Why School Stress is Toxic for Our Kids

Chronic stress at school can make kids (particularly those with ADHD or LD) dread going — and change their brains for the worse. But parents and teachers can help alleviate the stress that is stopping these bright kids from succeeding.

A child with a dunce cap, suffering from school stress due to her ADHD or LD

Stress Tests

These behaviors are good indicators that your child may be under stress at school:

> Refusal to do the work (passive or aggressive negativity)
> Devaluation of the task (“This is so stupid”)
> Acting up or acting out to direct attention away from the challenging task
> Acting “in” or becoming depressed and withdrawn
> Exhibiting signs of anxiety (sweaty palms, tremors, headaches, difficulty breathing)
> Becoming engrossed in a task in which he is successful or one that’s fun (refusing to stop writing a story or doing a drawing, turn off a video game, or to take off a headset and stop listening to his favorite music)
> Efforts to encourage (“I know you can do this”) are met with more resistance
> Asking an adult to stay close and help with every problem (over-dependence)


For over 35 years, I’ve carried out comprehensive neuropsychological evaluations of kids and young adults, seeking to confirm, clarify, or rule out a diagnosis of ADHD. I’ve focused on the relationship between attention and the learning disabilities that often go along with ADHD. My role as a diagnostician has been to identify a pattern of neurocognitive weaknesses and strengths, so that I can help my clients and their parents better understand how they learn best.

An important part of the neuropsychological evaluation is to teach students what they can do to overcome or work around impediments to efficient learning. This process is helpful, but it often falls short of my goal of helping a client change his or her learning trajectory. Many times, after I used test results to explain a client’s learning profile or convince a student that he or she had the cognitive capability to do well in school, I heard, “If I’m so smart, why do I feel dumb all the time?”

I felt compelled to find an answer to this question, and set out to do that.

The Missing Piece of the Puzzle

If you’re the kind of parent I’ve come to know, understand, and respect over the years — the parent of a child with ADHD or LD — you’ve probably heard the following words from your child:

“I hate school! I don’t want to go. You can’t make me go!” “I hate my teachers, the kids are mean to me, everything we do is stupid!” “They try to teach us stuff I’ll never need. It’s so boring!”

Getting your kid off to school in the morning can be traumatic for the family. Cajoling, soothing talk, and bribery aren’t always enough to get your kid into the car or on the bus. How many times have you given up and said, “OK, you can stay home, but this is a one-time deal!” Then the tears dry up (yours and your child’s), the mood gets calm, and things seem back in balance. But you know the problem has not been solved. Your spouse shakes his head as he leaves for work, and you feel like you’ve failed again. Your kid seems relieved, but you sense that she feels like a failure, too.

If you haven’t figured out why this happens over and over again (even though your child is a bright kid who acts like an angel as long as she’s not asked to do anything related to school), I have the answer. I’ve come to believe that stress is a key factor in solving the ADHD/LD puzzle. I believe that a better understanding of stress among parents, teachers, and learners is the key to unlocking academic potential. Such understanding will lead to a more satisfying, productive life.


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TAGS: Stress, ADHD and Anxiety, ADHD in Preschool|Kindergarten, Self Esteem, ADHD in High School, Learning Disabilities, School Behavior

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