Relieving School Performance Anxiety: Parenting the Whole Child

March is my busiest month. For many of us we look around the corner hopeful for the first sign of spring. But for children and teachers it means the ushering in of a season of high stress and pressure as school testing is right around the corner.

As a past teacher of 24 years, and now a pastoral counselor and play therapist, I truly understand what brings on the deluge of calls from frantic parents of anxious children during this month. School superintendents are instilling fear into principals as multiple faculty meetings occur where strategies are planned to make certain that a school has high achievement and not egg on the face. Teachers then return to their classroom armed with practice tests and trepidation regarding how their students might perform. Of course, all of this gets passed down the innocent child who feels the stress in the air.

Even though I loved teaching, I could no longer stand by and watch young children cry at testing, suddenly moan of tummy aches and headaches. I could no longer be the person who took the testing mandates down to the child’s level. Now I am on the other side as I counsel children and help them to cope with a system that I believe often robs them of the pure joys of childhood and learning.

I’ve counseled the child who was a straight “A” student who was told by his teacher that if he failed the mass school testing he would not be promoted to the next grade. Another child shared the story of his teacher crying as the principal scolded his class. The principal felt the class did not do their best. This child was carrying guilt because he believed that he was the cause of his favorite teacher’s tears.

Dr. Sam Goldstein and Dr. Robert Brooks, authors, of Raising Resilient Children (New York, NY.: McGraw-Hill , 2001) say, “We have designed a very competitive childhood as a means of trying to prepare children to become functional adults. It’s a cruel world, we tell children, ‘you have to be on top.’”

We are creating a generation of children stricken by anxiety who define themselves, not as God’s beautiful children, but as who they are based on school achievement. Childhood is being left behind as children are burdened with hours of homework. The rest of their lives are often fully scheduled with tutoring, music lessons, and organized sports. These activities all have the pressure to succeed and compete attached. As Christian parents we might appreciate the value of modeling time to be still and know the peace of God, but many are afraid to do anything less than everything possible to develop their child’s potential to succeed in this world.

Despite a strong body of research on the value of internal strengths, we continue to measure children’s achievement using standardized, quantitative tests. School testing cannot measure traits needed in this world such as faith in God, creativity, collaboration, respect, kindness, capacity to love, social and emotional intelligence, and honesty. And, what about the Fruits of the Spirit?

Grades may determine if a child will make honor roll, get chosen for a scholarship, or be invited to attend a prestigious university. Grades may motivate some children but for children with learning differences or anxiety grades can cause feelings of defeat.

So, what is a parent to do? Teach your children that relationship with Christ is most important. Pay attention to the “whole child,” not just the child who goes school each day but to the child who goes to church, participants in family life, has healthy friendships. Provide time for unstructured play.  Remind your child that he/she has spiritual gifts. Demonstrate a love of learning and a life of balance. Make your home a place where progress not perfection is encouraged. Speak to school administrators about practices that ramp up children’s test anxiety. Pray for your school and their staff. Daily show your child the unconditional love of Christ.

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Kathy has experience as an elementary educator, teacher trainer, adjunct professor, and has served as Family Resource Director for a major hospital. Kathy is a Kentucky Licensed Pastoral Counselor and is credentialed as a Registered Play Therapist/Supervisor by the American Association of Play Therapy. She is owner of a private practice, Path of Life Ministry, in Wilmore, KY.

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