Q: My 6-year-old will be entering first grade this year. She had a good first year of kindergarten in a classroom run by an experienced, loving, organized teacher who made the best of kindergarten having to be all day and overly academic.
My daughter struggled with anxiety about new routines; she was worried about knowing the rules, learning new material fast enough and doing the right thing at the right time. She lost a lot of weight as this was going on. She ended up doing well and gaining confidence (and her weight back).
She is already talking about dreading first grade because it’s so much more work, and how by fifth grade it’s no fun at all, just learning and tests. It bothers her that she hasn’t learned to read yet, and she clearly feels academic pressure already.
At home, we do not talk about academic expectations, are careful to praise process over product and spend our time on unstructured activity. How do you have a positive conversation about what’s going on academically in school when, as a parent, you feel like they’re pushing reading way too much, too early? How can you support what’s going on in school when you disagree with it? We talk about how people learn at different rates and give examples, but how else can I encourage my daughter to take the academic pressure off herself? [Edited for length.]
A: Thank you for writing. Your question is, “How else can I encourage my daughter to take the academic pressure off her herself?” But what I’m reading is far more than pressure. I see two issues: a possible anxiety disorder in your daughter, as well as your deep dissatisfaction with the educational system.
Let’s begin with anxiety in children. Worries in children are completely normal, especially when it comes to school. Your daughter was nervous to go to kindergarten? Totally expected. When the worries become pervasive and result in weight loss and dread for the future, all my flags go up. The question is, though: Is your daughter responding to a high-pressure situation with an age-appropriate reaction, or are her anxieties outsized, given her environment?
To be sure, the academic nature of kindergarten, the testing, and the pressure to read and write earlier and earlier is placing an undeniable weight on young children’s shoulders. A 6-year-old is not meant to be tested and pushed to learn, and though some pressure for children is healthy and helps them become braver, for many, the academic weight is a stealer of joy and intellectual curiosity.
Given this information, does your daughter have an anxiety disorder? I don’t know, but I see two ways to move forward:
Find an excellent therapist, and have your daughter evaluated. Anxiety is the obvious go-to, but sometimes anxiety is the symptom of another issue. Giftedness, ADHD, learning disorders and more can cause anxiety, so treating it may not get to the root of the cause. Testing will (hopefully) help clarify the next steps, but whatever the outcome, it is useful for you to meet with the school with your findings and develop a plan for your daughter. There are 504s and IEPs that can offer support for your daughter. Also work with school counselors and administrators to cull as much adult support as you can.
Move schools. It is clear that you have a deep disdain for your daughter’s educational system, and though you report that you are positive about learning at home, I wonder whether your feelings are leaching into your daughter. When you have serious doubts about your pedagogical system, it can be difficult to authentically persuade your daughter to feel relaxed and confident. Moving schools would allow you the space and time to see whether your daughter is anxious across all academic settings (then we are back to seeing the therapist), or instead, to witness whether she flourishes in a better-matched academic environment. Montessori, Waldorf, Reggio Emilia, charter schools, home schooling; there can be many choices for alternative learning depending on where you live. It is absolutely worth casting a wide net to meet with other parents who have their children in alternative learning settings, investigate the choices, and see what is possible for your daughter and family.
In the meantime, there are a slew of resources out there for anxious children and the parents who love them. Stick to maintaining a strong routine of the big three: sleeping, eating and exercising. A strong routine brings great ease to the worried mind, especially for children. I also recommend the website HeySigmund.com for practical and evidence-based information. I also like anything by Tamar Chansky. Good luck.