"I can't find a medical cause for your son's headaches," our doctor concluded after completing an extensive physical examination.
I was thankful for the diagnosis, but not too thankful. It added to my suspicions that school stress might be to blame for Phillip's frequent headaches.
All school-age kids experience worries, but experts from the Gesell Institute of Human Development say 7-year-olds are prone to excessive worry. A child's expanding intellectual ability leads him to ponder concerns he never considered before. "What if I don't have time to finish my assignment? What if I mess up and everyone laughs at me?"
As a teacher specializing in language development, I often encountered another problem. Although most grade schoolers are whizzes at complaining, they're often total flops at describing their real worries. But their unspoken worries do find expression. The Journal of School Health reported that 95 percent of recurrent stomach pain among school-aged children is psychosomatic.
Other signs of school stress include unhappiness or resignation, inability to concentrate, sleeplessness, overreacting to normal events and nervous habits such as teeth grinding or stuttering. An isolated instance of stress is to be expected. Of concern are recurring symptoms.
Here are ways to tackle school stress.
Ask a medical doctor to look for any physical causes.
Document the symptoms, paying special attention to patterns. A headache every Monday morning is an indication that something may be wrong at school.
Encourage your child to talk.
Some kids hesitate to discuss problems, so be patient. If he can't specify what's bothering him, try to pinpoint the task he's participating in when his stomach starts to hurt.
Save your input for later.
If your child blurts, "My teacher hates me," just listen and ask for more details. You may want to balance his perception, but what you need right now is openness.
Our son's second grade teacher posted students' names to remind them that an assignment was due. Because of his work habits, Phillip's name appeared frequently. When I discovered a link between his headaches and the posting of his name, I asked my son how he felt when that happened.
"I think it means she doesn't like me," he said. "She only likes the kids who get their work done fast."
A severe mismatch between a child's temperament or ability and the school program or teacher can create great stress. If your child is a perfectionist, he or she may need your help setting attainable goals. Ultimately, you may need to meet with school officials to advocate a few changes.
And don't overlook the benefits of free, active play (as opposed to organized sports). It's the old-fashioned stress reliever for all boys and girls.
?Faith Tibbetts McDonald
Educator, writer and mother
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