News from the school psychologist

Back to School Tips

From The Yale Parenting Center Director
Dr. Alan Kazdin

Back to School

Children are back to school and new routines are now in place which are so different from what they were in the summer. There are two items that are useful to check on for elementary and middle school children. First, performance on homework and academic tasks are important, of course. Here it is useful especially at the beginning of the term, to have a routine for homework time. A time before or after dinner, whatever suits your life, but a regular time is the key. Also, if you can sit with your child and help get homework started, that can be very helpful at the beginning of the school year. If it is ever possible to get the child to chat informally about something interesting that was learned in school while eating dinner, that would be great as well. Maybe each person at the dinner table could talk about something interesting from that day just to get the ball rolling. Parent support for school and learning have great positive influences.

Second, a child's social life (friends, group activities) is important. In fact, getting along with others in school turns out to relate to how well children do academically. Having a friend and at least a little social life leads to better academic performance. Does your child have a friend? Being wildly popular is not so important, but having at least one friend is. If you can bring yourself to have a play date (an afternoon where a friend comes over) or you can get your child to a group activity (lesson, team) all that can help. If your child is a little withdrawn, schedule small doses (an hour) of supervised social events or experiences. Helping your child become involved with peers can be very beneficial. These days supervised time is especially valuable, and it is important to be sure activities are monitored and bullying is not going on. It seems everything like this was simpler in the past. It probably was. We are here now and technology (video games, access to the internet, more violence in the news) and all sorts of related cultural events like these, have made parenting a little more challenging today. The Yale Parenting Center specializes in helping parents with routine but also more severe challenges. If you would like more information or help contact us.

For Parents

Homework Harmony

Back to school means back to homework. If you dread it as much as your kids do, follow these suggestions and tips to make things go smoothly:
  • Establish a distraction free zone
  • Choose and stick to an approximate start time
  • Have the proper materials and let your child choose them
  • Use a daily assignment sheet that the teacher is involved in
  • Stay calm and be specific when you are telling your child to start homework
  • Praise your child's efforts before correcting mistakes
  • Take a break if things get heated
  • Set up a plan to reinforce homework if it is difficult, your child can earn small rewards or privileges for doing it calmly and praise
Posted by J. Davis on Wednesday October 1, 2014 at 09:13AM
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10 ways to keep your child reading this summer

Use these creative ideas to get your child hooked on reading this summer.

By GreatSchools Staff

During the summer, books might be the last thing on your child's mind. Most kids are ready for a break and happy to trade in reading, writing and arithmetic for summer camp, family vacations and lazy beach days. But many studies have shown that children who read when they're away from school perform better academically than those who don't. Here are 10 ways to get even the most reluctant reader engaged in a reading adventure.

1. Use Hollywood to inspire your child to read

Take advantage of movies and DVDs that are based on books appropriate for your child's age. Watching all the Harry Potter movies or renting the DVD of Hoot, based on Carl Hiaasen's first novel for young readers, may pique your middle-schooler's interest in reading the books, if they haven't already. Likewise, the film version of Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory gives you an opportunity to introduce your younger child to other books by the same author, such as James and the Giant Peach or The BFG.

2. Play a summer reading game at your local library or start your own book club

Many libraries offer online sign-ups for these popular summer reading programs. Most have a set reading list and if children read all of the titles within a certain time frame, they win a prize. You could also create your own reading game at home with a chart, stickers and perhaps a grand prize of the child's choice. Another alternative is to get a group of kids together to form a neighborhood book group, where members can discuss what they are reading and/or exchange books.

3. Involve your child in planning your family vacation

Whether it's a trip to the ballpark or across the country, have your child research the players, the sites and even the weather in programs, brochures, guidebooks, a Farmer's Almanac or on the Internet.

4. Start a collection

Help your children become experts on something this summer by starting a collection. Encourage them to visit Web sites, view videos and look for library books to learn more about their new interest.

5. Visit a comic shop

The transformation of classic comic strips like Scooby-Doo, Spiderman and Batman into major motion pictures has renewed an interest in comic books. They make especially good reading material for visual and artistic learners, as they allow readers to make easy connections between picture sequences and written text. Encourage your child to read comics and even create his own comic strip this summer.

6. Read cookbooks and packaged food labels

Have your children select recipes they would like to try. Include them in grocery shopping and meal preparation. Encourage them to read product labels so they know what they will be eating. You might be surprised to find they enjoy family meals more when they've taken part in the process.

7. Read instruction pamphlets

This kind of "practical" reading helps children connect reading with hands-on learning. Reading instructions for building projects, assembling games or blowing up pool toys can give children a real sense of accomplishment.

8. Read the newspaper aloud

Start reading parts of newspaper articles aloud and encourage your child to do the same. Some newspapers even have children's sections. This is a great way to engage your child in conversation and promote his interest in what is going on in the world. Suggest to your child that he read aloud to a sibling or young friend, or volunteer together to read to an elderly person.

9. Get a magazine subscription for your child

There are numerous magazines that are targeted to young kids and preteens. Kids can often identify with the voice and subject matter, and the articles will hold their attention. Even if it's not Swiss Family Robinson, the benefits of continued reading might make up for the lack of weightier content.

10. Be a reading role model

Let them see you read. Read anywhere — the airport, bus stop, doctor's office, swimming pool, etc. If they see you reading for enjoyment, they will want to read, too.

Posted by J. Davis on Monday June 2, 2014
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Top summer learning activities for elementary schoolers

Keep your fourth, fifth, or sixth grader sharp all summer with these fun brain boosters.

By Jacquie Goetz Bluethmann

Rev up reading

For your budding reader, encourage her to find new "book nooks" – in a tree, a cozy corner, or by the pool. (Favorite summer reads for this age: Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, James and the Giant Peach, and A Week in the Woods.) Also, this is the right age to introduce your child to your local library’s summer reading club. Participants get a "passport" to log enough reading time for a prize. Another secret to get your child hooked on books? Try a book series, like these hidden gems for fourth through sixth grade readers.

Even though your child can read by herself, don’t forget to continue reading together. Classics like Little Women or Where the Red Fern Grows are page-turning advanced reads that can help expand your child’s vocabulary and reading comprehension while listening to you read.

Game the numbers

Want to raise a math whiz? Then don’t let your child start next year behind. The National Summer Learning Association reports that, on average, students of all backgrounds lose about two months of math skills during summer break.

So when you're not romping in the sun, use indoor online time wisely with Math Playground, Funbrain, and Math Arcade, sites that turn math practice into pure entertainment. Coolmath4kids lets your number cruncher play games to learn times tables, decimals, and fractions. Visual learners can watch videos on teachertube that make learning fractions fun.

One, two, three strikes your out! America's favorite pastime is chock full of math. For inspiration, check out TeacherFirst on how to create lesson plans around baseball.

When life hands you lemon, make a young entrepreneur! The all-American lemonade stand not only teaches kids about money and sales (making change, tallying earnings), but hones communication (interacting with customers), writing (making signs), and planning skills (What else should we sell? Cookies, sno cones?) Not in a stand-friendly ‘hood? A computer-based game of Lemonade Stand allows your child to do all this virtually, too.

Sneaky science

Experiment with real-life science all summer long – without a lab coat or beaker in sight: Learn what a pulse is and how to take it, use a magnet to find the iron in cereal, and clean dirty water with the sun by taking advantage of Scientific American’s "Bring Science Home" activities, which are based on National Science Education Standards. Field trips to the local planetarium or an after-dinner star-gazing excursion are great opportunities to raise your child’s interest in astronomy. Websites like NASA provide a virtual experience to complement these visits, too.

During quiet time, slip science into your child’s nightly reading – see our recommendations of great science and nature books for your fourth or fifth grader.

For your athlete, America's favorite pastime is chock-full of science and math lessons. The Science of Baseball explains the science behind home runs and the key to understanding curve balls

Let the words flow

To work on writing skills, many teachers recommend that children keep a summer journal. They can chronicle family trips, summer activities, and what they’re looking forward to next year. To keep it light and fun, let your child’s entries vary with short and long entries, short stories, diary-style posts, newspaper-like reports, illustrations, word collages, and even photos with handwritten captions. "Ask your child to read [it] aloud to you," says retired kindergarten teacher Mary Kay Goetz, and "Ask questions about what [he] wrote and why"

For a hip new twist on thank-you notes and postcards, check out iCard, which lets kids create personalized notes for grandparents and friends on the go — meanwhile helping them practice writing and grammar. After camp or a family trip, memorialize the fun by scrapbooking it. Kids should be encouraged to write captions for their photos and to write an overall synopsis of their time away from home, including highlights and low points, and their feelings about each.

In our increasingly tech-oriented classrooms, one skill your child needs — but may not learn at school — is typing! Luckily, there are a few online sources where your child can learn while playing free typing games (check out Power Typing or Typing Olympic on Sense-Lang).

Walk on the wild side

Lazy summer days are perfect for getting outside for some real-life science — touching a caterpillar, chasing lizards, or searching for animal tracks. Take a stroll through a nature preserve, hike a nearby trail, or go bouldering at the base of your local rock-climbers’ hotspot. Along the way, point out different wildlife, flora, and fauna — and introduce your child to the concepts "family trees" (Kingdom, Order, Family, Genus). Talk about where the animals live (nests, boroughs, dens), whether they’re nocturnal or diurnal (See how you can sneak in those big words!), and how plants "eat” sunlight through photosynthesis.

If you’re thinking of hitting the road, see how you can combine your family vacation with learning at a national park. And, if you just can’t swing an in-person look, visit them virtually (You can "do" Yosemite National Park online, too.).

Learning through play

Ready to roll the dice? Family game night can do wonders to help children with spelling and reading comprehension. Games like Scrabble and Catchphrase both build spelling and vocabulary skills. Another fun one — the Scrambled States of America — helps kids learn state capitols and US geography. And the kid-pleasing classic, Monopoly, is terrific for teaching kids to count, add, subtract, and estimate.

Want to tone down the competition? Try a giant family jigsaw puzzle, which helps kids with spatial awareness.

Next time your family hits the road, engage your captive audience in learning. Take the license plate game to the next level by adding trivia by asking, "Which state is the Garden State?", "How many Great Lakes are there?", or "What's the capitol of . . ."

Go, see, try

Who says field trips are just for school? Designate certain days for excursions your child will love: a local historical, art, or tech museum; a traditionally ethnic neighborhood like Little Italy or Chinatown; or a government-in-action spot like a local courtroom or your state capitol. Check out ParentsConnect for listings of activities and sites in your area.

Not close to any good museums? Kids can visit historical places virtually thanks to the Smithsonian’s Library and Archival Exhibitions on the Web, which allows visitors to virtually tour Smithsonian exhibitions past and present.

Posted by J. Davis on Tuesday May 27, 2014
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Help! My Child Is Bossy

By Dr. Lisa Hunter, Child Psychologist


My daughter is very bossy. Her teacher told me that she tells the other kids in her class what to do and how to complete their work. When the teacher calls her on this behavior, she gets upset, but does not change her behavior. At home, I have seen her be bossy with friends. How can I help her be less overbearing?


There are several things you can do to help your daughter be less bossy. First, I'd recommend talking with her about how to be a good friend. During this conversation you should point out ways she is and is not a good friend (i.e., when she bosses her friends around). Once you've established that bossing her friends around is not nice, you can discuss some alternate ways she can interact with her friends (e.g., making suggestions instead of demands, cooperating and listening to the ideas of others)

Chances are this conversation alone will not change your daughter's behavior. Afterward, it will be important to remind her about how to be a good friend and praise her whenever you notice her doing so. When you catch her being bossy, immediately remind her about being a good friend by either whispering in her ear or pulling her aside in a way that does not embarrass her in front of her friends. If she is bossy toward you, point out her behavior and ask her to repeat her request in an appropriate manner.

In school, I'd recommend a similar approach. You and her teacher can talk to her about how to be a good friend in school. Her teacher can praise her when she demonstrates "good friend" behavior and let her know, without embarrassing her, when she does not. It may also be helpful for her to experience some consequences for her bossy behavior (e.g., time out) to learn that it is not acceptable.

Posted by J. Davis on Monday May 19, 2014
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Getting ready for middle school

Prepare your child for the changes and challenges of middle school with these tips.

By GreatSchools Staff

As your child gets ready to enter middle school, both you and she both probably have some concerns. As a parent, you're concerned about her learning enough to be prepared for high school. She's worried about finding her way to English class. You want to be sure she's safe as she travels to and from school by herself for the first time. She's worried about whether she has the right haircut. You both hope she'll fit in, make new friends, and not be too overwhelmed by middle school homework.

As a parent, your concerns are likely to be about the big picture, such as whether middle school will prepare your child for a successful future. She's probably more worried about basic concerns, like knowing how to open her locker on the first day of school. Recognizing this difference in her worries and concerns will help you support her while keeping your eye on her overall progress. Here are some tips to get you both ready for this new adventure:

Help your child get oriented

Call the school to see if there is an orientation for new students, and encourage your child to attend. If there's no orientation, ask if you and your child can go look around a day or two before school starts. Together you can locate important places like the office, his locker, the cafeteria and restrooms. Lockers often top the list of middle schoolers' worries. Buy a combination lock for your child to practice with over the summer. This will keep your child from fumbling with his locker the first day and help him get to class on time!

Practice getting to school and plan for emergencies

If your child will be getting to school on her own, practice the route a few times before school starts and talk about places she could get help if she needed it. Businesses, bus drivers, or homes of people you know are good possible spots for help. Be sure you and your child are both confident in her ability to get to school alone.

Encourage the buddy system

If your child is worried about facing the first day of school alone, encourage him to call a friend from elementary school who'll be attending his middle school and arrange to meet before school or at lunchtime. Making plans for lunch will calm fears he might have about facing a crowded cafeteria alone.

Practice wardrobe wisdom

Shopping for school clothes with middle schoolers can be difficult. Striking a balance between setting limits and giving your child some autonomy can make it easier. First, check with the school to see if there is a dress code. Many middle schools prohibit tank tops, short shorts or clothes of particular colors. Then let your child consult with her friends to see what everyone else will be wearing. It's also a good idea to not buy everything before school starts; this gives your child a chance to see this year's must-have fashions before the clothing budget is exhausted. Give her as much freedom in selecting her wardrobe as you can, but reserve the right to have the final say on what is appropriate.

Learn about school rules

Before the first day, check with the school about policies regarding dress codes, cell phone use, and whether there is an open campus at lunch time. This will help your child avoid accidentally breaking the rules. And knowing ahead of time how the school manages behavior problems like bullying might help your child feel more secure right off the bat.

Help your child get organized

Help her start a to-do list in a day planner or small notebook. This will get her organized for the new responsibilities of middle school. You'll also want to check in with your child about her assignments fairly frequently. She may have more long-term projects or assignments than she did in elementary school or have several tests to study for at the same time. She might need your help at first to figure out how to get it all done in time. This doesn't mean you should do your child's homework. She needs to learn to own her work but may need advice about how to approach it.

Teach time management

Teach your child to make the most of his time by always carrying a book or review sheet with him. Then odd moments like waiting for the bus or sitting in the doctor's office can be used as productive study time. It's also important to help your child establish an evening routine that includes time for homework and any other obligations your child has. This will help avoid the middle school time crunch that comes from having more homework and more time-consuming extracurricular activities.

Stay on top of your child's class schedule

Your child may want more independence about choosing her classes, but you should check with a guidance counselor to be sure she's meeting all requirements and taking all the classes she'll need for high school.

Keep the lines of communication open

Even if it seems as if he doesn't want to talk to you, it's important for you to be available for your middle schooler. Psychologist and parent-child communication expert Dr. Lawrence Kutner recommends these strategies for talking to your middle schooler: Talk with your child frequently about small issues. If he won't tell you how baseball practice went, he won't open up to you about more important issues either. He also recommends that parents talk to kids while driving or cooking, instead of sitting down directly across a table for a chat. It can be less threatening for middle schoolers to talk if they don't have to make direct eye contact. He also encourages parents of middle schoolers to be persistent: "Parents aren't encouraged [by their kids] to keep communicating and kids might not look like they're listening, but they really are."

Beware the bully

Many children are afraid of being bullied in middle school, and it's a growing problem in our schools. Fortunately, many schools now have rules in place for preventing and managing bullying; be sure to find out if your school has such a policy. Teach your child what to do if a bully targets her. suggests telling kids to try not to show their anger in front of the bully, because that will just make the bully feel powerful. Children should ignore the bully and walk away if they can. They should also tell an adult they trust what is happening. You can emphasize to your child that it is not being a tattletale to tell an adult about bullying. Also let your child know that it is not a good idea to fight or bully back. It could get her in trouble, and it is hard to know how the bully will react. If there is a particular time or place when your child often faces a bully, suggest that she try to enlist a friend to be there with her. Bullies are less likely to target a pair.

For more advice on how to help your middle schooler, see Helping Your Child through Early Adolescence from the U.S. Department of Education.

Posted by J. Davis on Monday May 12, 2014
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Talking to kids about tragedy

How to talk to your child about events with no easy explanation.

By GreatSchools Staff

Whether it's a school shooting or a natural disaster, TV images of tragedies may upset and confuse your child. How should a parent talk about events that raise questions with no easy answers?

Experts advise that when your child asks questions, it's important to respond honestly but with answers that are simple and age-appropriate. Limit exposure to frightening TV and newspaper images, particularly for elementary school children. Small children may not realize that a tragedy isn't happening over and over when the TV plays the same images again and again. Here are five more tips and additional resources to help:

1. If your child asks you a difficult question, find out what she knows already so that you can correct misinformation. Be prepared to be asked the same question again as she thinks about issues that trouble her.

2. Be sensitive that some children are especially likely to be fearful if they have experienced a personal loss, such as death or serious illness in the family.

3. When your child asks questions, be aware of your own feelings of shock, anger or sadness. Your child is likely to reflect them.

4. Learn the emergency and communications plans at your child's school. Talk to your child about the steps school officials, the police and community leaders are taking to keep her safe.

5. Encourage your child to take action by sharing concerns about safety with school officials and by developing his own personal safety plan.

Posted by J. Davis on Tuesday April 29, 2014
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My Third-Grader Won't Listen

By Debra Collins, Family therapist


I have a problem with my 8-year-old. I have to consistently repeat myself for him to do what I ask of him, whether it's getting in the shower, picking up his clothes, cleaning his room, turning off the TV, getting ready in the morning for school or getting ready for bed.

I've tried a lot of approaches. I've sat him down, talked to him face to face and asked him if he would rather wait for me to yell at him to do what I ask him. He'll say he doesn't want me to yell. I've gone as far as listing out the order of things that I need him to accomplish while we are driving home. I tell him, "We are going to go inside and the first thing I need you to do is take a shower, then after dinner, I need you to get a book so we can read.", just so there are no surprises and that I'm not repeating myself a million times.

I've stopped yelling and just started talking in a lower voice. At times I just turn off the TV to get his eyes off of it and if it's time for a shower and he doesn't get up to do it, I've changed channels to news or something else to get his attention. Sometimes I turn off the TV, and I find him turning it back on as soon as I turn my back.

How do I work with him on this problem?


Here's the good news: You are open to changing how you approach communicating with your son. No one wants to yell or be yelled out, but parenting is frustrating and sometimes we resort to it even when we know it doesn't work.

Learning is a repetitive process, and it can be difficult to remain patient. You are on the right track by choosing to lower your voice, turning off the TV when you are talking to him (so that he's not distracted) and making clear what your expectations are.

You might want to slow things down a little. Listing everything in the car is a great way to prepare before you get home, but there may be too many tasks for him to remember, or he may not learn as well with verbal instructions.

Hold a family meeting to discuss what the various rules and roles are in the household. Have him make a chart for himself of what his duties are. This can be a visual reminder that he can refer to. Let him negotiate the order he may want to do things and the times. Letting him choose allows him to feel more respected and responsible, and takes you out of the position of constantly having to be the heavy.

We learn social skills and personal responsibility by feeling positive about ourselves and our accomplishments. The more he can be involved with the process, the more motivated he'll be to do this for himself, rather than what he's now learning to do -- tune you out or defy you.

For more help: try these classics: How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish and any of the Positive Discipline books by Jane Nelsen et al.

Posted by J. Davis on Tuesday April 22, 2014 at 12:58PM
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How can I help my children get along?

By Dr. Stacie Bunning, clinical psychologist


My 8-year-old daughter gets angry with her 6-year-old sister for no reason at all. She yells at her and says, "I hate you." Most of the time they play together just fine, but it's those other times that drive me insane. I had a second child so that my older daughter would have a playmate. How can I help her be nicer to her sister?


Sibling rivalry is a complicated issue that has fascinated us since the beginning of time. There are scientific articles, textbooks, biblical stories, novels, television programs, and films on the subject, but no one has figured out how to keep it from happening. Instead of driving yourself crazy trying to figure out why your older daughter resents her little sister, focus on addressing the behavior.

Consider having regular family meetings to increase communication and bring family members closer to one another. In the meetings, every person has a chance to talk about his or her concerns, needs, accomplishments, and activities. Each person is listened to with respect, no matter his or her age or ability to speak. Prior to the first meeting, parents should create a list of “family rules.” Here are some pointers:

  • The list should be short and broad so that lots of things (including chores and manners) can fall under each rule. Make sure the rules are understandable to all family members.
  • Family rules should apply to everyone in the household. Examples might include:

1. We speak nicely to each other.

2. We always tell the truth.

3. We help out when someone asks.

4. We watch TV after homework and chores are done.

  • • Phrase rules in a positive way. For example, “We watch TV after homework and chores are done” is better than “You cannot watch TV unless you do your homework and chores.”
  • Reward family members for following rules instead of criticizing them when rules are broken. Rewards can include praise, allowances, special treats, playing games with parents, or going to the park.
  • Introduce the rules to the children at the first family meeting. Ask for their input, and decide whether to add or change any rules. Be sure the children understand that even though they can provide feedback, parents have the final say.
  • Write the rules on a large piece of poster board, and have the children work together to decorate it. This activity will be their first opportunity to try out the new rules. Praise them if they work well together, and remind them of the rules if they do not.
  • Remember that family rules are flexible and will need to be modified as the children grow and their developmental needs change.
  • Decide together how often to have family meetings; remember that these meetings are the place to check in and discuss how the rules are working.
  • Parents must be consistent in abiding by the rules as well as in doling out rewards and consequences.

For more tips, check out Our Family Meeting Book: Fun and Easy Ways to Manage Time, Build Communication, and Share Responsibility Week by Week, by Elaine Hightower and Betsy Riley.


Posted by J. Davis on Tuesday April 8, 2014 at 02:05PM
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How Can Parents Spot Low Self-Esteem in Their Children?

An expert describes the signs and symptoms of low self-esteem in kids -- and how to spot them in your child.

By Robert Brooks, Ph.D.

Given the many failure situations they've experienced, children and adolescents with learning difficulties often feel low self-esteem and a loss of confidence. In this article, Dr. Robert Brooks addresses the questions: What are the signs of low self-esteem? How hard is it to identify?

Since many youngsters with learning and attention difficulties are burdened by low self-esteem, it is important for parents, teachers, and other adults to be aware of the signs. An increased awareness allows us to have a greater understanding of children with learning differences and to assist them to become more confident and self-assured.

The signs of low self-esteem may vary considerably from one child to the next and even from one situation to the next. Children especially experience low self-esteem in situations in which they believe they are destined for failure. Thus, it is not unusual for youngsters with learning problems to feel most vulnerable in settings in which their learning difficulties are very obvious and exposed, such as in school. Not surprisingly, some of these children feel greater confidence when engaged in an activity in which they feel more proficient, for example, an adolescent boy with learning difficulties who feels "stupid" in school but very self-assured while working on the motor of his car. Unfortunately, for a number of youngsters, a sense of low self-esteem is so pervasive that there are few, if any, situations in which they feel competent.

How do we know when children suffer from low self-esteem? Sometimes the signs are very direct, while at other times the signs must be inferred from the behavior of the children and the ways in which they cope.

Direct Manifestations of Low Self-Esteem

With some children and adolescents there is little doubt they are weighed down by low self-esteem. Their messages — "I am so stupid," "I always do everything wrong," "I will never learn" — capture their despair, sadness, lack of confidence, and loss of hope.

I met Matt when he was a young adolescent. He was diagnosed with learning and attention problems. He lacked confidence and manifested two other signs of low self-esteem, namely, he was depressed and entertained little hope for future success. He wrote a story about school that vividly and directly portrayed the despair and hopelessness of many children with learning problems. As one reads his poignant story, there is little doubt of his struggles with low self-esteem.

School has been and still is something I dread profusely. Going to school has been like climbing up a tremendous, rocky mountain with steep cliffs and jagged, slippery rocks. This mountain is very grey and always covered in dark, murky, cold clouds. I step forth to take on this task of climbing this huge mountain. Each step is a battle against strong, howling, icy winds. The winds contain frigid rain that slams against my body, trying to push me down. I keep battling my way up. Sometimes I am knocked down, and sometimes I have to stop to regain my strength. My body is numb. My hands shake like leaves in the wind as I claw myself up the mountainside. Not being able to open my eyes, I blindly claw myself up the steep cliff. I stop because I am in so such great pain. I look up and see that my struggle has hardly begun. Sometimes I just do not want to go on any further.

Low Self-Esteem Masked by Coping Strategies

While some children are able to express their low self-esteem and feelings of sadness and depression directly, others are not. Many youngsters with learning problems believe their mistakes and failures are the product of factors that cannot be modified, such as a lack of ability or intelligence. When children believe that regardless of what they do, they will not succeed, they develop what psychologist Martin Seligman has termed "learned helplessness." They basically perceive no light at the end of the tunnel; if anything, their vision is filled with images of continued failure.

These youth are in a terrible bind. They do not want to continue to fail and face further embarrassment, but they feel they cannot change the situation. Thus, their only recourse is to search for ways to avoid what they perceive to be further humiliation, and they begin to rely on different ways of coping. In many instances, low self-esteem can be inferred from the particular coping behaviors used by children in their struggles to manage pressure. One of my favorite ways to assess the self-esteem of children is to ask parents or teachers how the child responds to mistakes and failure. Observing the manner in which children deal with mistakes provides a great deal of information about their sense of self-worth and confidence.

It is important to emphasize that all children and adults use particular coping strategies to manage challenges and stresses. Children with high self-esteem tend to use coping behaviors that are adaptive and lead to mastery and growth. A child who is having difficulty with math requests extra help, a child who has trouble catching a baseball spends additional time with a coach practicing this skill, or a child experiencing peer problems makes a concerted effort to engage classmates in a more considerate, thoughtful way.

In contrast, youngsters with low self-esteem are likely to rely on coping behaviors that are self-defeating and represent a retreat from problems, only adding to the child's plight. As we examine some of these ineffective coping strategies that reflect a child's low sense of self-worth, it's important to emphasize that all children may at times demonstrate one or more of these behaviors. Parents often ask me when the use of ineffective or self-defeating ways of coping signals serious problems. As a general guideline, the problem is more significant when the coping strategy has been used for some time, keeps the child from facing problems, and interferes with mastering the typical developmental demands of that age.

Thus, if parents report their child didn't want to try out for Little League but was involved in other activities, or if a child became frustrated and quit doing a task one night but this was not his usual behavior, there is little reason for concern. However, if parents observe their child constantly backs away from challenges or blames others for failure and always appears depressed or angry, there is strong indication the child is struggling with feelings of low self-worth and is seeking to avoid the possibility of further humiliation. The more a child's coping strategies exacerbate rather than improve the situation, the more they may be seen as self-defeating and indicative of low self-esteem.

Examples of Commonly Used, Ineffective Coping Strategies

Quitting: In my clinical practice, I have worked with many youngsters with learning problems who become intensely frustrated when they are unable to succeed at a particular task, prompting them to quit. When they quit, they often offer an excuse, such as the game is boring or the work is dumb.

Avoiding: This coping behavior is closely related to quitting. The main difference is that in quitting the child has begun the task but gives up when failure looms large. In contrast, avoidance indicates the child has refused to engage in the task at all. Many children with learning problems demonstrate this behavior; they will not try out for a play or go out for a team or attempt to do an art project, believing in advance that they will embarrass themselves.

Clowning: Some children hide their lack of confidence by acting silly or clowning around. One perceptive mother, describing her son with learning problems, told me, "Whenever he begins to act silly, I know that he is feeling pressure. Acting silly keeps him from worrying about not succeeding, but it really doesn't work very well."

Controlling: Many youngsters with low self-esteem believe they have little control over their lives, prompting a sense of helplessness. In response, some of these children attempt to take command, becoming dictatorial as they tell others what to do. One child had a great deal of difficulty in his peer relations, always insisting his classmates play the games he wanted to play. Obviously, this way of coping backfired since no one wanted to interact with him.

Being Aggressive and Bullying: Many children and adolescents resort to aggressive behavior as a way of fending off their own feelings of inadequacy and vulnerability. They are prone to seek out victims who demonstrate certain weaknesses. They engage in scapegoating so they do not have to face their own issues of low self-esteem.

Denying: It is not unusual for children with low self-esteem to rely on denial as a way of managing the pain that might result if they were to acknowledge their insecurities. They may deny that they are worried about a school assignment, that they care about how things are going in their life, or that they did not do their homework.

Being Impulsive: Although impulsivity is often a feature of a child's temperament, it may also reflect a coping strategy. Many children with learning difficulties want to finish their work as quickly as possible "just to get it over with" even if the final product is not very good.

The Importance of Replacing Protective Shields with Something of Value

I want to emphasize that even self-defeating coping behaviors were originally "recruited" by children in an attempt to manage stress and humiliation and to maintain a sense of dignity and self-esteem. These coping behaviors represent a protective shield to children, a shield that should not be removed lest these children feel increasingly exposed and vulnerable. The more vulnerable children feel, the greater their desperation in searching for new coping strategies; unfortunately, these new coping maneuvers may prove even more counterproductive than the original ones, so problems become intensified.

Our goal is to help these youngsters feel secure and confident so they can abandon self-defeating behaviors. Next week, I will address questions many parents of children with learning difficulties have asked, especially those whose children have expressed a loss of hope in future success — "Is there hope? Can our children overcome feelings of sadness and pessimism? Can they become optimistic and resilient? Can they lead more satisfying lives?"


  • "Self-Esteem during the School Years: Its Normal Development and Hazardous Decline" by R. B. Brooks (1992), Pediatric Clinics of North America, 39, 537-550


Posted by J. Davis on Tuesday April 1, 2014 at 09:25AM
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Five ways to reduce test stress

Does your child get stressed about tests? Follow this checklist to ease worries about standardized tests.

By GreatSchools Staff

In many states children start taking standardized tests as early as first grade. With the help of the following tips, you can ease your child's anxieties about the test process:

  • Get the facts. Find out the exact dates your child will be tested and which tests he will take this year. Check to see if the tests will be different in any way from the ones he took the year before. Once you know what's happening, you can help your child feel ready for what's ahead.
  • Talk to your child. Find out whether your child is feeling nervous and if so, why. Often children feel better when they voice their fears, so give your child a chance to talk about the process. If your child is afraid of failing or doing poorly, your reassurances will help him feel less frightened.
  • Help your child practice. If your child is familiar with the format of the test, he'll feel more prepared. Ask his teacher or check your state's Department of Education Web site for some sample questions or other materials that can help him get acquainted with the test.
  • Take care of the basics. See that your child gets a good night's sleep the night before the test and eats breakfast that morning.
  • Keep your cool. While tests have increasing importance, they are just one measure of student learning, so try to keep the process in perspective. If you remain calm, chances are your child will probably feel calmer, too.
Posted by J. Davis on Wednesday March 26, 2014 at 10:27AM
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