A new school year offers a fresh start, and many students embrace that opportunity. But, for overachievers, early positive energy may soon give way to feelings of stress. The need to succeed can consume and overwhelm these kids.
Some pressure comes from parents and teachers, but overachievers often expect too much of themselves. They feel they must do everything well, and many suffer a crushing fear of failure. When they do succeed, any feelings of satisfaction are short-lived because they're already worried about the next challenge. All that stress can affect personal relationships, damage self-esteem, sap the joy out of life, and lead to unhealthy habits and even depression.
So how can you help the overachievers in your classroom handle the pressure? Here are a few suggestions:
Get them organized.
Overachievers can be surprisingly weak at time management and other organizational skills. (How stressful is that when you're trying to accomplish great things?) Get the year off to a good start by teaching about assignment books, color-coded folders, or whatever organizational tricks you like and monitor their use until good habits are established. Show kids how to end their day so they'll have what they need that evening (check assignment book, gather needed materials, etc.) and so they'll be ready for tomorrow (straighten their classroom space, make a list of what to bring from home, etc). Divide in-class activities into time chunks and assign intermediate deadlines for long-term projects, gradually moving students towards budgeting their own time.
Use group work effectively.
Overachievers aren't big fans of group projects. Concerned that their grades might suffer, they can become impatient and bossy with their teammates or even take over and do the whole project themselves. To help stressed-out overachievers learn how to work with others (an important life skill!), start each group project by setting an interpersonal goal in addition to your instructional goal. Emphasize that non-academic goal – sharing the work, listening respectfully, cooperating – as much as you do the successful completion of the project. Watch for it, praise it, redirect when needed, and maybe even offer bonus points or another award to the group for working well together.
Some overachieving kids become so goal-oriented that they fail to truly engage in the learning process. All that matters is getting things done and doing them right! Help your students loosen up with self-guided and open-ended activities: writing without an assigned subject, reading a book or magazine of their choice, studying vocabulary with whatever method they choose. (Your overachievers may try to persuade you to provide more direction. Resist!) Encourage the idea that there isn't always one right answer or one correct way to do things with divergent questioning and creative assignments. Use activities that don't result in a visible finished project such as "painting" with water or playing charades to help students learn to relax and live in the moment.
Successful students might seem confident, but they often suffer low self-esteem. Their own perfectionism makes them feel like failures, and they tend to think that everyone else is judging them, too. They fear they'll lose the approval of others without continual achievement. You can help these kids by focusing less on the accomplishments themselves and more on the person. Recognize the effort, reasoning, or creativity that went into a project. Emphasize the learning benefits in trying new things even when the results are imperfect, and encourage overachievers to take chances. Talk about the values of our faith, and praise good character traits such as kindness, empathy, honesty, and helpfulness.
Watch for signs of trouble.
Serious problems can be hard to spot when you're dealing with overachievers. (Hey, some of them overachieve at putting up a happy front!) Tiredness might not seem all that important, but it could be a result of staying up late to perfect an assignment or study too much. Asking for lots of extra credit might come from a love for learning – or a consuming worry about grades. Headaches or stomachaches could be caused by stress. Returning from absences with completed assignments might mean a student took a day to overstudy, overwork, and overworry. Kids who are this overwhelmed need your guidance and perhaps even professional help.
Teach relaxation skills.
It's not just the overachieving students who need to learn how to relax. All your kids can benefit from lessons in coping with stress. Show your class how they can relieve tension by breathing deeply, pausing and closing their eyes, rolling their shoulders, or stretching. Provide short breaks throughout the day, and make everyone stop working for a few minutes. Enforce recess: don't allow kids to do schoolwork on the playground or stay inside to study. Physical activity reduces stress so do all you can to encourage it. (Maybe you could get out there and play, too!)
And don't forget the ultimate stress reliever: prayer! Keep reminding your students that God loves them – no matter what – and they can talk to Him anytime!
by Diana Jenkins
After over twenty years as a special education teacher, Diana R. Jenkins became a freelance writer. She has written hundreds of magazine stories, articles, and comic strips for kids and teens. Her books include Goodness Graces! Ten Short Stories about the Sacraments, Stepping Stones – The Comic Collection, and Spotlight on Saints! A Year of Funny Readers Theatre for Today's Catholic Kids. Her latest book, Tackling Tough Topics with Faith and Fiction, is a resource for adults who want to help young teens face modern challenges with a faith perspective. Visit her on the web at www.dianarjenkins.bravehost.com, read her blog at http://djsthoughts-dj.blogspot.com, and find her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/dianajenkins.