Competence Anchors: My Advice for Overcoming Fear of Failure in School

By Jerome Schultz, PhD on
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During a recent Understood video chat, a mom asked me a question about her 9-year-old, who has a lot of stress and anxiety about school. The child has dyslexia and ADHD. 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 for parents. It’s natural to want to tell your child he doesn’t need to feel worried about school. But even comforting words often aren’t enough to help kids face challenges unafraid.

So for this mom, 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 a student thinks the work will be hard—if he believes that he can’t do the task—his brain goes into escape mode, even on tasks he really can do. His inner voice is 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. When he taps into that memory, he recalls the sense of confidence and joy he felt during that activity. Just thinking about the past success can reduce the anxiety of a new task.

Think about it this way: Have you ever been in a challenging situation and felt anxious because you were not sure if you could do the task? And then a friend says to you: “You should be able to do this. It’s no harder than __________, which you do well.” That’s a competence anchor at work.

How to Set a Competence Anchor

1. Take your child back to something you know he can do. Remind your child of a level of schoolwork where he felt successful and competent. You could pick an example in the subject area that’s currently making him feel like “I can’t do this,” or “If I do this, I’m gonna look stupid.”

If he thinks working at this lower level is “baby stuff,” explain that you want to take him back to a place where he feels competent and in control. (You can use these words: “I want to remind you of something you can do well, and how that felt. If you have that feeling when you’re given harder tasks, it will be easier for your brain to conquer the task.”)

You can also look outside of school for something your child feels successful at. This could be a sport, hobby (like Legos) or talent (like music or cooking).

2. Have him stop to feel the joy of success. Encourage your child to be mindful of that feeling of past success. If your child read a word or sentence correctly, ask him how it felt. If he got the answer to a math problem, ask him what it felt like to get it right. If he scored a big goal in soccer, ask him to remember what that was like. The brain loves success! These positive memories are likely to stick with him.

3. Connect the past success to the new challenge. Now that he has a competence anchor in mind, have him connect it to the new challenge. Remind him how he 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 him about the messages his brain sends. Finally, ask him to be mindful of the messages his brain is sending him. If he says, “My brain is telling me I can’t do this,” encourage him to send his brain another message, like “This might be hard, but I think I can do it.”

If your child is a mature enough, you can also explain why you’re helping him focus on past successes. Explain to him the words confident (you feel sure of yourself) and competent (you can do this task very well). This is a place in which he feels totally in charge—very competent and very confident. Explain to your child that this is the feeling that will help him when he attempts something new.

Unsure how to help your child recognize his strengths and passions? You can start by following these steps. You can also download a fun hands-on activity to help your child identify strengths.

Any opinions, views, information and other content contained in blogs on are the sole responsibility of the writer of the blog, and do not necessarily reflect the views, values, opinions or beliefs of, and are not endorsed by, Understood.

About the Author

About the Author

Jerome Schultz, PhD 

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

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