As parents, we sometimes fall into the trap of believing our children are too young to be stressed. We are the adults with bills and obligations, after all! Well, it turns out that kids feel the pressure, too. The high school students that I teach experience moderate to high levels of stress on a daily basis, particularly at the end of the year. What’s on their minds? Standardized tests, midterms, finals. Schedules filled with sports and extracurricular activities. Social media and relationship troubles. My students find themselves overwhelmed by school while simultaneously feeling unprepared for the level of planning, prioritizing, and time management that’s required to be successful. Is it any wonder our children seem paralyzed with fear when we ask them to begin studying for a high-stakes test?
Identifying positive anchors
We want to help our children to navigate their world with increasing independence and we also want to find ways to reduce their stress. Creating positive anchors can do just that! An anchor is an emotional association with a person, place, or object. Adults use anchors all the time without realizing it. Think of the athlete who refuses to wash a pair of socks before the big game, because he associates that one article of clothing with winning — or the executive who will only order a double mocha latte before a presentation because she knows the smell of coffee means success. We might call these beliefs superstitions, but they are actually positive anchors that create links to our thoughts and emotions. If anchors can create such a strong feeling of confidence for adults, how can we use this concept to help our children?
End of the year projects, major essays, and exams can be particularly daunting. A paper that’s worth 100 points plus a test that’s 20% of a total grade can equal anxious and procrastinating students. Replace that cup of coffee and the big meeting from the example above with a special pen or pencil and a final exam. As small as it may seem, having a special object on hand will help students feel like a task is manageable. And how about finding an equivalent to the baseball player’s socks mentioned earlier? Help your child pick out an outfit from her closet that reminds her of a family camping trip, for example, bringing to mind crackling fires and s’mores - and complete relaxation. If she wears that outfit on test day, see the difference in her demeanor as she walks out the front door. She may not even realize her brain is actively making the connection, but the clothes she wears for that big exam can help make her feel more relaxed.
Avoiding the downward pull of negative anchors
Unfortunately, not all anchors are quite so uplifting. The weight of some just drag us down. When I walk into the dentist’s office, I experience anxiety and apprehension. I have had some neutral experiences with my dentist, with uneventful cleanings, but I have had enough fillings, crowns, and the dreaded root canal to create an emotional anchor to that office that weighs me down the moment I walk through the door. Does your child ever feel that way about a class or a teacher? Does a test in that same class make him even more apprehensive? Encourage your child to move to a different seat in the classroom. (Depending on the teacher’s policies for seat assignments and your child’s self-advocacy skills, you may need to help your child practice asking the teacher for a change of seating, or help crafting an email to make the request.) Sometimes making small adjustments to the environment is enough to neutralize a negative anchor or at least lighten its downward pull.
Finding an extra edge during final exams
For students who struggle to meet expectations, using the concept of anchors can be powerful. Even students who just want that extra edge during finals often find that having a special object at their desks or in their backpacks during an exam can improve performance. Explore with your child the anchors in his or her life, both positive and negative. Then, create new positive anchors for stressful situations, and make changes to the negative anchors that already exist. Anchors can weigh us down with negative memories or can ground us to feelings of confidence and relaxation. We can use this strategy to empower students so that they maximize their potential, even during this pressure-filled season of final exams and other end of year assessments.
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Karen Johnson is an executive function coach, learning specialist, and credentialed public school teacher with over 15 years of experience in education. Passionate about helping children become more effective and efficient students, Ms. Johnson designed a specialized program that earned her Bay Area high school lead school status with the Coalition of Essential Schools. Ms. Johnson has presented her ideas on best practices at conferences and has worked as a mentor teacher and an educational consultant. She lives in Massachusetts with her four children.