Back-to-school stress: Why I believe self-advocacy can help

As president of Eye to Eye, the largest national mentoring organization for kids with learning and thinking differences (and an Understood founding partner), I get to talk to a lot of parents. Right now, the biggest thing on their minds is back to school.

Academics is a big concern for many parents. But there’s also a social-emotional side of the new school year, especially the stress and anxiety that kids face.

I understand this firsthand because I went through these struggles as a kid. I remember my ninth-grade year as being a particularly tough back-to-school transition.

During the first week of ninth grade, my English teacher assigned us Shakespeare’s Macbeth to read.

“Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.”

—Macbeth, Act 4, Scene 1

I have and , and I started worrying that reading this play was going to be impossible for me. How was I going to do this? I could feel my hands shaking and my palms sweating — my stress level went through the roof.

It didn’t help that this was my first year of high school. I was in a different building than last year, with new classrooms and a new locker. I didn’t know my way around.

In middle school, I’d been one of the oldest students. The teachers knew me. I had a support system of people I could talk to.

Now I was a lowly freshman, starting all over again. It was scary and nerve-racking.

But it was an opportunity as well. This was a chance for a fresh start. And soon, someone would give me the chance to talk through how I was going to handle ninth grade.

After assigning Macbeth, my English teacher pulled me aside.

“Marcus,” she said, “I’ve seen your . I know you have dyslexia and reading issues. And I know what the IEP provides for you in class.”

I was quiet. Then she continued, “I know all that, but I’d like you to share with me in your own words: What’s going to help you be successful in my class?”

I was a little stunned. This was the first time I’d had a chance to talk with someone who wasn’t my parent or a teacher about the way I learn.

She gently nudged me, and then I opened up.

Yes, I told her, I love to participate in class and share my ideas, but please don’t call on me to read aloud. I’m not good at it, and reading aloud will terrify me and ruin my focus in class.

As we talked, I started to remember things that had worked for me in middle school. I do better, I recalled, when I sit in the front of the class. It helps me pay attention.

“What about the reading assignments?” she asked.

Oh yes, I said, I’m going to have difficulty keeping up on the reading. Suggestions popped into my head — maybe I can get the assignments ahead of time so I can start early? Maybe there can be understanding if I’m a little behind because it takes me longer to read?

She listened to me and nodded. My stress level started to go down.

It’s not like everything was instantly better. I still struggled, and I didn’t have everything figured out. For instance, I wished I’d embraced audiobooks in ninth grade as a way to keep up with reading. It’s a tool I use every day as an adult!

But just the act of talking about what I needed made me feel empowered and more confident about school. My teacher made it OK for us to discuss what would have been frightening for me to think about alone.

If your child is struggling in school, he may find it really embarrassing and scary to speak up. These self-advocacy skills aren’t easy. Students with learning and thinking differences need to practice them over and over again, and consistently.

The good news is that the start of each school year is a chance to get your child talking about their needs. It’s a natural time to do this because everything is new. And for many kids, talking about the changes helps reduce stress and anxiety.

How do you go about getting your child talking?

In ninth grade, it was a teacher who gave me a push. In previous years, my parents had done so. In later years, I initiated these talks. In fact, I took these skills into college and the workplace.

Every kid is different. Some are natural talkers. Others need hand-holding from parents and teachers. Many kids can benefit from having a mentor to help guide the way. Personally, I’ve always felt that these conversations are easier if you schedule them right before doing something fun, like going out for ice cream or shopping for new sneakers.

The key is to start somewhere, no matter how small. And then keep talking. Self-advocacy is an essential skill that takes years to learn.


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