The 5 Things Parents Can Do To Help Children Thrive In School
1. Teach them how to cope with their anxiety
Anxiety is not something we need to get rid of or ignore. Anxiety is a feeling we all experience in our lives. So whether it is taking an exam, talking to someone or getting up the nerve to get on the school bus, anxiety is a part of life. And anxiety only really becomes an issue when it starts interfering with our lives.
Parents can teach their children how to do deep breathing as a way to work through anxiety. Deep breathing stimulates the vagus nerve that runs along our spine and naturally calms down the body. When the body is calm, it is primed to learn, which will lead to performing better in school.
I also am a big fan of giving anxiety a persona and treating it like a 3rd person. When we can teach our children that anxiety is like a really concerned friend that is there to try to protect us, we can teach them that they can choose to not listen to that friend. They can learn to tell their ‘anxious friend’ that things are not as bad as they seem or that they don’t need to worry, they can handle this challenge.
In both of the above examples, parents are not responsible for taking away their child’s anxiety. They help their child learn how to live through the uncomfortableness of anxiety.
When a child can learn to tolerate their anxiety, they develop resiliency and confidence. Their brains can also learn better because their prefrontal cortex, where logic, working memory and organizational skills are, is able to be fully engaged when the body is no longer anxious.
2. Reduce stress through mindfulness
Mindfulness is a great way to relieve stress in the body. And while you may be skeptical or think it is trendy, the science behind mindfulness is robust.
Mindfulness helps keep you in the present moment. This helps teach children that emotions and challenges come and go. This is particularly helpful because children lack the ability to put things into perspective based on their limited life experience.
By staying in the present moment the body is able to relax, which once again primes it for learning.
There are also several other benefits to teaching mindfulness to your child. Mindfulness helps you expand your ability to focus, pay attention and control your emotions. All of which are critical in order to function well at school. Because of all these benefits, mindfulness is a particularly good tool if your child has ADHD or other challenges with executive functioning.
One of my favorite mindfulness techniques for kids is to have them jump or run for 20–30 seconds. Then have your child sit or lay down with their hand over their heart. Invite them to close their eyes and feel what their heart feels like. Have them notice how long it takes for their heart to calm down and what it feels like in their body once it does. Finally, have your child extend out their senses to notice how the rest of their body feels in that moment. The longer a child can hold on to noticing what they are feeling in their body the calmer they will become.
3. Set up routines and rituals
Whether your child is back at school, distance learning or participating in a hybrid system, routines and rituals are important.
Routines and rituals help children feel safe because they are things that they can predict. It also helps them thrive because they can plan for what comes next easier. When a child feels safe, they are better able to learn. When a child is feeling unsafe or uneasy, their stress response is activated and they get ready to fight, flight or freeze. When a child is in this mode, their executive functioning is no longer online. This makes learning difficult and behaviors more challenging.
Routines and rituals do not need to be big or complicated, but they should be consistent because once again the goal is to create predictability.
One of my favorite parenting tips is utilizing music with your routine. Have your children make up a playlist of songs they enjoy. Then use that playlist as a way to help complete tasks. Music can be played to help them get ready and out the door in the morning or complete their homework after school. Music is very predictable. So for children that have trouble keeping track of time or staying on task it can be an easy way to help them get things done.
One last thing about creating routines. Be careful not to make your routines too rigid. There should always be room to have some flexibility if needed. And it is also important to schedule downtime into your child’s daily routine.
Downtime is a chance for your child to relax and regroup. Something that is critical for us all, but especially for children.
Downtime is particularly important for children who have neurodiversity or learning disabilities because most mask their differences during the school day. Masking uses a lot of energy. This is in addition to the extra energy they are already spending to make up for their underdeveloped executive functioning. This can lead to burnout. If you don’t schedule enough downtime, your children will usually let you know through meltdowns and tantrums.
4. Make good nutrition a priority
If you want to help your child thrive, nutrition is a good place to start. The stomach is connected to the brain and it’s functioning. So if you want to help your child perform better at school, make sure they are eating well.
Always try for a breakfast that is rich in protein to sustain energy throughout the morning. It is also a good goal to eat the rainbow as much as you can and to work in vegetables any way your child will let you.
Try to eat less processed foods since those are prone to giving you inflammation. Inflammation in the gut often leads to inflammation in the brain, which can affect learning and behavior.
Good nutrition can be even more critical for children with neurodiversity and learning disabilities. Because these children are more sensitive to the link between gut health and brain function.
Additionally, a good breakfast is especially important for children taking medicines that suppress their appetite. This often leads to children eating only a little lunch and ending their school day ravenous. This of course impacts their ability to focus and learn as well as making them more prone to behavior challenges.
5. Set goals and celebrate successes.
Goals can really help combat depression as well as create motivation. Goals can get children excited about things while developing the skills of planning, organization, delayed gratification, and problem solving.
Because we are in a time of COVID and there is still unpredictability, goals should be adjusted to account for this. That means, make your goals small so that your child is more likely to achieve them. This will build up their confidence. From there, you can work on building up their stamina for longer or more difficult goals.
For children with neurodiversity and learning disabilities, make sure you are adding in some smaller goals on the way to their big goal so that they stay motivated. Having too big of a goal or one that is too far off may be too challenging. This is due to their struggles with time perception and planning, so adjust the goal to set them up for success.
And of course make sure you celebrate successes. This has been a challenging time for kids. We need to take the time to let them know that their efforts have not gone unnoticed. So celebrate when they achieve their goals, but also celebrate them for when they do something that was hard for them.
Bringing your child’s attention to the good in their lives will help them with their mental health. It can also help them recognize their own resiliency and problem solving. Two skills that are definitely needed for success.