Excessive stress — unjustified, overwhelming and relentless demands adults thrust upon children — can devastate all children, especially struggling learners:

"Stress is bad for children. It's associated with health problems, school failures and youth delinquency," Dennis W. Creedon writes. "High stress levels have been associated with ... asthma and depression ... Stress directly affects 'attention, memory, planning and behavior control.' When the mind is under emotional stress, it produces the peptide cortisol. ... Cortisol generally is a blessing because we don't become controlled by our past negative experiences. However, if cortisol is not kept in balance, learning can and will stop."

Struggling learners, including many children with dyslexia, cognitive impairment or behavioral disorders, become excessively stressed when they believe they have no control over a situation or activity, believe they can't succeed, and believe their lack of control and inevitable failure will harm them immeasurably.

If schools allow teachers to continuously adapt instruction to struggling learners' current needs and abilities — which some schools forbid, but deny — teachers can often help such learners develop a realistic sense of control and a belief that with reasonable, moderate effort and the right use of effective learning strategies, they can succeed. This helps prevent chronic, destructive stress. Teachers can do this by repeatedly:

  1. Giving struggling learners materials and activities at their proper independent and instructional levels, and not, as is often done, at their frustration levels — the levels to avoid. The level, number, length, complexity and abstraction of these materials and activities should be moderately, but not excessively challenging. In other words, "just right" for success.
  2. Giving struggling learners limited choices to engage in just-right activities they're likely to find interesting and satisfying.
  3. Giving struggling learners feedback that emphasizes their recent successes, efforts, persistence and the right use of effective strategies.
  4. Encouraging struggling learners to share their needs and concerns, and as they do, listening with empathy.
  5. Providing struggling learners with frequent opportunities for exercise and other physical activities.
  6. Working to create IEPs that learners find comfortable while promoting achievement and emotional well-being. This requires giving learners an abundance of opportunities to engage in activities they correctly believe they'll succeed on, feel good about, and offer moderate but not excessive challenge.

As I start to present more detail about these suggestions, ask yourself: Does my child find the demands placed on him doable and comfortable, or troubling and excessive? If comfortable, does he (or she) feel that with moderate effort he can succeed on something he values?

If excessive, how can I use these suggestions at home in ways that reduce his stress while increasing his confidence, motivation and emotional well-being? How can I help develop an IEP that includes suggestions likely to help him? And how can I work with his teachers to hone his stress so it's not too much or too little?

1. Require appropriate materials and assignments

Regularly feeding struggling learners a diet of frustration level reading, math and other subject materials and tasks is akin to giving them daily diets of rotted fruit and rancid milk. It harms them. Thus, it's critical for you to ensure your child routinely gets materials and activities at his proper independent and instructional levels.

Here are well-accepted criteria teachers should use for reading: To determine instructional level for reading, the initial level at which teachers work directly with learners, McCormick recommends these guidelines:

Learners quickly, correctly and independently read aloud 90 to 95 percent of words in context and comprehend 70 to 89 percent of the text. Independent-level materials are those of lesser difficulty, such as easily and correctly reading 99 percent of words; frustration-level materials are those of greater difficulty, such as correctly reading only 88 percent of words. Learners should regularly achieve these guidelines before instruction.

For nonreading tasks, such as adding numbers, teachers will benefit most learners by adhering to Salvia and Ysseldyke's guideline: "Depending on the student and the task,[appropriately] challenging material usually produces rates of correct student response of between 85 and 95 percent."

Unfortunately, for many struggling learners, both McCormick and Salvia and Ysseldyke's guidelines may be too demanding.

Whereas other children may see materials and activities on which they can — before instruction — already achieve a 90 percent success rate as an interesting challenge, struggling learners who suffer from excessive stress may panic when faced with this rate. Because they've endured endless struggles, they may see such materials and activities as another humiliating, frustrating, and inevitable failure. Often, they fail to see the likelihood of 90 percent success. Instead, they see 100 percent failure.

Another, often-neglected cause of excessive stress, even if teachers assign just-right materials and tasks, is assigning too much. A struggling learner may well succeed on 15 minutes of seatwork with materials at just-right levels, length, complexity and abstraction, but feel overwhelmed if the task is lengthened to 35 minutes. At 20 minutes, he may start to fatigue, tense up, lose focus, get angry and lose self-control. Everyone suffers.

Here, from The Washington Post, is one mother's take on overloading school children with work:

"The children that I get off of the bus are exhausted. They are frustrated. They are overworked. They are burned out. ... It takes them a bit of time before they can think of something positive to tell me, and usually it ends up being something that happened during recess or lunch.

"I would blame the teachers for this bleak attitude, but I was one, and I know that the teachers are just as tired, frustrated and overworked. Their teachers are trying to inject as much fun into the day as possible, but are obligated to keep up with deadlines, adhere to the curriculum and meet the standards. ... And it is squishing my children with its weight."

2. Limit choices

Choice motivates. In studying the role of choice in motivation and achievement, John T. Guthrie concluded: "Children need choice to develop independence. ... Choice is motivating because it affords students with control ... [Moreover,] choice can strengthen children's reading achievement and comprehension."

Limiting choices to two or three independent or instructional-level activities has the advantage of improving learning, preventing confusion, and being time-efficient and manageable for teachers and struggling learners. By presenting learners with two or three choices they'll think attractive, teachers can motivate them to engage fully in the activities, increasing the joy of teaching. Regularly giving choices to learners can help them achieve three of education's chief but often ignored goals: autonomy, independence and motivation.

Here's a choice that Mrs. Estella, a fourth-grade teacher, might give Liam, a child with dyslexia, who needs to strengthen his listening vocabulary: "Liam, your Grandpa said that for your reading homework, he'd like to read a book to you and talk about it. Here are three books on something you always like: dinosaurs. Take a few minutes and pick out the one you want him to read to you."

3. Frequently focus feedback on critical factors

Feedback should stress recent successes, effort, persistence and the right use of effective learning strategies. If materials and activities are at the struggling learners' proper independent or instructional levels, their teachers should have many successes to draw upon.

Once struggling learners have had several recent successes, teachers can help them link new but slightly different tasks to their previous successes. Teachers can do this by explicitly showing and asking them how the new tasks resemble their past successes and then reminding them of what they did to succeed. Linking new tasks to recent successes may well decrease learners' stress by giving rise to the belief that "I did it before. I can do it again."

If struggling learners expect success because they previously succeeded on similar activities, and their new activities are at their just-right levels, they're likely to make the effort needed to succeed. This creates opportunities for teachers to make effort and persistence — two controllable factors — part of their feedback: "Liam, you made a good effort. You stuck to it. You didn't quit. And this helped you succeed."

It also gives teachers opportunities to teach learners how to create helpful attributions that can offer them life-long benefits. When unsuccessful, Arturo might learn to say, "I messed up because I daydreamed about tonight's dance. I didn't focus or make a good effort or use of the POW writing strategy. Tomorrow I'll do all three." And tomorrow, when he does all three, he might say, "I succeeded because I followed the POW steps, made a good effort, and didn't give up."

Many struggling learners don't know the sequence of steps — the learning strategy — it takes to succeed in academic activities, such as decoding unknown words. Thus, teachers need to explicitly and systematically teach them the strategies or secrets of learning that lead to success. If, for example, learners are frustrated by their random, haphazard efforts to decode unknown words, they may well profit from learning and regularly practicing Caldwell and Leslie's Cross-Checking learning strategy:

  • Say the first sound or sounds of the word
  • Finish reading the sentence
  • Go back and think of a word that has the same first sound or sounds
  • See if the word has a spelling pattern you know. If it does, use the compare-contrast strategy to figure out the word. [A previously taught strategy: the child might say, "If d-o-w-n is down, then t-o-w-n must be town."]
  • When you think you know the word, say it and finish the sentence
  • Reread the sentence with the word to make sure it makes sense

If Liam successfully uses the Cross-Checking strategy, his teacher's feedback might emphasize Liam's effort, persistence and his right use of the strategy: "Liam, you made a good effort. You stuck to it. You correctly used the Cross-Checking strategy. This helped you succeed. Great job! Now, starting with the word 'I,' how could you tell yourself the same thing?"

4. Listen to understand, calm and support

For many struggling learners and other children, school is extraordinarily stressful, beyond endurance. Often, self-control deteriorates. School becomes a place to avoid, to escape from. Frequent thoughts of school provoke excessive stress.

By giving struggling learners lots of opportunities to safely express their needs and concerns, teachers can help them reduce their stress by feeling more in control. By teachers listening carefully and briefly paraphrasing some of the learners’ critical comments — without quickly evaluating the comments or imposing solutions — teachers can often calm stressed learners. This can set the stage for helping them develop solutions to address their needs and concerns. But as some learners will announce, listening is often enough.

More than half a century ago, at Brooklyn's Tilden High School, Mr. Meiselman’s willingness to frequently listen to me talk about my needs and concerns, despite my severe stutter, probably stopped me from committing a crime. Calmly, without imposing his views, he helped me identify an alternative: college. Though decades have passed, I remember this: calm, supportive, empathic listening, listening to understand works. Evaluating, judging, and imposing solutions doesn’t.

5. Provide frequent opportunities for physical activity

Exercise need not be strenuous. It need not be time-consuming. Three to five minutes of light, simple exercise, several times daily, is usually sufficient. For young learners, playing musical chairs, hopping in place, or standing and clapping to music works. For older students, standing and stretching after 20 minutes of seat-work, or just walking and talking to peers works.

"We have long known that physical activity improves circulation while strengthening bones and muscles," Michael F. Opitz noted. "Just as important, though, is compelling evidence from fitness and brain researchers that when students engage in physical activity, their reading test scores are likely to show greater gains. Without a doubt, children's overall health and success in school are connected."

6. Create an IEP that offers a comfortable level of stress

Both too much or too little stress can harm children and impede learning. To succeed in life, everyone needs to satisfy several reasonable, daily demands, like brushing their teeth, greeting family and friends, or getting to work or school on time. But demand after demand after endless demand creates overwhelming stress. Moderate, realistic, comfortable levels are needed.

If your student or child is classified as eligible for special education, his Individualized Education Program (IEP) team must annually, or more often if needed, create a new IEP for him.

Make sure his IEP states that for homework and independent classwork, all reading and other assignments must be at his appropriate independent level, and that during direct school-based instruction, all activities and materials must be at his appropriate instructional level. (Suggestion 1 above, "Require appropriate materials and assignments," lists criteria and cautions for these levels.)

Except on rare occasions, when he requests more difficult materials on a topic of immense interest to him, he should not be asked to read such materials. They're usually frustrating. Adhering to proper levels is the basis for my other suggestions.

To avoid unnecessary homework problems, problems that depress learners' motivation, heighten their resistance to school, and cause family and parent-school conflicts, here is a sample homework statement you may want to personalize for all your child's IEPs:

"All Marylee's homework will be at her independent reading level and independent math level, as stated in her IEP's Present Levels of Academic Achievement and Functional Performance. Her independent level for reading means that she has a recent and reliable history of quickly and independently recognizing 99 percent of the words and comprehending 90 percent of material at this level. Her independent math level is the level at which she has a recent and reliable history of independently and successfully completing 95 percent of the assigned calculations or problems.

"Marylee's parents and case manager will update her independent levels as her progress warrants. After Marylee steadily works on her homework for 20-25 minutes, her parents may excuse her from homework without anyone penalizing her. If Marylee's parents or teachers report that homework is causing her difficulties, her case manager will call an IEP meeting to develop interventions that strengthen Marylee's academics and alleviate any emotional distress that homework may cause."

The levels in Marylee's homework statement represent her personalized comfort levels, the levels at which she accurately believes she can succeed. Such levels and statements may well prevent problems and reduce Marylee’s stress while helping to strengthen her confidence

Once proper reading and other levels have been identified, it's important to ensure they're included in all relevant parts of struggling learners' IEPs, such as the Present Levels of Achievement and Functional Performance, all academic goals (and in some states, objectives), and statements about homework.

Even if they’re not included, it might be helpful for you to discuss them with all your child's teachers. This might add immeasurably to the quality of your child's life, in and out of school.

Finally, a word of caution

If excessive stress may have caused, have been caused or might be caused by emotional or related difficulties, it's critical to get your student or child knowledgeable and skilled professional help. The same is true for physical problems that caution against exercise.

Whatever help your student or child gets in school and from outside professionals should be carefully coordinated with all of his teachers and support personal. Poor coordination may well undermine progress and create additional problems.