Young students and frustrated parents prepare for school

Back to school is back to pressure, at least for the children. For the parents, this is more of a blessing, as we get some order and in a sense our lives back. Every year, when the children need to go to school we try to publish some articles that deal with education.  Today I want to deal with parental stress and worries. I search of inspiration I used what I could find here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

A small disclosure.

A small disclosure. My little girl is just starting elementary school, and my big boy is starting middle school. My middle child will graduate the elementary school next year, and he should start worrying about his grades for the first time in his life. So I write this article is more for my own sake than to help you. Even so, I will try to make reading it worthwhile for you.

Why are we stressed?

Every big change is stressful.  When a child goes to a new school, many things can go wrong. Each child comes with his own set of challenges.

The brightest and hardworking children are often stressed and socially inadequate. Jumping between extracurricular activities, they do not have time to get bored, and they are afraid to miss out. High social media presence is not indicative of real-life friendships. How much more can these children do before they burn out? Should we help them speed up further, or slow them down?

Creative children tend to daydream. As parents, we fear they will lose touch with reality. Their teachers are confused and report all sorts of disciplinary issues.  They are often our most gentle and surprising children, and we are afraid that more discipline or medication will strip them of their charm.  Should we transform them into learning machines or allow them to drift where their imagination takes them?

And then so many children are weak. Not in everything. Just a single subject like math or science or physical education can cause nightmares of failure and ridicule. How do we train the children to face their fears and overcome their weaknesses? To which extent can we protect them against bullies: other children, teachers or themselves?

Why are we stressed, again?

A couple of years ago, my wife asked a psychiatrist for pills because she could not handle the way our child behaved in the classroom and the response it generated from the teachers.  The doctor did not give any chemical reassurance and instead offered to wait a bit for the issues to calm down.

My wife is a professional, and she has more tools than anyone I know. Simply these tools do not work that well for our own children, so eventually, we got coaching help from her colleague and that worked.  Why did my wife fail? Because she was too involved and too stressed.  In her head, the child was failing to achieve all the things needed for a happy, financially and socially adapted adult. She created a horror movie and started to live in it.

We are stressed when our capacity is insufficient to deal with the challenge, when the environment asks for our response,  when the cost of failure is catastrophic, and when we do not feel the autonomy to deal with the issue. Getting a child with issues through a school is a recipe for stress until we find the strength to reframe the situation. And then hopefully, it can also be a recipe for joy and growth.

Corrective experience

Our children are in many ways like us, yet they are very different. We have more tools than our parents could dream of, and society as a whole is much more open to authentic and different people.  Quite likely that our children will face every challenge we faced or imagine, and also quite likely they will succeed much better than we would.

Many many times with my children I saw them facing the challenges that frustrated me, and then almost effortlessly ace these challenges. Then I had an “Aha” moment: that’s what I was supposed to do myself… If we allow our children to be themselves and at the same time provide clear guidance and boundaries, we will see how our own nightmares become childhood games and funny memories for our children. This is much easier if we are different from our spouse and the spouse steps in where we struggle.

Toxic anxiety

Horseriding is something we occasionally do as a family.  Horses are very sensitive. They will immediately sense fear, aggression, sleepiness and misbehave. Once they feel clear benevolent will, they will do whatever they are asked to do with a uniquely equine smile. They are like our mirrors. Children are even better mirrors, smarter, more sensitive and usually harder to guide.

When a child gets anxious, the fears intervene with the thoughts required to deal with the challenges. Dealing with multiple threads of thought and emotionally challenging situations reduces productivity and increases frustration and aggression.

Everybody learns better through a chain of successes dealing with increasingly more complex challenges, and freedom to celebrate each of these successes.  Child’s anxiety may interfere with the chain of successes or even create a chain of failures. Our anxiety may multiply the effect. At least one of the parents needs to be calm, in control and keep his eyes on the target. Otherwise, the child may react erratically.

Simple tips for the parent in control

While one parent can potentially freak out, the other parent needs to be more reassuring than ever. I quote some tips for dealing with immediate stress.

1. Teach your kids to distinguish between stress and pressure.
2. Help them befriend “the moment.”
3. Shrink the importance.
4. Validate their self-worth.
5. Show second chances.
6. Get your kids to focus on doing their best.

You probably notice that we try to disarm the elements of stress, by making the failure look less menacing and focusing on the joy of doing the right thing, instead of the final grade or result of such an activity. Dealing with learning issues is easier than dealing with emotional challenges. We can find a tutor or work with the system. What we need immediately is time and space to build a solid and effective solution.

Education is counterintuitive

Do not expect the school to help you each time such help is needed, yet do not be surprised if the school offers you the help that you need. In every school for every child, there are good and bad teachers.  A couple of years ago we had an interesting conversation with our friend whose children go to the same school as ours. She absolutely hated the music teacher that taught our children to love guitar (he happened to give the friends’ child old and dusty equipment), and absolutely loved the math teacher who instead of teaching math called my wife every day explaining why our child was daydreaming and interfering (my child was simply bored by the unimaginative teacher) .

Numeracy itself is not something we should take for granted. 100 years ago not everybody could read, write and use math. Neither evolution nor social norms prepared us for ubiquitous education. (Jews and Koreans were in a better situation than others, because Jews had a single book everybody needed to know and Koreans had a writing system a  Korean peasant could learn in one day.) Successful education guaranteed a good job. Lack of education did not block the career path.  Now it is just the opposite: everybody has a great education and a fear of losing his job to foreigners or AI, and without a good education most jobs are inaccessible.

Math is even more counterintuitive and most children do not understand it. Very few people are capable of understanding sufficiently complex math. We did not evolve to handle abstract mathematical manipulations, and we need to learn that from scratch. To make things worse, good mathematicians prefer to work for startups and large companies where the financial benefits are much better than in school.  There are many people claiming to hold the secret of teaching math at any age, but the best teachers I saw work with young children. If your child fails in math during his first years in school, he will struggle afterward. (Contrary to popular belief, Einstein was great in math already as a child.) Fortunately, if you can pay for good tutors in the early part of your child’s education, he is likely to succeed in math afterward.

Leveraging financial capabilities

If you have a high IQ you are likely to earn more than people with lower IQ. If you have a lot of money, you can provide a better education for your children.

Better education does not actually have to be expensive or hard. If the child learns music and is athletic, he will on average score better at school.  Music and sport are not very expensive.

Private schools or housing in areas with great public schools tend to be very expensive.  If you do not live in the USA, your child can be pretty happy with a regular public school. In any case, occasionally there is a need in a tutor.  It is the parents’ responsibility either to tutor the child themselves or to hire a great tutor.

Tutors are not required 24/7. Usually, students need tutors for a couple of weeks, after long disease or absence of the student or of the teacher. For example, during high school, my physics teacher was on two maternity leaves,  so my parents had to hire me a tutor. 

When starting a new subject,  some children need specific guidance. Anna often helps children to address differently the way they schedule their activities and organize their workplace, the way they address history and language and so on.

After the age of 13 the children can speedread. Teaching the child speedreading enables the child to find everything needed online with minimal effort.  The easier the homework becomes, the more likely the child to complete it successfully.

Preparing the backpack

OK, so we could teach the kids wonderful things during the summer vacation and now it is time to send them to school. What can we do just before sending our children to school?

The most important thing is set together with the child the goals for the upcoming year. What are the expected results? Which difficulties are anticipated? How can the family handle them? Understanding the alternatives before handling the situation reduces the risk of critical mistakes in due time.

A relaxing family vacation may reduce stress and prepare both the child and the parents for the first weeks of school.

A short glance through the reading materials may build up the curiosity. Maybe do this together with the child?

Many anxieties have to do with people and physical environment of the classes. Knowing which friends continue to the next year and visiting the school physically may help. Use visualization as much as you need. Address various “what if” situation to make sure you are prepared.

Parents who can afford it set up some money for tutors. If the child falls behind in his studies, the earlier this delay is handled the better the results.

Same goes for emotional coaching. How will you and your kids handle bullies? Whos help can you enlist dealing with social issues and motivation crisis?

Maybe you as parents want to research some things online, to improve your toolset and refresh your memory…

The common mistake

The most common mistakes people make is trying to squish months of learning and homework into a single week before school. It is better to rest and build up resilience than to overwork and come stressed to the first day in school.  If you happen to miss something, you will have the entire year to catch up. Be ready to use your time wisely in the months to come, and come armed with motivation and focus and some financial backbone. Do not let your children get overexcited either. Better be calm and confident.


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