School Year Pressures
There is something magical and a little melancholy about the summer-to-fall transition. The summer season of loose structure, easy expectations, and wandering adventures wanes, paving the way for scheduled shifts and schoolbooks. For most families with children, Labor Day marks the swap of summer fun for the structure, excitement, and expectation of school.
The start of the school year evokes excitement for opportunities and new beginnings, as well as definite stresses for students. New friendships, fresh curriculum, and the promise of progress combine with the ultimate realization that these high rewards come with the discomfort of new learning, obligation, and performance pressures. First-day enthusiasm quickly fades into the day-to-day responsibilities, assessments, and effort that education and development demand. Children, adolescents, and parents alike feel the pressure.
COVID-19’s Educational Impact
This year has presented many with a sense of instability unlike anything in their lifetime due to the COVID19 pandemic. The virtual learning transition in the Spring of 2020 came with a host of accompanying academic, emotional, and social challenges for children and their parents. And, as the Fall 2020 school year commenced amidst continued COVID19 concerns, schools have taken an array of approaches to facilitate learning while navigating the virus. As a result, students have had to adapt to these changing learning modalities. Parents also have high demands in navigating their own career concerns while maintaining their child’s educational progress. This environment has contributed to the already inherently difficult challenges of school. Many families feel stretched too thin, and their reserves are depleted.
Cultivating Resilience, Not Avoidance
Students and parents alike must consider how to best approach these challenges. It sometimes feels best to ignore the challenges, but this ultimately yields minimal benefit. While avoidance behaviors can provide immediate relief, they promote patterns that can contribute to anxiety, depression, anger, insomnia, and low self-esteem. For example, when a student chooses to avoid homework, what may seem to be a relief at first grows into a larger pattern of consequences and distress. The same is the case when a parent feels overwhelmed and avoids addressing noticeable concerns with their student’s academic and emotional health. As the avoidance pattern progresses, more problems emerge.
Hence, using a more proactive approach to coping with the pain of academic and emotional challenges leads to better results. Students who learn to face these challenges directly and reach out for help from their parental and academic teams have better academic and emotional outcomes. In fact, learning these skills as children and teens is correlated with a pattern of better coping throughout the life span. If a person can learn progressively in youth to effectively handle smaller stresses, they can gradually advance to handle larger and more complicated challenges throughout the life span.
In facing these pressures, a psychological approach called Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) offers a pathway to resilience. Developed by Marsha Linehan, DBT marries the effective components of behavioral therapies with Eastern philosophy’s dialectical perspectives. DBT teaches students the skills to embrace that the pressures of school can be both difficult and rewarding, when they face challenges diligently. Leaning into the discomfort, adapting to uncomfortable changes, and skillfully facing problems head-on is rewarding, empowering, and cultivates resilience. Practicing resilience in the face of new challenges is crucial to success in life.
Embracing the Challenge
Facing challenges head on, and building resilience, requires a commitment to doing what needs to be done, not what feels the easiest to do, in the moment. Skillfully embracing the challenge and cultivating resilience includes:
- Identifying goals and potential barriers to success: Develop a clear list of what needs to be done and the barriers to success. Personal stressors, emotional discomfort, skill deficits, and logistical concerns are all hurdles to consider.
- Seeking help from others to face challenges: Identify people who are trustworthy, supportive and honest. Ask for help, accountability, or emotional support – whatever is needed.
- Accounting for lessons learned: Consider the times avoidance or inaction has been the wrong choice, and times when facing the task head-on and cultivating resilience has prompted achievements in the past.
- Taking consistent action steps to overcome challenges: Create a dynamic plan of action. Incorporate how to use a support system, accountability strategies, opportunities for rewards, and most importantly, how to keep going when it seems easier to avoid and give up.
Coping in a healthy way by skillfully facing the challenge, instead of avoiding it, will develop patterns that reinforce effectiveness and success. Making a small sacrifice of time and effort early in the process prevents paying a heavy price later for avoidance. Commitment to this process develops strength and gives a taste of incremental success, fostering a deeper commitment to healthy coping behaviors. For example, when students approach an academic assignment one step at a time and break things down into smaller units, the assignment seems easier to complete. Students can greatly benefit from such an approach in both their emotional and academic lives.
Resources to Help with Effective Coping
The ability to thrive amongst life’s challenges is possible, and it is never too late to cultivate healthy coping skills. Sometimes these skills are difficult to master and a trained counselor can be a great resource for students and parents. A mental health counselor who can craft an individualized plan for students to further develop these skills can have a tremendous influence toward a lifetime of effective coping patterns. At Lakeshore Psychology Services, we can offer both individual and family counseling for students and parents, as well as supportive counseling groups, to build these coping skills and enhance resilience. We offer these comprehensive services to students and adults to assist with a path of success in effectively facing life’s continuously changing challenges.