Dear Dr. Fournier:
My son is in the fourth grade in a private school. He has been at this school since kindergarten and has done well academically, but recently has begun having trouble breathing and stomachaches during school. I took him to our pediatrician, and was told he is suffering from stress-related symptoms.
I do not know how to handle this appropriately. I want him to continue to do well in school, but I do not want him to become so stressed out about it that he has physical symptoms! What can I do?
Donna G. Brooklyn, NY
When we hear about having “problems in school,” we invariably think about the low-achieving student. When it comes to consistent academic achievers, all too often those who assume that the student “has it all together” overlook their problems. Just as lower-achieving students might find themselves falling back on survival skills by giving up and taking an “I don’t care” attitude, high-achieving students might find themselves unable to develop coping skills against what can hurt them: the fear of failure. When I explain the necessary skills that a student needs to develop to parents, I explain that success is built around these three:
BASIC SKILLS: (Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, Speaking and Listening) taught and learned to completion. LEARNING SKILLS: strategies appropriate for the individual child instead of the group, enabling meaningful learning. COPING SKILLS: to deal with their realities, what was happening to them and around them, so that it would not interfere with learning.
W hen I mention coping skills, many parents either raise an eyebrow or simply gloss over the fact that I include them as a major component to academic success. However, they are just as important as the tangible basic and learning skills to the overall success and sense of “I can do” in a child.
A child who does well academically but has been diagnosed by a physician with physical signs of stress already tells us that he or she has not developed coping skills to deal with the educational environment. Consider the possible messages:
1. I accept the importance of doing well in school, and I fulfill my responsibilities. I am learning and achieving – my grades prove it.
2. Even though I am doing well, someone might think there is something wrong with me. What if I am not smart? What if I make good grades because I try hard, and one day someone finds out I am not smart? What if I cannot keep up and my parents and others find out?
3. I know more is coming, and I need to continue to do well in class. What if I can’t do the new work and start making bad grades?
WHAT TO DO
Speak with your child and let him know that his physical wellness comes before anything he is learning in school. Let him know that you will help him in decreasing his stress.
Ask your son to keep a diary of when he begins to feel any of his symptoms at school. Have him write what has happened, what he is thinking or what he fears could happen. Next, work with your child’s teacher, physician or a counselor to analyze the diary. Do symptoms occur during a certain subject or task? Is there a specific time of day during which symptoms are worse? Just be sure that the meetings with these professionals do not increase your son’s stress by embarrassing him.
Be open to any answers. For example, your son might be stressed out about going to the library because he does not like to be silent. He might be afraid of not being able to finish board work, or that the teacher might get upset with the class (and that includes him).
Once you identify potential causes, help your child develop some coping skills. For example, if your son is afraid of going to the library, get a timer and practice at home. Help him understand that what seems like an eternity at school is actually half as long as his favorite TV shows and that he can cope with the expectation. Perhaps even a daily affirmation may prove to be helpful as he get older.
Physical illness is a sign of stress turned into distress. As parents, we need to listen to those messages and deliver an appropriate response.
CONTACT DR. FOURNIER