Expert tips for helping your child overcome educational anxiety

Words by Nathalie Grainger Bradbury

01 July 2020

Educational anxiety is real. No matter how much your child loves school – especially the ‘socialising with friends’ part – exams, assignments and grades can all add up to “stress”.

Here’s some expert advice on the best way to support your child through the academic years.

Fuel for the brain
Nobody performs well when hungry. Anxious children can also lose their appetite, so it’s important to ensure they eat regularly - even if it’s small snacks - and that their diet is healthy, nutritious and balanced. Cut out the sugar, gluten and white flour-based foods as much as possible, as research suggests they increase the production of anxiety chemicals in the brain. Instead go for fresh fruit, yogurt, and plenty of protein – a handful of nuts, a chunk of cheese, or a glass of milk can do wonders to calm the nerves and feed the brain.

Sleep beats stress
“Getting enough sleep is vital to our wellbeing and mental health”, says Matthew Walker, Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at University of California, Berkeley. In his book, Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams Walker includes a long section on dreams acting as a soothing balm. He states that deep sleep – the part when we begin to dream – is “a therapeutic state, during which we cast off the emotional charge of our experiences, making them easier to bear.” A lack of sleep also negatively affects our mood. Brain scans carried out by Walker revealed a 60% amplification in the reactivity of the amygdala - the reptilian part of the brain that responds to danger – in those who were sleep-deprived. In children, a lack of sleep has been linked to aggression, bullying, and even more serious mental health issues. Children can struggle at bedtime if they’re feeling anxious, so it’s important to stick to a regular routine to ensure that after-school activities, homework and dinner don’t spill over into bed time. A good calming regime is also recommended: a warm bath, soothing music, soft lighting and even a meditation app like Calm or Insight timer, which features many useful relaxing sleep stories, as well as music for children.

Stick to the programme
Children thrive on routine and reassurance – knowing what’s in store for the next day or week ahead is of huge comfort. Work with your child to create a fun timetable with stickers or magnets on a whiteboard, outlining school activities, upcoming events, projects, play dates and family time. Also, collaborate with them on the creation of imaginative school lunches, picking out clothes and doing homework together, so it feels supportive rather than isolating or overwhelming.

Encourage open discussion
Meal time is a great environment to engage in light-hearted conversation about your child’s day, and any issues or concerns they have about school, so you can provide advice and reassurance. Providing coping strategies and finding solutions together will empower your child. You can also set aside time or fun ways to stimulate positive conversation: listening to music, drawing, role-play, walking the dog or even on the drive to school. Ideally, the situation should offer some sort of distraction that reduces the intensity while keeping your child engaged.

Enjoy the great outdoors
It’s important to carve out chunks of outdoor time that allows your child to play and burn off energy and stress. The balance between activity and downtime is vital in maintaining a child’s sense of purpose, wellbeing and getting them to understand the need for being active and inactive. Book them into a fun class or activity they are interested in, to help boost their fitness, self-confidence and so they can mix with other children. It’s equally important to have a regular routine at the weekend to extend this.

It’s ok to be bored
In today’s tech-charged world, it’s important for children to understand that being bored is OK and that from inactivity comes the chance to process, daydream and boost imagination. Early years advisor Rose Hutchinson feels strongly that “children’s lives shouldn’t be over scheduled - let them get bored, do not insist that every experience be ‘educational’. They need lots of fresh air and exercise and to eat together at the table as a family. These may sound obvious things, but you’d be surprised how many families I work with don’t do any of these things.”

Ditch the tech
There’s no preventing exposure to technology and it has its advantages, such as providing broader opportunities for learning and development. Yet research confirms the mental ‘chatter’ of being online increases a child’s anxiety levels and stimulates the brain in ways that are not conducive to sleep or headspace – a space we all require to process our experiences. Limit your child’s time online and ban tech from the bedroom, as not only does staring at a blue screen eat up precious leisure space, but it also has some psychological consequences. Matthew Walker believes there’s a lot to be said for “clean” sleep, given the effect of LED-emitting devices on melatonin, the sleep-inducing hormone. This is the prime time to favour books over iPads.

Keep an eye on behaviour
Every parent knows their child best, so if you sense they are stressed or anxious, talk to the teacher or school counsellor to see if they have been behaving differently. The aim is to understand where anxiety stems from and ensure you are equipped with the right tools to support your child emotionally and academically. As a parent, your behaviour and stress levels are equally as important, and children pick up on these and react accordingly. It’s important to be confident, calm and reassure your child that any of your moods have nothing to do with them and that they can always air their fears and concerns. A sense of humour and staying engaged and present goes a long way too.

And finally, consider a tutor
It’s a fact that if your child is struggling at school or in a specific area, it will be getting them down and could cause them to behave badly as a result. Jess Harris, Head of Education at Quintessentially believes engaging a tutor for additional support will help keep your child on track, as well as offer educational expertise in subjects that need to be strengthened. “Do some research into private tuition and talk to a tutor about your concerns and the options available. Engaging a tutor, even for a short period to tackle an issue, will boost your child’s confidence, help overcome issues at school and increase their academic performance.”

Need some tips on helping your child feel comfortable in school, or want a tutor to supplement their studies and boost confidence? Contact our education specialists to find out how to get the right support: [email protected] or +44 (0) 203 073 6839

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