How competence anchors can help kids overcome fear of failure in school

By Jerome Schultz, PhD

Not too long ago, a mom asked me a question about her 9-year-old son, who has a lot of stress and anxiety about school. The child has and . When faced with a new task at school, he worries he’s going to have more trouble than other kids because of his learning and thinking differences. Even though he can do the work, he’s overcome by fear.

This is a difficult situation. It’s natural to want to tell children they don't need to feel worried about school. But even the most comforting words often aren’t always enough to help kids face challenges unafraid.

In this case, I suggested something I call a “competence anchor” to address the fear.

Why a competence anchor can help kids cope with school stress

Kids with learning or thinking differences often experience more failure in school than other kids. As a result, they can start to believe that they can’t do new, challenging things.

And here’s the kicker: If kids think the work will be hard — if they believe that they can’t do the task — their brains go into escape mode, even on tasks they really can do. Their inner voices are yelling: “This is going to be too hard for me! I have to get out of here!” The purpose of the competence anchor is to change this thinking.

When a child faces a new, challenging task, a competence anchor is used to trigger a memory of a similar activity in the past that the child did very well. Tapping into that memory will help them recall the sense of confidence and joy they got from that activity. Just thinking about the past success can reduce the anxiety of a new task.

Imagine someone is in a challenging situation and feels anxious. They’re not sure they can do the task. Then a friend says, “You should be able to do this. It’s similar to __________, which you learned how to do really well.” That’s a competence anchor at work.

How to set a competence anchor

1. Take kids back to something they can definitely do.

Remind them of a level of schoolwork where they felt successful and competent. Pick an example in the subject area that’s currently causing feelings of “I can’t do this,” or “If I do this, I’m gonna look stupid.”

Sometimes, kids think that working at this lower level is “baby stuff.” It’s important to remind them of an experience or skill where they’ve felt competent and in control. (Say something like, “I want to remind you of something you do well, and how it feels to do that thing. If you have that feeling when you’re given harder tasks, it will be easier for your brain to conquer the task.”)

It also helps to look outside of school for something the child feels successful at. This could be a sport, a hobby (like Legos), or a another talent or skill they’ve worked on (like music or cooking).

2. Have them stop to feel the joy of success.

Encourage them to be mindful of that feeling of past success. If they read a word or sentence correctly, ask how it felt. If they got the answer to a math problem, ask what it felt like to get it right. If they scored a big goal in soccer, ask, “Can you remember what that was like?” The brain loves success! These positive memories are likely to stick.

3. Connect the past success to the new challenge.

When children have a competence anchor in mind, they can connect it to the new challenge. Remind them how they did well on this past task, then say, “This new problem is very much like this old one.” Another way to say this is, “You told me that you think you’re really good at _______. I’d say it’s very likely that you’re going to be good at this too.”

4. Talk to kids about the messages their brains send.

Ask kids to be mindful of the messages they’re sending to themselves. If they say, “My brain is telling me I can’t do this,” encourage them to send their brain another message, like, “This might be hard, but I think I can do it.”

For kids who are mature enough, it may also be possible to explain why focusing on past successes is helpful. Explain the words confident (you feel sure of yourself) and competent (you can do this task very well). This is a place in which they feel totally in charge — very competent and very confident. Explain that this is the feeling that will help them when they attempt something new.


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    About the author

    About the author

    Jerome Schultz, PhD is a clinical neuropsychologist and lecturer in the Harvard Medical School Department of Child Psychiatry.