Stress and Kids Who Learn and Think Differently

By Peg Rosen
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At a Glance

  • Not all stress is bad—stress can help people conquer challenges.

  • Kids who learn and think differently might experience more stress than other kids.

  • You can help your child manage stress at home and at school.

Imagine this scene. It’s time to take the big math test. The test counts for a lot, and many kids in the class are a little stressed. But the ones who are prepared and usually do OK on tests dive in. Some even feel energized to do well.

What about the kids who often don’t do well on tests? Or who study, but don’t remember or understand the material? That’s the case with many kids who think or learn differently, and they can feel more than just a little stress.

Learn more about how stress impacts kids who learn and think differently.

What Is Stress?

Stress is a fact of life for everyone. It is our body’s fight-or-flight response to the many challenges the world throws our way. When we feel stress, our heart beats faster. Our palms sweat. Our system is ready for action.

Stress can be good. It can pump us up and allow us to take on the challenge in front of us. Many kids might feel stress about a test. And most can figure out how to conquer that challenge. They know how good it feels to succeed and they want to “take it on.”

Stress can also be bad. That happens when we’re overwhelmed by our challenges. Or maybe we don’t know how to cope and can’t do our best work.

How Stress Affects Kids Who Learn and Think Differently

Kids who learn and think differently face all the typical stress factors other kids face. They have to deal with homework, social situations, and family issues. But they have additional difficulties that can add to their stress level.

At school: There are many factors that can trigger stress, depending on the child. Some examples are chaotic classrooms, unclear assignments, or fear of embarrassment. Kids who have trouble reading might panic when the teacher calls on students to read aloud. Kids who have trouble writing might feel stressed when they have to take notes.

At home: Kids who learn and think differently can struggle with changes in routine, like a parent going back to work, or when there’s a lack of structure.

On the flip side, kids who struggle all day at school can feel overwhelmed by too many afterschool activities. Stress can pile up when kids come home and feel that their families expect too much from them. Or sometimes, kids who feel so much stress at school may come home and fall apart, because they feel comfortable letting it out at home.

Socially: Most kids just want to fit in. That’s easier said than done for kids who learn and think differently, or who struggle with social skills. They may feel different when they walk into the resource room or get extra time on a test. They may have a harder time finding someone to sit with at lunch or hang out with at recess.

Many kids who think and learn differently react to stress like other kids do. But depending on their challenges, some may react more intensely. ADHD, for example, can make it hard to manage emotions.

Signs of Stress to Watch For

Your child might not ask for help. That’s why it’s important to stay tuned in and watch for signs of stress. These include:

  • Sudden dramatic change in how much effort they put into school

  • Avoiding school and tests by refusing to go

  • Major change in attitude—they may become moody or careless

  • Not doing chores

  • Disruptive behavior

  • Acting younger than their age

  • Withdrawing or having outbursts

  • Cutting themselves off from family or friends

  • Trouble sleeping

  • Not eating or eating too much

  • Trouble concentrating

Keep in mind that stress and anxiety aren’t the same thing. But chronic stress can lead to anxiety. Read about the connection between stress and anxiety.

How You Can Help

If you think your child is dealing with stress, there’s a lot you can do to help.

Keep talking and listening. Encourage your child to speak up when feeling overwhelmed. Get in touch with teachers to let them know what you’re seeing and hearing.

Boost your child emotionally. Celebrate even small victories so your child knows what success feels like. Praise hard work, and give praise that boosts self-esteem.

Encourage good health. Physical activity, good eating habits, and rest can help your child stay strong. Find balance by getting your child involved in school activities slowly and carefully instead of all at once.

Teach your child ways to cope. Role-play to help your child get comfortable with stressful situations, like asking the teacher for help or walking into the lunchroom alone. Give your child a heads-up about upcoming changes to routine and talk through ways to prepare. You can also work together to build a “competence anchor.” This technique can help kids face challenges with more confidence.

Look into outside supports. Social skills groups at school (or private ones) can help kids gain confidence and learn coping skills. Also, kids can see that they aren’t alone. Yoga and meditation can reduce stress, too—your child’s school or a local organization may offer classes. (Check out meditation apps for kids.)

If stress is taking a big toll, talk to the school counselor or your child’s health-care provider. Sometimes, stress is a sign that kids are struggling with anxiety or depression. Knowing the signs can help you be on the lookout. You can also use an anxiety log to keep track of what you’re seeing.

Key Takeaways

  • Having structure and routines at home can provide relief from school stress.

  • Kids may not ask for help, so be on the lookout for signs of stress in your child.

  • Help your child understand that everyone feels stress, and that some stress can be a good thing.

About the Author

About the Author

Peg Rosen 

writes for digital and print, including ParentCenter, WebMD, Parents, Good Housekeeping, and Martha Stewart.

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Elizabeth Harstad, MD, MPH 

is a developmental behavioral pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital.

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