“She’s fully capable of doing her homework – her teachers all say that – but she just cries and says she can’t do it.”
That’s Sarah, telling me about her daughter Zoe who is 11 years old.
Zoe’s mom came to me because she was worried that Zoe was stressed out and not coping well with the increasing workload at school.
This is a common concern many parents have. In fact, children’s stress levels in Hong Kong increase by 60% when they enter primary school, according to a 2017 joint study by the Hong Kong Pediatric Society and the Hong Kong Pediatric Foundation.
Academic pressure and rising stress levels often go hand in hand, but it doesn’t need to be this way.
Even though increasing workloads from school are unavoidable, it’s how we prepare our children for that which can make a big difference in how they can cope with it.
Here are two strategies to help your child tackle school-related stress.
ONE: Identify Their Mindset
During early primary school is when children can begin to identify themselves through labels and words, such as smart, shy, funny.
There’s nothing wrong with being able to describe oneself. But if a child sees who they are as fixed and rigid, they become less likely to try things that might contradict those views.
Even seemingly positive descriptions like ‘I am smart’ can lead a kid to have a harder time dealing with setbacks.
If they are not immediately good at something, they may feel it is evidence of them not being smart anymore, and so will not want to try again.
Children are constantly placed in situations that require them to challenge and push themselves. When a child believes that who they are and their abilities cannot change, they will regularly feel defeated and stressed.
On the other hand, children who believe they can change are less likely to be depressed, research published in the journal of Clinical Psychological Science found.
They can feel more confident and capable to deal with stressful tasks.
Back to the story of Zoe: She was failing to cope and felt increasingly stressed out, not because she wasn’t capable, but because of her mindset about her abilities and personality.
The words that Zoe uses to describe herself hinted that she saw her traits and personality as fixed. She would describe herself as, “I don’t like maths because I’m not good at it” and “I don’t like asking my teacher for help because I’m shy”.
Challenge your child’s labels
One thing that I worked on with Zoe was around changing her beliefs and views.
The goal was for Zoe see that her traits, personality, and abilities are not set in stone and that she could improve even in areas that she would think “I’m not good at it”.
The key is helping them reflect back on a time where they were able to overcome something that they found challenging.
The key is helping them reflect back on a situation where they were able to overcome something that they found challenging.
It helps them see that they are indeed capable and can get better at things they find difficult now.
Over time, the words that Zoe used changed. Instead of saying she wasn’t good at maths, she would say, “Yea, maths can still be hard, but I tell myself that I can give it a try.”
Zoe’s mum was also very happy to see her daughter tackle homework with fewer breakdowns and increased motivation.
Encourage a can-do attitude
By helping your child move away from static and fixed views of who they are, they begin to see that their behavior and effort can positively influence an outcome.
This is how children develop resilience and the ability to give difficult things a try. With this mindset, they are less likely to feel stressed out by challenging tasks.
TWO: Teach Problem-solving
The next thing Zoe and I worked on was strengthening her ability to problem-solve on her own.
Zoe, like a lot of other children, felt easily stuck and would give up right away.
Children with poor problem-solving skills are more likely to feel defeated, think that they are not competent, and experience more anxiety when stressed.
Whereas students with better problem-solving skills feel more motivated and have fewer negative feelings when faced with challenging study tasks, researchers from The Netherlands discovered.
Problem-solving is a mental muscle—it just needs to be exercised often.
When your child is feeling frustrated or helpless and is asking for help, of course you want to take that pain away.
It’s not easy, but you’ll want to fight that natural inclination to step in and solve your child’s problems for them.
When your child comes to you saying they can’t solve a problem, you have to go against your natural inclinations to fix things for them.
Rushing in with a solution reinforces to children the message that they cannot do it on their own.
Instead, spend time listening to your child, ask them about their problem, how they feel about it, and then gently guide your child to try brainstorming and exploring solutions.
Children are capable of solving their own problems, and are naturally quite resourceful and creative, too.
Problem-solving is a mental muscle—it just needs to be exercised often. And although it might feel extremely uncomfortable for you (and also your child) to not offer a solution right away, guiding them to develop their problem-solving skills ultimately makes them stronger.
Growing up can never be free of stress, sadness, and frustrations, which is why we need to nurture and cultivate our children’s belief in themselves and in their capabilities to handle all the problems that get thrown their way.