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Anxiety & Panic Disorders Health Center

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Your Child and Anxiety: School Stress Starts Early

Student Stress Starts Early. The Problem: Premature Pressure by Parents, Peers
WebMD Feature

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

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?"

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