Usually when I see a young patient, and have appropriate testing done, I am able to form an effective treatment plan that often leads to improvement in the child’s learning and behavior. But every summer I find children who improve because of something else: no school. Take Mrs. Pollack and her daughter Julie, for example. Julie, who’s twelve, has attention, learning, and anxiety issues. She finds it difficult to shift focus, maintain, and direct her attention. And that is especially true when she gets nervous, which happens whenever she is challenged by doing new or difficult things. When her mom brought her in last July, she said, “Suddenly Julie has so much less trouble paying attention. She focuses better. Her summer math tutor can’t believe the difference! She’s calm. She listens. Life is so different.“
Julie gave a shy little smile. And I thought, “There it is again. No school, no anxiety.”
So many of the students I see who have learning disabilities or problems with attention that affect schoolwork also have anxiety, and the anxiety is often as much of an obstacle to learning as the learning disability itself. Severe anxiety often makes a child shut down. The child can’t get a sentence out when called on in class, can’t think, can’t learn.
Over the summer two things happen that relieve anxiety, so the child does much better. One thing is that the pressures of the classroom, the stress of constant evaluation, grades, exams, peer reviews, deadlines and due dates all disappear. The other is that the pressure of parental expectations diminishes too. The parent who has been anxiously reminding the child of what is due and when, who has agonized over grades, who has withheld treats when a child fails to do well, who has been forced to regard monitoring their child’s schoolwork as part of their own workload, is finally able to relax. This is an enormous relief for the parent. It’s an even bigger relief for the child.
Every summer I find myself wondering how much better my patients might do if schools had different priorities. Every year I have at least a few parents who wonder the same thing, and consider changing schools or turning to home schooling. These are drastic solutions. Home schooling in particular has the drawback of making it harder for the child to form the daily relationships that foster mature socialization. Fortunately there are more moderate steps to take.
For every parent who notices an improvement in a child’s behavior, focus, or ability to take in new information over the summer, and hopes to maintain a diminished level of stress, here are some recommendations.
The first is that you mentally take note of what your child is like in a low stress environment–happy, eager, more attentive–so you’ll notice later if there’s a big change once school is underway. It might be nice, if age appropriate, to discuss your observations with your child.
The second is that you consider ways to alter the child’s learning environment to decrease anxiety. This might mean a change in schools. It might mean that you seek out a teacher who is especially patient, nurturing, and flexible.
The third suggestion is that you assess your own behavior around the issue of your child’s education. In a difficult economy it is natural for parents to place even more stress on academic performance. Getting into the right school, the right class section or the right college might seem essential to later success in life. I could cite countless examples of parents who focus obsessively on such issues. One father, told that the prestigious private school he had chosen was too competitive an environment for his son, exclaimed, “But what will he say when someone asks him where he went to high school?” I suggested the answer could be, “Chicago.” After further discussions with the Dad he self diagnosed his own anxiety disorder and asked for a referral for therapy. The child benefitted substantially.
The fourth suggestion is that parents begin communicating with schools about their concerns. If the classroom environment is having a negative impact on a child’s ability to learn, the school should know about it. Help your school to address the issue of how we create and accept an environment that leads to anxiety for parents, kids, and those who teach them.
The fifth suggestion is the easiest to follow. Savor the time when you and your child can relax. Feel what it’s like to live without those school year stresses. Let the pleasures of summer work their magic.