Stress & anxiety

My Fourth Grader Seems Really Stressed Out. Is That Normal?

By Nastassia Hajal

My fourth grader seems really stressed out. Is that normal? School has never been easy for him, but I don’t remember him complaining this much about the amount of work he has to do. Is fourth grade really that much harder than third grade? How can I tell if this is typical growing pains or if he’s overly anxious about school?

Nastassia Hajal

Postdoctoral Fellow at UCLA’s Nathanson Family Resilience Center

There are several reasons that your son might be feeling more stressed this year than last year. It’s good that you’re thinking through the various possibilities. Changes that may seem simple to adults, such as the transition from third to fourth grade, can be quite stressful for kids.

Some behaviors like worrying about a big test or being nervous about performing a solo in the school orchestra are typical for fourth graders. But there are some things to keep an eye on to make sure your child isn’t moving from typical stress to more concerning levels of anxiety.

Here are some questions to consider—and also some steps you can take to help your son manage the stress that often comes with changes in school routines and expectations.

  • Are the changes in your child’s daily routine making it harder for him to focus in class or on schoolwork? While it’s typical to see some stress around new routines, be careful if you see your child having trouble with things that haven’t changed. For example, it’s normal for a child to start to avoid homework time if he’s having trouble with the new math curriculum. But if he starts to have trouble in other areas such as with his bedtime routine or chores that he used to do easily, he may be experiencing higher levels of anxiety.
  • Does your child seem excessively worried about certain things or seem to feel that they are out of his control? It’s very common for kids this age to complain about an upcoming test or ask for help with homework. But if your son is experiencing a lot of stress or anxiety, he might seek reassurance for lots of different things, including areas of his life that he used to feel confident about.
  • Are there other things in your child’s life besides school that are causing him stress? For example, did your son’s best friend move away recently? Do you have extended family members who are sick? Are finances an issue? Helping your son manage his feelings about a stressor in one area of life will likely show positive effects at school too.
  • Is your son still able to engage in and enjoy the things that he likes to do the most? If he starts losing interest in favorite activities and the ability to have fun and feel happy, it’s important to seek support.
  • Is he still involved with family and friends? Sometimes high levels of anxiety lead children to withdraw from the people around them. This is concerning because it can lead to further anxiety and sadness about isolation.
  • How are your child’s sleep and appetite patterns? Changes in these biological rhythms can be a sign of increased anxiety symptoms.
  • Are you seeing major changes in your child’s grades or ability to get along with others? Are you seeing a big drop in his grades across all subjects? Or an increase in detentions at school? Or more problems with friends? These could be signs it may be time to seek extra help.
  • Does your child’s teacher think he seems more stressed than the other students? Fourth-grade teachers spend time with many different fourth graders. They can offer useful insights into whether what a child is experiencing seems typical for this stage of development.

Having an open and ongoing dialogue with your son’s teacher can help both of you support your son through this time of transition. Keep in mind that fourth grade is also a big year for standardized testing. It’s common for children to become nervous as teachers prepare students for the assessment.

Knowing more about what’s happening at school will help you support your son as he adjusts to the changes and learns to express his feelings about the specific things that are most concerning to him.

Also, kids are comforted by seeing the adults in their lives work together. Helping your child see that he has a network of supportive adults will add to his sense of security and comfort. It will also ease any concern about relaying information between you and his teachers and will allow him to focus on learning.

In addition to talking with your child’s teacher, there are other ways you can help your grade-schooler manage stress. One of the best things a parent can do to enhance a child’s feeling of security during a time of transition is to keep as many of the same daily routines as possible.

It may also be useful to seek an evaluation to find out whether learning and attention issues might be causing or contributing to your son’s stress. It’s not uncommon for these types of difficulties to become more apparent as children move through grade school. The good news is that there are many good resources and methods of instruction to help kids with learning and attention issues.

About the Author

Portrait of Nastassia Hajal

Nastassia Hajal

Nastassia Hajal, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral fellow at the Nathanson Family Resilience Center in the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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