March 5, 2018

Let’s welcome Sharon Montcalm as this week’s guest blogger who talks of school stress and how to help your children cope!

We have all heard the words at one time or another in life- “Stress is a good thing. It serves a purpose.  It helps you get things done.” Well, if you have a child who stresses regularly about school then you may be wondering where is the good in all of this. And what purpose is this serving for my child? And most of all, how in the world do I help my child be okay when school stressors get in the way of having a good day?  

Ideas on How to Understand and Deal with Stress

Use the ideas below to help your child and yourself develop some healthy ways to understand and deal with school related stress and to know when it’s more than a passing phase.

   1. Take Care of the Feelings


It’s important to help kids know that all feelings are really okay to feel especially the hard ones like fear, anger, sadness, and frustration. Connecting and validating your child’s feelings allows for a more open pathway to helping the child learn emotional regulation from you, their parent who loves them unconditionally.  Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson’s book, The Whole Brain Child gives parents easy to understand brain science based strategies for developing healthy emotionally balanced brains which leads to healthy better balanced daily lives. Sometimes, just sitting with your child during their struggle is what the kid needs the most. Especially, if the child is in full blow meltdown mode, then refrain from using “talk” problem solving strategies until the storm has passed because their ability to to logically process is not available to them until the brain resets from the emotional stressor. Siegel refers to this as connecting right brain to right brain to provide support and understanding of the child’s feelings.

Once there’s a state of calm,  move on to simple connection sentences that fit the situation.  An example could be, “It makes you mad when math doesn’t make sense,” or, “Subtraction can be confusing,”. Now, it can be hard at times to validate feelings when the stressor makes no sense to us as the parent.  For example, the child who is crying and upset because they can’t draw a tree for each season showing what it would look like in that season. Yes, this is a real homework dilemma. So what’s a parent to do? Identify and validate the feelings, make the connection to the right side of the brain that deals with emotions/creativity/experiences because once the right side calms down then it’s ready to play with the left side brain of logic. “This assignment is really hard for you. It’s frustrating that the trees don’t look like you want them to look.Tell me how you would like it to be.”  And wait for the child to lead on what to do next.

        2. Create Positive Problem Solving Pathways

Once, the emotional flood of the stress inducing crisis subsides it’s important to teach your child different ways of viewing difficulties in school. Set aside a few minutes each day to practice one of these activities to build up confidence and understanding.

  • Rose, Bud, Thorn is a  game to review the day in short sentences using a rose as a metaphor for feelings and events of the day. The Rose is something good that happened today, the Thorn is something yucky and the Bud is something to look forward to tomorrow. Notice the Thorn is sandwiched between the Rose and the Bud because that ends the activity on a positive note. Use a visual of a real or silk rose, bud and thorn for kids to hold so they can feel and see how petals look, thorns feel and buds are getting ready to bloom. Or go outside to look at real roses, thorns and buds.
  • Rate the Day is for ages 6 and up. This game builds an understanding that each day is different and some parts of a day may be better than other parts which instills hope that things can get better. Use a hand drawn number line 0-10 on a piece of paper.  Explain the scale that a 0 day is an awful, no good very bad day while a 5 day is okay nothing terrible is happening but there’s also nothing wonderfully wonderful and if a day is a 10 then it is pretty awesome spectacular kind of day. Have the kids draw feeling faces to go with the numbers.This activity can be adapted to a shorter scale or just feeling faces.
  • Positive Talk, Leads to Positive Thought  is a sentence replacement strategy that helps kids turn negative self talk into more positive self affirming statements. Kids needs to learn how to not let a passing feeling become a permanent self identifier. So, if the words, “I am so dumb” come out of your child’s mouth then it is time to stop and help them find new positive words.“I am stupid” can become, “I feel stupid when I can’t spell the words right but I am working hard in spelling,” Or this one, “I just can’t do this. It is too hard,” can become, “I can learn to do this. It just takes time to learn. I am learning how to ______________. It will get better,”. Write replacements statements down to reference- colorful index cards work great. Make it fun. Keep it positive, keep it short
3. Develop Emotional Understanding Through Books

Children’s literature is a natural place to find characters who children relate to in familiar situations like school, home and friendships.  Now, some of the characters might not be human, but kids really do not care if it’s a happy pig or sad bunny or even a silly dinosaur. Kids are looking for shared common experiences in stories. Listed below are four books that I have found helpful when working with stressed out kids and their parents: 

Wilma Jean Worry Machine by Julia Cook  

Wilma Jean does worry and stress about everything at school. Julia Cook writes awesome stories for kids, parents and educators to help children develop self-awareness and coping skills. Parent and educator note and tips in the back.  

Leo the Late Bloomer by Robert Kraus

Leo is doing what Leo needs to do, but it’s different than the other animals in his class.This is a classic story of how we all develop at our own speed with support, love and understanding.

The Pout-Pout Fish Goes to School by Deborah Diesen

Pout-Pout struggles through his first day of school until he finds that help is available. This story is great for practice in turning those negative self talk statements into positive declarations.

The Dot by Peter H. Reynolds

I love this book!! Even when we think that we can’t draw a masterpiece, we can still start with a dot and see where it leads. This story focuses on taking the risk, going for it and putting the pencil on the paper even when it’s hard.

4. Get Help When Needed

Stress by definition is a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances. The seasonal tree drawing assignment was last month, so why is my child still stressing about science homework?  The keys word is circumstances because circumstances can and do change. But what if your child continues to stress out about school situations, expectations, grades, friends, math, reading and pe and music and art class and lunch. Lunch is a huge one because the menu could change which is a problem when you really want pizza,  but now the choice is corn dogs. Stress can move into worry and anxiety when it becomes daily, debilitating and life changing for the child and family.

Additional Help

Listed below are recommendations for engaging school personnel and getting help for your child at any time during the school year.

  • Call or email the teacher to find out more about what is going on at school with your child?  Ask specific questions about whatever is creating the stress for your kid. Does the teacher see the same stress at school? Does the teacher have concerns about your child?  Teachers need to know what’s going on at home with school assignments and other school related concerns.
  • Seek out the school counselor for questions and suggestions on ways to help with school related stress. School counselors are superb at knowing the social and emotional needs of children at different ages and stages. Set up a conference with the school counselor and teacher to share information and determine the level of need for the child along with possible school provided interventions.
  • If your child continues to struggle with school stress for longer than a few weeks, then it may be time to seek therapeutic help from a specialist in child mental health such as a play therapist, professional counselor or social worker. These specialists can offer extensive, individualized therapeutic services in many different ways to best suite the needs of your child and family.

Just Remember…

One of the great things about a school year is the cyclical nature of time; there’s always a beginning, middle and end to each academic year. It’s like a giant 9-10 month project that can be broken down into manageable pieces with different experiences, different people and different opportunities all leading to completion. School related stress is one of those experiences that can sometimes occurs during this long project, but it can be addressed, explored and supported. Parents, take heart you are helping finish this project. At times serving as the senior project manager while other times stepping into a more supportive assistant role as your child grows, matures and takes the lead at their own speed.  Remember, it takes time to be a kid.


Resources and References

  • The Whole Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your  Child’s Developing Brain by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D.
  • Positive Talk, Leads to Positive Thought activity based on Strategy 8: Let the Clouds of Emotions Roll By- Feelings Come and Feelings Go from The Whole Brain Child  Siegel and Bryson, pg. 103.
  • Rose, Bud, Thorn activity is one passed down from fellow school counselors over the years.
  • Rate the Day is my adaptation of a Likert rating scale that better suits school age children.


Sharon Montcalm, LPC, CSC
Ms. Montcalm is a Licensed Professional Counselor, Certified School Counselor and  Owner of Kid Time Counseling in Denton ,TX where she happily serves kids, families and educators. Sharon spent sixteen years working as a public school counselor experiencing school days with  students ages 4 to 18. It takes time to be a kid.

About the Author

Jen Taylor, LCSW-C, RPT-S is an EMDR Approved Consultant and Certified Journal to the Self Instructor.  She is a therapist specializing in complex trauma, an international play therapy teacher and a published writer of multiple play therapy chapters.  Jen is the creator of the original 2017 Play Therapy Summit and many other innovative programs for mental health professionals.  Jen uses writing therapy, play therapy and expressive arts for her clients and for other mental health professionals so they can lead more joyful and meaningful lives.  Jen encourages people to try new things and create daily habits that allow for incremental progress towards previously unimaginable results.   Jen is a travel enthusiast, an avid reader, and a girl who lifts weights and runs for fun.  

  • This was a great read, thank you. I really like the Rose, Thiorn, Bud strategie and I’m looking forward to using it with my daughter!

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