Performance Anxiety in Children

School children of any age can experience classroom-related performance anxiety. Parents and pediatricians are noticing more stress and anxiety symptoms in children than ever before. This anxiety can sometimes overlap with panic attacks, sleep disturbances, and depression. The pressure can come from well-meaning parents, teachers, siblings, friends, and even the students themselves. Parents often struggle to find the balance between encouragement and guidance as they work to help their kids understand that the result is not as important as the effort.

Education is a crucial part of your children’s lives, and academic grades are how we measure their progress. Because of this, it is easy for students to feel that grades are the most important aspect of school. This misconception fails to see the real goal of expanding the student’s knowledge, understanding, and critical thinking skills. So how do you communicate that grades aren’t everything without undermining their effort?

The answer is not clear cut.

Depending on your child’s unique needs and personality, you may need to consider adjusting your approach. A student who is putting too much pressure on themselves requires a different approach than a student who needs firm encouragement to get out the door and attend class/school.

As you might guess, spending quality, non-screen time with your child and being involved in their life is a good start. Through genuine interaction with your kids, you’ll gain a better understanding of their interests, struggles, and goals. As your interactions deepen, you begin to build trust and rapport. With that trust, you can convey that their effort and behaviors are more important than their academic performance. As you effectively communicate that and continue to listen and engage with your child, they will adapt, settle into healthy social habits, and very likely will begin to participate more fully in classroom discussions and activities (which frequently leads to higher comprehension and performance in school).

For the high-pressure students
When the pressure comes from the students themselves, they need reassurance that perfection is not the goal. Encourage them to make room for fun activities with friends and take breaks between classes and homework. Talk about the learning process as the essential part of education. Show them you are proud of the effort they are putting into reaching their goals, but highlight that your love is not conditional. It’s vital to reassure them that their behavior towards you and their friends is more important to you than their grades.

For the students who need encouragement
A child who needs encouragement to walk out the door to catch the school bus will most likely also need some convincing before they start their homework. It is okay to set expectations when it comes to studying. Be sure to explain that while you understand they are not interested in school, it is critical as they mature. Studying is their role in the household and you require them to put some effort into it. Make sure they understand that you are not looking for perfection, but effort and willingness to try.

Start a conversation about the goals and expectations they have for themselves (both academic and not). Be sure to think about what your expectations and hopes are for their grades, and why. Discuss how they can reach those goals and come to an agreement on a plan that balances academics with their personal passions and interests.

For the students who are doing well
If your child is currently doing well in their academic journey and extracurricular activities, without too much external or internal pressure, examine your approach. An evaluation will help you determine if your affection and positive reinforcement might make your child feel like their performance is more important than the learning experience. Adjust as necessary, and avoid showing signs of disappointment and anger if they perform differently than you expect.

Recognize stress in a child
Being worried about an upcoming test is not unusual. The desire to perform well can be a great motivational tool that helps a child study and prepare for an exam. Stress and anxiety become a problem when the student can no longer deal with the tasks at hand, fears about failing become too overwhelming, and changes in behavior occur. Other clues to look for to spot performance-related anxiety in children include:

– Tantrums and meltdowns during homework or in class
– Feeling ashamed when making mistakes
– Inability to concentrate
– Trouble sleeping
– Less time spent on hobbies and interests
– Stomachaches, headaches

How you can take the pressure off
The best approach to avoid or help ease performance-related anxiety in your child is to focus less on the grades and more on the process of learning. Steer clear of rewards and punishments related to their grades and test results. Treat all passing grades with the same excitement level, encourage more study time, and offer to help or tutor if the child is struggling with a subject.

Another way to reduce stress is creating a routine that includes studying, fun activities, and relaxation. A structured day will help children know what to expect and minimizes their concern about their efforts and performances. While some subjects may take more time to comprehend, it is important to include breaks and positive activities between study sessions. Communicating and spending time with your child will help you determine which classes need more attention and how to prioritize based on the individual need.

Having a hobby is a great distraction and a tool to help them take their minds off school. If your child does not have a particular interest, work together to find an activity that fits the family schedule. To minimize the chances of the activity interfering with academics, have a well-structured week and healthy routine.

Read our previous blog post about raising resilient kids to find more tips on how to build their strengths and cope with stress and anxiety.