How to Reduce Student Anxiety

Last week, I challenged my daughter to try doing some lacrosse tricks, little exercises with the stick and ball to develop coordination and handling abilities.  She’s very focused, and began working diligently to develop the skills.

A few hours later, I found her in tears.

“Dad, I can’t do it!” she said with frustration.

As I watched her show me what she’d been able to do, I recognized that she’d done much better than I would’ve expected from a typical 10-year-old.

What I did next was a satisfying parenting moment for me, especially because I’ve been trying to employ self-talk of this sort for many years when I’ve experienced difficult situations.

I told her to be gentle with herself.  “You can’t beat yourself up so much,” I said.  “You’re doing great, and getting better each moment.”

If we really paid attention to the way we talk to ourselves, we’d be shocked.  If you heard someone talking to a loved one the way we talk to ourselves, you’d be angry, repulsed, and want to come to their defense.  And yet, this is how we deal with ourselves on a regular basis.  What’s worse is that we may be modeling this negative self-talk to our children and our students.

Student Anxiety

Anxiety is the root of many epidemics that face our kids today.  It’s driving the alarming trends in depression and suicide.  It’s at the core of substance abuse as youth look for ways to escape.  And it’s stealing their childhoods as they try to succeed in a world of ever-increasing demands and expectations.

A recent Time Magazine article ranked US teens in the bottom quarter among other developed nations in measures of well-being, life-satisfaction, and relationship quality.  In a country of unparalleled access and opportunity, our efforts to support the emotional and psychological health of our young people are falling short.

Fortunately, some of the powers-that-be are starting to get it.  A recent article describes how Harvard University is proposing changes to the way colleges evaluate perspective students.  The new criteria seems to have quite a bit more humanity built into it.  It removes the requirement of standard testing and emphasizes extracurricular activities and meaningful contributions to applicants’ schools and communities.

However, as we wait for our education system as a whole to soften, to find a heart, so to speak, we parents and educators can begin leading the change one child at a time.

Here are four critical ways to reduce student anxiety and help our kids get a handle on the challenges of their young lives.

1. Parent Yourself

“Be the change you wish to see in the world.” 

I love this Gandhi quote, because it teaches us that, before we can shine the light, we must become the light.

One of the most powerful things I’ve ever done for myself, crazy as it may sound, is to act as if I’m parenting myself – I talk to myself as if I were talking to my son or daughter.

I would never tell my child they are awful or a failure, but these are certainly things I’ve thought or even said to myself in the past.  By stepping back and addressing the little Jeff inside me from the perspective of a loving parent, my point of view changes, and so do the words I say to myself.

Student Anxiety

I start telling myself, “You’re doing great,” or “look how far you’ve come.”  I might tell myself, “keep trying, because each day you’re getting better.”

Through this technique, I’ve been able to show myself unconditional love for the first time in my life.  It’s similar to the use of affirmations, but there’s a clear understanding of why you’re doing it, so you aren’t just speaking positive rhetoric to yourself.

It’s absolutely true that, to really care for someone else, you must first care for yourself.  The greatest power of this technique is the transformation it will have on the words you use not just with yourself but with your students, because you’ll be modeling real self-compassion.

2. Be Careful with Homework

I once saw progressive educator Alfie Kohn speak.  One of his tenets is that he doesn’t believe in homework.  His key line is, “You have them for 8 hours a day, why do they need to work a second shift?”

I can tell you that, in my house, managing homework is a great point of contention and anxiety.  My kids are tired of schoolwork when they get home.  I want them playing, getting exercise, reading or doing other constructive things for their development.  Really, the only reason I can see for most homework, especially in elementary school, is to prepare them for doing it in high school and college.

Student AnxietyI love homework that’s creative, exploratory or experiential in nature.  For example, my youngest daughter recently had math homework that involved grocery shopping with her mom and calculating sales tax and change.  It was engaging, fun, and supported positive family interaction, not to mention reinforcing powerful and useful math concepts.

I’m not suggesting that teachers stop giving homework.  I’m just saying to take into consideration the quantity and the type of homework you’re assigning.  Also, think about the whole child and the relative balance they (like us) need to maintain in their lives.

3. Build Perspective

A few years ago, my colleagues and I were presenting to the president of a very prestigious university.  I was surprised when he told me that the college business model was dying, because, as costs go up, the returns go down.  According to him, the difference in the starting salary of a college graduate vs. a non-college graduate is decreasing annually, and new models are emerging that far better meet the needs of individual students.

I share this because many of us spend so much time emphasizing and preparing our students for college, when it may not necessarily be the best path.

We need to recognize that the relative prestige of the college our students and children attend will have very little if anything to do with their happiness.  In fact, this issue can often operate in direct opposition to that; student anxiety will rise as they stress out about getting into a school that may not be aligned with them authentically.

Student AnxietyIt’s quite likely that the most prestigious college isn’t the optimal path to happiness, meaning and success for most young people.  What matters most is that our kids and students find their calling and create a life on their own terms.  The college that best aligns with that perspective will certainly be the best option.

Life isn’t won or lost based on what college we go to, but each and every day as we grow and become more, personally and professionally.  As such, the best path for our young people is always one of growth towards their authentic dreams… regardless of what we may have grown up being told.

4. Eliminate Perfectionism

Pursuit of perfection is the antithesis of self-compassion.  It is extrinsic, unattainable, and often an emotional nightmare.  It’s the feeling of never being good enough, and that’s a very bad place to be.

Too many high-achieving students are almost incapable of effectively dealing with adversity or what they perceive as failure.  The common terminology is that they lack resilience, or confidence in themselves and their ability to overcome challenges.

Student Anxiety

The first and most critical step to building resilience is cultivating self-compassion through understanding that we’re all human.  This recognition allows us to stay positive and better work through setbacks.

There’s no single magic bullet for this, but here are some of the best techniques I’ve come across:

  • Celebrate Failure – Ask students what they believe they’ve failed at recently, and then celebrate them taking those risks and putting themselves out there.
  • Promote Growth – When a child says that they aren’t good at something, correct them by adding the powerful word yet – as in, they aren’t good at it yet. Also, when a student succeeds, it is good to recognize them; however, rather than recognizing them for the grade, celebrate the person they became (diligent, determined, motivated) to get the grade.
  • Model Vulnerability – It can be very powerful for respected adults to share their own struggles and setbacks. Often, students think of teachers as perfect or infallible, and adjusting that perception to illustrate that we, too, are human, can make a real difference in showing that we identify with their struggles.
  • Focus on Strength – We have to teach students to be easy on themselves, to be at peace with what they are aren’t, and to have the confidence to celebrate and own what they are. Fully exploited strengths are of far greater value than marginally improved weaknesses.  They’ll also be the source of validation, feelings of worthiness and support one’s greatest contributions to the world.

All I really want for my children is for them to experience happiness and success on their own terms.  It’s easy to want that, but it’s much more difficult to execute on the things that will help them achieve it.

We have to teach our students self-discipline and accountability, but not at the cost of adding more stress and anxiety at the point in their lives when they’re at their most vulnerable.

Student Anxiety

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