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Special Report - Student Stress Starts Early

WebMD Feature

Student Stress Starts Early
The Problem: PrematurePressure by Parents, Peers

Call it pressure. Call it great expectations. Whatever its name the result is the same: school stress.

By Daniel J. DeNoon
WebMD Medical News

It starts as soon as kindergarten. It turns play into competitive sport. It turns the joy of learning into a struggle to excel. It turns friends into social connections and charitable acts into a line on a resume.

In his 31 years of teaching, Richard L. Hall, PhD, has never seen a more stressful time. Hall is assistant headmaster of Atlanta's Lovett School, which enrolls some 1,500 students from pre-kindergarten through high school.

"It can be overwhelming," Hall tells WebMD. "Students are put in a position of feeling they just must not stop. They are not given a sense of support. They are put in an environment where they are not accepted for themselves but only for what they are going to achieve. All this builds stress."

Stress and Distress

Stress itself is not a bad thing, says child psychologist Brenda Bryant, PhD, professor of human development at University of California, Davis.

"You are not really truly alive without stress," she tells WebMD. "Being challenged makes you learn new things and keeps your brain functioning. In all the major theories of learning, there is stress. But if stress is really interfering with development, that is a problem. Sometimes with too much stress kids get immobilized."

It's a fine line for a parent to walk. On the one hand, a child needs age-appropriate limits and guidance. On the other hand, parents often refuse to let the learning process run its course.

"We don't need to apply pressure to get kids to perform," says Karen DeBord, PhD, a child development specialist for the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service. "Building on children's inner motivations is most important. Instead of paying kids a dollar for an 'A,' tell them how proud you are of them -- and say, 'aren't you proud of yourself?' If they perform only for our reward, that is not the greatest thing to teach them. That makes them like the people who come to work just for the money, and always complain about the job. Who could be more of a drag to be around?"

Hall says it's just not fair for parents to demand higher standard for their kids than they themselves face.

"Parents are too often very preoccupied with seeing their children succeed and intolerant of anything other than excellence," he says. "We as schools and we as parents need to remind ourselves that sustained excellence is not natural. It is not how we, ourselves, operate."

If a child is incapacitated by stress, it may be necessary for the family to seek professional help from a child psychologist or child psychiatrist. But with stress as with so much else, prevention is the key.

Preventing School Stress: The Bottom Line

Here's everything you need to know about keeping healthy stress from becoming distress:

  • Spend time with your children.
  • Give your kids a stable home environment. Negotiate home rules -- including consequences for rule breaking -- and stick to these rules.
  • Don't just talk to your kids. Communicate with them. When children misbehave -- and they will -- try to understand their behavior instead of merely punishing it.

"Listen to your young person," Hall says. "Acknowledge and accept his or her needs. Know that school is a long-term process. One immediate success or failure is not going to determine a child's life. Growth will happen. We parents can and must learn to accept that growth -- and the fact that it is going to be unpredictable. What we can do is show constant love and support and presence. That is the most important message: that we are there, and that we love them and support them."

Part of this support is setting up a daily routine.