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How to make school life a little less difficult for kids

Actually useful ways to help children with homework, bullying, and mental health.

Allie Volpe is a senior reporter at Vox covering mental health, relationships, wellness, money, home life, and work through the lens of meaningful self-improvement.

In early 2020, around the onset of Covid-19 lockdowns, Jessica Mungekar noticed her seventh grade honor student, Layla, retreat. “I knew that she felt really uncomfortable and she wanted to fall into the background,” Mungekar says. “She didn’t want to be noticed and I didn’t quite understand it.”

Meanwhile, Layla was keeping the source of her pain secret from her mother: She was being bullied and was struggling with her identity as a biracial teen in a predominantly white town. Layla feared if she told her mom about the extent of the bullying, Jessica would have called the school, making the problem even worse.

Things came to a head the summer before Layla’s first year of high school when she shared with her mom details of a traumatic event. Layla urged her mother not to make decisions on her behalf in the aftermath. Instead, Jessica went into what she calls “mama bear mode” and made demands of her daughter: Cut off contact with these friends, join these extracurricular activities, you are only allowed out of the house during these hours. Layla felt like her autonomy was being taken away.

Over the course of a few months, mother and daughter worked to repair their relationship and communication. Now, Jessica says she is sure to listen to Layla instead of immediately offering advice, validates her daughter’s feelings, and gives her freedom to express herself. For her part, Layla confides in her mother all the time, even about her dating life. Her friends often seek out Jessica for counsel, too. “She’s become a safe place where people go to get advice,” Layla, now 16, says. “She’s joyous and doesn’t pass judgment.”

Students are faced with a daily barrage of potential stressors: a demanding course load, tricky social dynamics, managing both their time and emotions. In a four-year study designed to estimate the prevalence of mental disorders in kindergarteners through 12th graders, findings showed one in six students exhibited enough symptoms to meet the criteria for one or more childhood mental disorders, such as anxiety disorders and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. According to a 2019 Pew Research Center report, 61 percent of teens said they felt a lot of pressure to get good grades. About 22 percent of 12- to 18-year-old students reported being bullied during the school year in 2019, per a National Center for Education Statistics survey. None of these statistics takes into account the toll of the pandemic, which set students back academically and had negative effects on their mental health.

Once kids leave the house, parents and other adults in their lives have little influence on their students’ school days. Unable to witness or guide children through the difficulties in and out of the classroom, parents often get piecemeal or incomplete views of how their kids spent the last hours, especially if the child is young and can’t adequately verbalize their struggles or frustrations. Signs that a student may be experiencing hardship at school include increased irritability, difficulty sleeping or lack of sleep, and changes in appetite, says Jessica Kendorski, the chair of the school psychology department and professor at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. They may also say they feel sick in order to stay home, when in reality they may be stressed or anxious about school, Kendorski says.

Another indicator of a struggling child includes extreme people-pleasing, says Meredith Draughn, the school counselor at B. Everett Jordan Elementary School in Graham, NC, and the 2023 American School Counselor Association Counselor of the Year. High school students may also exhibit a “freeze” response, Draughn says. “It’s like well, that kid just doesn’t care, right? That kid’s super apathetic,” she says. “What we find when we dig into it more is they’re so overwhelmed by everything that’s happening that they just choose to do nothing because they don’t know how to address it.”

What, then, is the right way to support the students in your life? The tactics will vary based on the age of your child and the issues they’re facing. Regardless of your approach, experts say to always keep your kids in the loop of any decisions you’re making about their emotional and academic success.

Encourage growth mindset tactics for academic achievement

From homework to challenging classes, students experience a number of academic hurdles. Sometimes, they may fail a test or drop the ball on a project. While some students may criticize themselves (“I’m not smart enough”) or claim the material was too difficult, parents should promote a growth mindset: the ability to learn from setbacks, implement new processes, and improve. “You want to praise the effort and the strategies that they used,” Kendorski says. “If they fail something, you want to talk through ‘Why did you fail this? Let’s talk about what you can do to be successful next time.’”

A fixed mindset is one where people believe their skills are set in stone and they have no possibility of improving. When students in his classroom share fixed mindset sentiments like “I can’t do this,” elementary school teacher Josh Monroe is quick to amend the statement: “You can’t do this yet.” The power of yet helps students “understand that you don’t have to know it all right now — and it’s important that you don’t, that’s how you grow,” he says.

While it’s crucial to encourage a growth mindset with students who use negative self-talk, like “I’ll never learn this” or “I’m not good enough,” a fixed mindset can also backfire if you constantly tell a student “You’re so smart,” Kendorski says. “When things start to get really difficult, you might find kids that don’t want to take chances,” she says, “because they think that if I fail, I’m going to lose that ‘I’m so smart’ title.” Instead, she says, focus on accomplishments based on effort and strategies: “I’m really proud of you for organizing a study group with your friends.”

To help ensure your kids get their homework done and prepare for tests, Kendorski encourages a routine: dedicating a time and a place for schoolwork. If your student retains information more effectively if they study for a little bit each day instead of cramming, offer that as an option.

When the kid in your life asks for help with homework and you’re a little rusty on, say, algebra, don’t feel ashamed to admit you don’t know how to solve the problem, Draughn says. Monroe recommends the online educational tool Khan Academy, which features videos that guide both parents and students through all levels of educational concepts and lessons. For additional academic resources, reach out to your student’s teacher who will know about after-school tutoring sessions or extra guidance, Draughn says. “Going to teachers early and often, when help is needed, is the most crucial part of it,” she says, “because there are those programs, but they do fill up pretty quickly.”

Empower students to navigate difficult social situations with confidence

School can be a social minefield, with kids learning how to independently interact with peers and regulate their emotions. If your child shares that they’re being picked on or ostracized in school, Draughn suggests that you first validate their experience and never downplay their emotions. Ask them what level of support they want: Do they think it would be helpful to talk to a school counselor or a teacher? Or do they prefer you to reach out to the teacher directly? In Layla Mungekar’s experience, she would have opted for her mother to not interfere with her social life. “Letting them lead the way on that is important,” Draughn says. “They may say, I feel like I have the tools to handle this — and that’s great. Then you check in. But doing nothing and just not mentioning it again is not going to help anything.”

You might also start counseling your kid on self-advocacy and assertiveness at home, too, Draughn says, helping them identify moments where they should speak out against bad behavior and pointing out trustworthy adults to whom they can report issues, regardless of whether they are on the receiving end or have witnessed another student being bullied. “If someone is making you feel socially or physically unsafe, that’s the time to speak up,” says Tracee Perryman, the author of Elevating Futures: A Model For Empowering Black Elementary Student Success. Again, only reach out to the school yourself after talking it over with your kid.

However, your child may simply be shy and reserved, not the victim of bullying. Perryman says to help build confidence with the kids in your life by reminding them that what they have to say is important and they have valuable interests and insights worth sharing with others.

When it comes to social media, Jessica Mungekar discovered teens will “do what they’re going to do, whether you want them to or not,” she says. It’s better to listen if your child is involved with social media-related conflict, remind them they are not in trouble, and support them as you work to create a plan together. “I think it’s important in this day and age for kids to have social media because otherwise they get [alienated] by their peers,” Layla Mungekar says. “But it’s a lot safer when parents have those conversations, like yeah, this is going to happen and when it does happen, you should feel safe to come to me and not be blamed for that.”

Experts emphasize the transitory nature of school. While it’s crucial for students to apply themselves academically and make strides socially, remind them that one speed bump, fight with a friend, blunder, or bad grade will not drastically alter the trajectory of their lives. “It’s better that I make those mistakes now,” Layla says, “while I have someone there to help me.”

Promote balance to minimize stress

Just like adults, kids can get stressed due to the demands of school and extracurriculars, as well as conflicts with friends and family. If kids are sleeping very late on weekends or too tired to do activities they typically enjoy, like spending time with friends, they might need more balance in their schedules, Perryman says.

Ask your kid directly: “Are you playing T-ball three nights a week because you like it or you feel like you have to?” or “You had three extracurriculars last semester and it was really overwhelming for you. Do you want to pick two for this coming semester?” Draughn suggests. Remind your kid that just because they step away from a hobby now doesn’t mean they can’t come back to it in the future. Make sure students have one weeknight and one weekend day solely devoted to downtime, too, Draughn says. However, don’t discount the fact that sports and other activities can be rejuvenating for kids, even if they’re not resting.

Parents and supportive adults are quick to problem-solve for the kids in their lives, but Kendorski stresses the importance of asking, “Do you want me to listen? Or do you want me to help?” Your child might just want to vent about a tough baseball practice. When Layla wants validation and a hug from her mom, she asks her “to be a waterfall.” When she’s feeling less emotionally charged, then Layla and her mom can problem-solve.

For high-achieving students who may be stressed about grades and college applications, Kendorski suggests asking your kids what story they’re telling themselves about success. For example, they might worry that a bad test grade means they’ll never get into their dream college. Help them map more realistic outcomes by thinking about the absolute worst-case scenario and alternative paths. For example, the worst that could happen if they fail a single test is maybe they get a C for the quarter. But reinforce how if they study and complete all their homework, the likelihood of failing is minimized.

Remember not to make your stress their stress. Children are intuitive and can pick up on how the adults in their lives are feeling, Kendorski says. Instead of turning away from uncomfortable emotions, encourage open communication. If you’re disappointed in a mediocre grade, try saying, “I’m feeling a little bummed about the C on that test, but that’s my issue. I know you work hard and with some more practice, I know you’ll do better next time.”

Parents should always validate their child’s struggles and encourage caring for their mental health. Whether they’re seeking support from a trusted teacher or you think they’d benefit from speaking with a therapist — ask them how they’d feel about chatting with a professional before scheduling an appointment — remind them that “mental health is health,” Draughn says. That matters more than any test score.

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