Ask the Experts

“I Have a Student Who Is Too Stressed to Learn”

Learning and stress go hand-in-hand in children with ADHD. Here are some tips for teachers and parents to help children avoid negative behaviors by relieving the anxiety caused by stress.

Q: “I have a fourth grader who seems very stressed out and anxious. She is constantly being told to hurry up or corrected by several of her teachers. I know she feels stress over completing an assignment. She feels inadequate and embarrassed. I know this kind of chronic stress affects kids’ brain functioning, behavior, social skills, and academic learning. The question is: Can I do anything to relieve the stress, not add to it?”


Many students with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) know there’s something that makes school hard for them. But without a full understanding of the condition and what they can do to lessen its impact, kids are often overwhelmed by feelings of frustration and impending doom.

You are right when you say that chronic stress affects kids’ brain functioning and behavior. Kids under stress often clown around, are negative about learning, avoid tasks, or bother other kids. Experienced teachers and parents understand that many of these negative behaviors are attempts to avoid the stress of learning by getting out of situations that make them feel like failures. Here are some tips to help you do that:

Help Kids Understand ADHD

When students understand that ADHD is an explanation and not an excuse, it’s easier for them to buy into strategies that allow them to be successful. Kids can be educated about ADHD and how they can achieve success despite this condition, or sometimes because of it. The task of demystifying ADHD can be carried out by a knowledgeable teacher, a trusted clinician, like the psychologist or pediatrician who diagnosed the condition, or a school nurse, social worker, or guidance counselor, and by the child’s parents.

Use Confidence-Building Strategies

Integrate strategies that strengthen executive functions — skills that are so important for a student with ADHD. When you teach and encourage the use of special techniques in the context of real lessons, you create a form of “on the job training” that increases success and builds confidence.

  • Have a student use graph paper to work out long division problems.
  • Provide kids with rubrics or outlines to help them organize and plan their work.
  • To promote focus, ask kids to underline or color-code key words, like nouns or verbs, or mathematical signs on worksheets.

Teachers who give credit for using these cognitive strategies, in addition to grading the quality of a student’s work, send the message that these skills have value and that using them pays off.

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Find the Student’s Ability Level — and Meet It

Ask the student to rate the difficulty level of the task on a five point-scale, with a 5 rating being the most difficult. Then ask the student to rate her ability to do the task. If a student gives a 4-5 difficulty rating to a task, and gives her ability a 1-2 rating (“I’m a loser”), this is a perfect storm for frustration, stress, and failure.

I suggest a “target zone” of level 3 difficulty paired with a competence rating of at least 3. This 3/3 combination is the ideal zone for productive learning because it puts kids on what I call the “cusp of their competence,” the place where they think the work is “kinda hard” but “I’m pretty sure I can handle it.”

Increase the Student’s Confidence

If the student feels the work is too hard, ask, “What could you or I do to make this task seem a bit less difficult?” The answer might be: “Doing one problem at a time, and not all these at once!” If the student’s rating suggests that she lacks the skills, say, “Let’s go back to the last one (like this) that you did, about which you felt more competent. I’ll have you do a couple at that level, just to get you back in an ‘I can’ mode, and then I’ll have you pick one that’s just a little harder.”

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