Helping Children With Anxiety With Homework

Most students dislike doing homework, but do it begrudgingly. Children who feel anxious about going to school or test taking may also exhibit apprehension when faced with homework. But, like it or lump it, homework isn't going away anytime soon, so it's crucial to help your anxious child conquer homework fears.

In her book, Overcoming School Anxiety, Diane Peters Mayer tells parents that how they react to their child's homework anxiety will play an important role in her overcoming it. There are important skills and techniques that aid in managing and taming the homework beast that any child can learn. Here's how you can set your child up for success:

  1. Talk to your child about her fears, find out what is troubling her, and reassure her that you support her and that together you will find solutions to her problem.
  2. Communicate frequently with your child's teacher. Keep up-to-date with what work is required, and with what is happening in the classroom.
  3. Control your frustration and anger if your child does not want to do homework. Be firm but kind about her having to complete homework assignments and tell her that you will be available to help and support her efforts.
  4. Decide with your child where her homework workspace will be. Make it comfortable and special. For example, help your child paint or decorate her own homework space or desk.
  5. Create a flexible homework schedule with your child, how much time she needs to spend, and when and where it will be done. When it is completed, reward your child with appropriate praise, time spent with you, a special TV show, and so on.
  6. Limit TV and computer time. Find educational programs, reading material, creative projects, and activities that reinforce the content of the homework.
  7. Make reading and learning an important family pursuit that is fun and exciting.  

Exercise: Managing the Homework Load  

Step 1 Decide on what rewards your child will have during her five-minute homework breaks. Ideas are to have a healthy snack, free time, a story or part of one, putting the pieces of a puzzle together, and so on—but breaks do not exceed five minutes.

Step 2 Determine how long your child will work, making it age appropriate. Start with a short time, five minutes on and five minutes off, or ten on and five off, and gradually lengthen work time as the child's anxiety eases and confidence and abilities increase.

Step 3 Tell your child that you are going to help her feel less stressed about homework by breaking up the pile of work into small pieces that she can handle. She will do homework for a predetermined amount of time and then she will get to take a five-minute rest and choose one reward, then work, rest, and so on until homework is completed. The completed work will be put away (it doesn't exist anymore), and the next assignment taken out (for right now, this is the only homework she has.) This is repeated until all homework is finished.

Step 4 Now, have your child place all the homework on the table.

Step 5 Ask her what assignment she wants to work on first. Put it aside.

Step 6 Now have her take all of the other books and papers and put them away in a closet or another room. Say to her, “See, they don't exist anymore. You're only going to concentrate on the moment, doing the work in front of you.”

Step 7 Set the clock for the desired work time. Have her work until the alarm goes off, and then take a five-minute break. Repeat until all homework is finished.

Troubleshooting: If your child is young, or has severe homework anxiety and doesn't believe that breaking homework into small pieces will make it less stressful, try this: show your child an apple and say, “I want you to try and eat this apple without taking bites from it or cutting it up into piece.” Of course it won't fit into her mouth. Then have her take bites or cut up the apple. “See, now it is easy to eat. It's the same with homework. We're going to take small bites out of it so it goes down easier.”

You can make a positive difference in stopping homework anxiety for your child. The caveat is that it will take effort, determination, patience, practice and time on the part of both parent and child. Although progress may be slow don't give up; eventually it will work to you child's benefit.

Next Article: Homework Happiness: Make Studying Fruitful and Fun

Sometimes anxiety is easy to identify — like when a child is feeling nervous before a test at school. Other times anxiety in the classroom can look like something else entirely — an upset stomach, disruptive or angry behavior, ADHD, or even a learning disorder.

There are many different kinds of anxiety, which is one of the reasons it can be hard to detect in the classroom. What they all have in common, says neurologist and former teacher Ken Schuster, PsyD, is that anxiety “tends to lock up the brain,” making school hard for anxious kids.

Children can struggle with:

  • Separation anxiety: When children are worried about being separated from caregivers. These kids can have a hard time at school drop-offs and throughout the day.
  • Social anxiety: When children are excessively self-conscious, making it difficult for them to participate in class and socialize with peers.
  • Selective mutism: When children have a hard time speaking in some settings, like at school around the teacher.
  • Generalized anxiety: When children worry about a wide variety of everyday things. Kids with generalized anxiety often worry particularly about school performance and can struggle with perfectionism.
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder: When children’s minds are filled with unwanted and stressful thoughts. Kids with OCD try to alleviate their anxiety by performing compulsive rituals like counting or washing their hands.
  • Specific phobias: When children have an excessive and irrational fear of particular things, like being afraid of animals or storms.

Here are some tips for recognizing anxiety in kids at school, and what might be causing it.

Related: What to Do (and Not Do) When Children Are Anxious

Inattention and restlessness

When a child is squirming in his seat and not paying attention, we tend to think of ADHD, but anxiety could also be the cause. When kids are anxious in the classroom, they might have a hard time focusing on the lesson and ignoring the worried thoughts overtaking their brains. “Some kids might appear really ‘on’ at one point but then they can suddenly drift away, depending on what they’re feeling anxious about,” says Dr. Schuster. “That looks like inattention, and it is, but it’s triggered by anxiety.”

Attendance problems and clingy kids

It might look like truancy, but for kids for whom school is a big source of anxiety, refusing to go to school is also pretty common. School refusal rates tend to be higher after vacations or sick days, because kids have a harder time coming back after a few days away.

Going to school can also be a problem for kids who have trouble separating from their parents. Some amount of separation anxiety is normal, but when kids don’t adjust to separation over time and their anxiety makes going to school difficult or even impossible, it becomes a real problem. Kids with separation anxiety may also feel compelled to use their phones throughout the day to check in with their parents.

Disruptive behavior

Acting out is another thing we might not associate with anxiety. But when a student is compulsively kicking the chair of the kid in front of him, or throws a tantrum whenever the schedule is ignored or a classmate isn’t following the rules, anxiety may well be the cause. Similarly, kids who are feeling anxious might ask a lot of questions, including repetitive ones, because they are feeling worried and want reassurance.

Anxiety can also make kids aggressive. When children are feeling upset or threatened and don’t know how to handle their feelings, their fight or flight response to protect themselves can kick in — and some kids are more likely to fight. They might attack another child or a teacher, throw things, or push over a desk because they’re feeling out of control.

Trouble answering questions in class

Sometimes kids will do perfectly well on tests and homework, but when they’re called on in class teachers hit a wall. There are several different reasons why this might happen.

“Back when I was teaching, I would notice that when I had to call on someone, or had to figure out who’s turn it was to speak, it was like the anxious kid always tended to disappear,” says Dr. Schuster. “The eager child is making eye contact, they’re giving you some kind of physical presence in the room like ‘Call on me, call on me!’ ” But when kids are anxious about answering questions in class, “they’re going to break eye contact, they might look down, they might start writing something even though they’re not really writing something. They’re trying to break the connection with the teacher in order to avoid what’s making them feel anxious.”

If they do get called on, sometimes kids get so anxious that they freeze. They might have been paying attention to the lesson and they might even know the answer, but when they’re called on their anxiety level becomes so heightened that they can’t respond.

Related: Tips for Beating Test Anxiety

Frequent trips to the nurse

Anxiety can manifest in physical complaints, too. If a student is having unexplained headaches, nausea, stomachaches, or even vomiting, those could be symptoms of anxiety. So can a racing heart, sweaty palms, tense muscles, and being out of breath.

Problems in certain subjects

When a child starts doubting her abilities in a subject, anxiety can become a factor that gets in the way of her learning or showing what she knows. Sometimes this can be mistaken for a learning disorder when it’s really just anxiety.

However anxiety can also go hand in hand with learning disorders. When kids start noticing that something is harder for them than the other kids, and that they are falling behind, they can understandably get anxious. The period before a learning disorder is diagnosed can be particularly stressful for kids.

Not turning in homework

When a student doesn’t turn in her homework, it could be because she didn’t do it, but it could also be because she is worried that it isn’t good enough. Likewise, anxiety can lead to second guessing — an anxious child might erase his work over and over until there’s a hole in the paper — and spending so much time on something that it never gets finished. We tend to think of perfectionism as a good thing, but when children are overly self-critical it can sabotage even the things they are trying their hardest at, like school work.

You might also notice that some anxious kids will start worrying about tests much earlier than their classmates and may begin dreading certain assignments, subjects, or even school itself.

Avoiding socializing or group work

Some kids will avoid or even refuse to participate in the things that make them anxious. This includes obvious anxiety triggers like giving presentations, but also things like gym class, eating in the cafeteria, and doing group work.

When kids start skipping things it might look to their teachers and peers like they are uninterested or underachieving, but the opposite might be true. Sometimes kids avoid things because they are afraid of making a mistake or being judged.

Dr. Schuster notes that when kids get anxious in social situations, sometimes they have a much easier time showing what they know when teachers engage them one-to-one, away from the group.

Read More:
What Is Social Anxiety?
What Is Separation Anxiety?
What Does OCD Look Like in the Classroom?
How Anxiety Leads to Disruptive Behavior

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