for example, another child's name coming up frequently with negative implications could signal a bully. If your kiddo tells you repeatedly that they're not able to finish their homework, pay attention. What they're telling you is they need help in specific areas.
2. The teacher is your child's first line of defense.
Your child's teacher is the adult your child has hopefully built up a relationship of trust with and is someone they can talk to. At the very least, the teacher is the one who is in the room with your kiddo all day. Using the teacher's preferred method of communication, contact them to schedule a conference.
Do not start bombarding your child's teacher with questions, because chances are they're going to need a minute to collect their thoughts and any evidence to help. Instead, ask for a time to meet in person and if they can gather any materials relevant to your concern (things like in-class assignments and group work can be helpful to monitor the situation).
3. Before the conference, tell your child that you're meeting with the teacher.
This is super important because you do not want your kid to find out about the meeting from the teacher or after the fact because it can feel like the adults are teaming up against them. How would you like it if your coworker and your boss had a meeting about you and didn't tell you until later? You probably wouldn't.
Some teachers are mixed on whether or not they want the child present. Personally, it never mattered to me one way or the other, but you're more likely to get forthright responses from the teacher without a child in the room. A possible compromise is having your child wait outside and bringing them in toward the end of the meeting.
Either way, before the conference, you must be honest with them. Tell them that you are meeting their teacher because you believe they are overwhelmed (or a similar kid-friendly term) and that you want to help. Ask them if they have anything they want to say or know, or if they have a question for you to ask the teacher on their behalf.
4. Set up an action plan to manage stress.
With the teacher, and possibly a school counselor if one is available, set up an action plan to manage stress in all areas of the student's life. Keep in mind that very often when one area is off balance, like losing track of time or a school bully, the rest of the areas suffer, too.
Ask the teacher to jot down notes or use a chart that quickly marks off assignments, behavior, peer interactions, and overall attitude every day after school. This is something you can create together, but the teacher probably already has something similar in their files. If you're concerned that you're going to be a bother to the teacher, don't be. This is literally part of their job description, and I have never met a teacher who bemoaned helping a caring parent. (However, if they do refuse to do it, chances are they might be part of the problem.) Your student should be told about this, since, again, nothing should be kept in secret from them. It will be part of their responsibility to get the chart, so encourage them to talk to the teacher about any marks they see that are curious to them.
5. Make their home setup as relaxing as possible.
Just because they're overwhelmed doesn't necessarily mean they are going to be excused from having to work. Whatever workstation they have, be it at their own desk or at the dining room table, make sure it is calm. I'm not opposed to music when studying, especially for an anxious child, because the goal here is to make schoolwork more enjoyable. However, the volume should be at a manageable level so that they can still hear themselves think. Consider getting plants or a calming sensory bottle to help them focus.
6. Mind your language.
Zero percent of people have been made calmer by someone telling them to calm down. The same holds true for an anxious or overwhelmed child. Do not belittle their concerns or use language that suggests they can easily be fixed. It may not be big to you, but it is big to them.
7. Be prepared to drop activities.
Your child may have a few extracurriculars that they love, but school should always come first. Time management is a huge skill to learn, and it's important that parents validate that school and their education is the most important element of their day. You can always build back on the activities when things are better, but be prepared to press pause if needed.
8. Yoga is your new best friend.
One of my favorite activities, yoga, has been shown to improve mindfulness, increase positive body image, reduce stress, and improve core symptoms of ADHD in school-age children. It doesn't have to involve going to a gym and shelling out a bunch of money for a chic mat. There are a lot of short videos online that are geared toward children who want to practice yoga. Doing it with them has also been shown to increase bonding and improve parent/child relationships.
9. If your child consistently struggles for more than a couple of months, consider having them tested.
When I was in the second grade, my parents had me tested for various learning disabilities, in large part because I was still not reading. While I did not have any disabilities per se, I did benefit from meeting with a reading specialist and speech pathologist. Within a couple of months of weekly meetings, I was not only reading but also at a higher rate than my peers.
As a parent, I know how incredibly hard it is to think that your child might need support in a way that you can't give them. Yet it's also the parent part of me that knows that I will do anything for my kid. Being overwhelmed in school isn't something to be ignored — it's a sign that your child might need your help to cope.