By Jennifer Keluskar, Ph.D.
The other day my daughter Skylar wanted to opt of out New York State testing. When I told her I wanted her to take the tests, she didn’t talk to me for the rest of the day.
I am referring to the standardized tests in mathematics and English language arts that U.S. public school students take in accordance with the Every Student Succeeds Act. I explained to Skylar, who is in the third grade and a good student, that I believed it would be an opportunity to practice test-taking skills and to face her anxiety. This explanation did not move her, especially since she knew some of her classmates had been allowed to opt out.
There are many reasons parents opt their children out of state tests, including the amount of classroom time spent on test prep, which might take away from dealing with the child’s individual needs. However, this post is not about standardized testing, nor am I making a statement about whether to have your child take these tests. Rather, this post is about the downfalls of kids chronically opting out of uncomfortable situations.
I didn’t tell Skylar about my fear that, in the future, she will face the same difficulties that anxious youth I have worked with have had with important life skills, such as making a complaint or tolerating living with roommates. Despite being high achieving and college-bound, some have held themselves back from seeking jobs. These observations are consistent with research showing that young people with anxiety disorders have more trouble with daily living skills.
In my work I have come to believe that parents’ efforts to do things for their children, such as making requests to teachers that a child could reasonably make themselves, or asking teachers to not call on their child because they feel too self-conscious, are contributing to the problem. Psychologists refer to such parental efforts as accommodation. However, this is not the same as the educational accommodations that help kids learn better, such as preferential seating to improve their focus. I am very much an advocate of such accommodations.
Parental behaviors are not the only culprit, though. Children who are temperamentally more inhibited are at greater risk of chronic avoidance, and when a child is hesitant about novel activities, the adults in their lives are more tempted to give in. However, it doesn’t take long for most kids to realize that they can get out of things if they put up a good enough fight. Ultimately, chronic opting out can lead to much bigger problems, like school avoidance, refusing medical care, and social isolation.
Chronic avoidance might also lead to a child believing they are not capable of getting through uncomfortable situations on their own. It doesn’t help that avoidance leads to missing out on experiential learning opportunities as well.
Parents are sometimes concerned that if they force their child into uncomfortable situations, their child will become resentful. Validating their feelings might help prevent this in the long run, even if your child is unhappy that you are putting your foot down. Although I was unwavering in my refusal to allow Skylar to opt out of testing, I validated her frustration that her friends were allowed to get out of hours of math problems she had to endure.
Parents also worry that a power struggle will ensue if they don’t allow their child to opt out, which will lead to refusing even more things. This is partially correct. However, responding to your child with a tone of flexibility and collaboration can help soothe such conflicts. I promised Skylar that we would stream a special movie the evening after she finished the test. While this might seem like a bribe, I saw it as positively framing the test by expressing my desire to celebrate her getting through it.
There are a few things parents can consider when aiming to be flexible but firm in response to an opt-out request.
1. Give your child the appropriate parachute. In addition to resisting the urge to cave in, you also need to provide your child with the tools to cope with uncomfortable situations. When I noticed that my daughter had trouble managing anxiety, I advocated for her to be in a stress management group where she learned relaxation skills and other coping strategies.
2. Know when and how to bend. It is important to identify the occasions when a compromise is needed. For instance, your child might not be developmentally able to cope with a certain challenge, and therefore you might need to modify your approach. Having a conversation with your child’s teacher or pediatrician can help you understand if your expectations are appropriate.
Another factor to consider is whether there is a good alternative for whatever your child is opting out of. When I was in middle school, I decided to quit tennis, but I took up fencing around the same time, thereby finding another way to be active.
Bending also requires collaborative problem solving. When my daughter was younger, we had a lot of relatives over. She had trouble initiating conversations with them, so I gave her the job of offering snacks to the guests.
3. Model Coping Skills. Your child is more likely to take healthy risks if they observe you modeling this kind of behavior. For example, my adventurous side comes out in the kitchen. When a meal doesn’t turn out as planned, I try to act calm and put on an air of “Not every meal is going to be perfect.” I also share what I learned from the experience.
Remembering to allow for unhappy moments and the opportunity to learn from mistakes can go a long way towards helping your child live a fulfilling life.
By the way, after taking the test, Skylar said it was “fine,” and lightheartedly asked if she could opt out next year. “We will cross that bridge when we get there,” I replied. After a tough day of parenting, I thought that was a well-deserved opt out.
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