Having worked with students of all ages for many years, I recognize that a person's emotional life has an extraordinary influence on her academic life. I've seen straight-A college students bomb a final exam after the death of a loved one; I've seen elementary students entirely oblivious to in-class directions after being ousted from their peer group. Flourishing in an academic setting is no easy task, and it requires far more than a clever mind and an outstanding work ethic.
As adults, particularly as teachers used to yearly academic changes, we sometimes forget the stress of beginning again in a new school or a new grade. A new school year is fraught with differences, and many of these can be too much for young people to navigate on their own. Friends may not have followed them to their new school, or old friends turn into someone Other, unfamiliar, lost. So friendships bend and break; fashion trends evolve and become the catalyst for a child's continued acceptance within her peer group. Priorities and values begin to shift from friendship to dating; and pimples, appearing rapidly and uncontrollably, cause untold anguish. (That one I do remember.)
And all the while, the pressure to perform academically is never lifted; indeed, it may become more intense. Compounded by the attractions and rejections, the impossible choices, and the humiliations endemic to the teenage experience, academic pressures can sometimes become insurmountable. So how best to help our students stay afloat, both academically and emotionally, through such a turbulent time?
If your child is beginning at a new school, take the time to visit the classrooms and tour the school. One of the best ways to make someone feel comfortable in a new place is to change it from unfamiliar to familiar.
Remind your child that experiencing anxiety before such an extraordinary change is normal--and that such anxieties quickly dissolve. Share a story about your own school days, when terrifying changes actually resulted in best friends, inspiring teachers, and lifelong memories.
Encourage your child to sign up for extracurricular activities, like sports and clubs. The more a student feels like she belongs to a group and has a support system among her peers, the more a strange place will begin to feel like home.
Remember not to sweep your child's emotional and social problems under the rug, regardless of how unimportant they may appear to you. We may not remember how isolating and hurtful a "bad hair day" can be, because adults have more important things to worry about, but young people don't; acceptance by their peers is of the utmost concern and plays a significant role in their mental health for years to come.
Be open to your child's experiences without judgment, and ask her questions that foster such openness.
Remember, no matter what age, we all respond similarly: The happier we are, the better we work and the more motivation we feel. Success isn't so hard to achieve when we first feel like we're valued, like we belong.