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Combating School Refusal: Part II

In Part I, we discussed that school refusal involves more than stubborn non-compliance and cutting school to spend time with friends. School refusal stems from psychological stressors that, for whatever reason, are triggered by the school environment. While school refusal can be a result of many different factors from child to child, there are universally effective strategies that families can utilize.

Managing School Refusal

  • Ask your child why he or she is anxious about going to school. This conversation must come from a calm and understanding place—you cannot show frustration, anger, disappointment, or judgment when seeking to understand the underlying issues. Let children know that you support them by legitimizing their concerns, but that you need to know where their nerves are coming from in order to help. Ask whether this began with an isolated incident with a teacher or peer, or if the triggers are truly unknown.
  • Talk to the school about what is going on. School refusal becomes a bigger issue when teachers are left in the dark. When the school is aware of the underlying anxieties that a student might be dealing with, they will take extra precautions to make sure the student is handled with “kid gloves” during his or her time at school. The school can also help to manage the student’s workload if he or she is missing major assignments due to stress and anxiety about coming to school. On occasion, the school might recommend a half-day or partial schedule so that the student is receiving important instruction in small doses. The school can also work to arrange supports for parents who may be looking into an IEP or 504 plan to ensure accommodations are provided.
  • Plan for small successes and occasional setbacks when your child makes it to school. The anxieties will never dissipate overnight, so it is normal for a child to try to attend school, but then become overwhelmed and ask to go home. This is okay. As a parent, you want to make sure you’re acknowledging your child’s effort and bravery for attempting something that you know is difficult and scary. The process of re-entering school on a regular schedule isn’t going to be swift. Therefore, your best move is to celebrate the small steps and gently encourage them to move forward with their progress.
  • Consider hiring a tutor to help manage the workload that is accumulating due to your child’s frequent absences. The tutor can also, with your permission, act as a liaison between the school and home to ensure that academic goals are being met. The mounting workload can make students even more anxious because they know that, when they return to school, they’ll be confronted with a pile of work. This can make for a never-ending issue of avoiding school because of the stress of all the work from missing school in the first place. The tutor can work with your child in the comfort of your home and help to manage the assignments and tasks, while also providing 1:1 instruction for skills that are necessary for meeting grade-level objectives.

Math Anxiety

As much as my English-oriented brain would hate to admit it, math skills are crucial for functioning in the adult world. This means that, no matter one’s personal distaste for the subject, mastering basic math skills will become a necessity at some point. Those lucky left-brained thinkers, who tend to have more of a knack for computation, analytical thinking, and logical reasoning, relish in their ability to master mathematical concepts. However, psychology research states that nearly 20% of American adults suffer from high levels of math anxiety.

If math anxiety persists over time, adult tasks such as managing time, budgeting money, organizing itineraries, following directions/recipes, remodeling a space, and even shopping can prove difficult. Therefore, it is important that students learn early on about growth mindset and methods for improving their math skills.

Mindset

Math anxiety is often a result of continued negative experiences involving math or the use of related skills. A student who repeatedly struggles with calculations begins to internalize those difficulties and associate the struggle with their own perceived inability to perform. Almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy, these students may develop a fixed mindset about their math skills, meaning that they will believe that they will never be good at math.

Teachers and parents can combat a fixed mindset by discussing the damage that negative self-talk can do. A child who constantly says, “I’m bad at math,” “I’ll never understand this,” or, “It’s too hard for me,” is only solidifying this notion of failure. Instead, model phrases that promote a growth mindset when children are exhibiting math anxiety. Phrases include:

 

  • It’s challenging, but I can do it.
  • I’ll try again.
  • Effort never fails.
  • My mistakes help me understand that I need to try a different strategy.

 

Consider mixed grouping 

When working on math concepts in the classroom, one positive way to reduce math anxiety is to utilize mixed grouping, meaning each group should include a heterogeneous mix of students based on their math capabilities. Varying the groups this way allows students to support one another in a low-pressure, collaborative setting. The higher achieving students are given the opportunity to lead, explain, strategize, and encourage. Simultaneously, the lower achieving students are able to practice their skills with peers and watch how students are successfully approaching math problems. Additionally, students who require more support are given the opportunity to take their time and ask questions in a smaller setting, as opposed to putting themselves on the spot for the whole class.

Use hands-on approaches

Another way to combat math misery is to front load the concept with fun. For instance, if children are beginning to explore fractions, the concept can be abstract and daunting. To ease anxiety, break out the baking supplies and show children how fractions are visually represented. Measuring cups provide a hands-on method for working with fractions. If children want a super chocolatey, chocolate chip cookie, present them with ½ cup of chocolate chips and ¾ cup chocolate chips. Ask which fraction is greater? Finished baking? Slice a cookie into fourths and eat one of the fourths to demonstrate subtraction.

Combating Toxic Stress

As the school year progresses and we near winter break and the holidays, it is easy to get caught up in the chaos of the season. Between family visits, vacations, gift lists, and holiday parties, it is easy for educators to get wrapped up in all of the things going on outside of our classrooms.

 

In fact, we may forget that not everyone eagerly awaits these festive times—for some, the holidays are not full of happy traditions and fond memories. Even with the interventions, resources, and extra supports that schools often provide for students in need, winter break can be a lonely, uncomfortable, and emotionally trying time for students with major stressors at home. For this reason, a little extra TLC before and after the holidays may be necessary. Schools need to provide teachers with strategies for creating and maintaining a classroom environment that helps to combat toxic stress.

 

ACE’s

Adverse childhood experiences, or ACE’s, are shown to result in prolonged, unhealthy levels of stress, which doctors call toxic stress. ACE’s can include alcoholism or drug abuse in the home, homelessness, domestic violence, guardians with mental health issues, divorce, etc. These negative experiences cause stress that chemically changes the brain over time, resulting in learning difficulties, issues regulating one’s emotions, and difficulty making sound decisions.

 

In the classroom

Experts estimate that nearly 40 million American children are at risk of developing toxic stress because of ACE’s. That staggering number means that many of our classrooms include children who are struggling to learn because of circumstances at home that are completely out of their control. To reduce the negative impact of ACE’s, schools must foster a safe, nurturing environment, one that is especially acute to the needs of students battling toxic levels of stress.

 

  • By absorbing the mantra that teachers are educating “the whole child,” we can begin to develop an environment that seeks to help stabilize children’s lives beyond their grades and academics. Whether it be a teacher, coach, counselor, or administrator, students need to have a “safe adult” at school to talk to about their struggles. Showing an interest in that student’s life can be the first step to building that positive, safe relationship. By showing that we care about them, not just their grades, students begin to gain a sense of comfort, appreciation, and trust—which they may not be getting at home.
  • Allow students to take ownership over the classroom to help build a trusting, positive rapport. By providing student choice whenever possible, like choices for novel, projects, procedures, seating, etc., teachers demonstrate that the classroom is fully inclusive—everyone’s voice and opinion deserves to be heard. These inclusive practices help students see themselves as more than their stressors and unstable home life. Collaboration puts them in the driver’s seat by providing a sense of control where they might otherwise feel pushed around or victimized.
  • Set clear, predictable expectations for all children in the classroom. Students need structure, especially those whose home lives might lack structure and stability. Therefore, teachers must maintain consistency so that children know what to expect. For them, school is their safe space; it is where they know that the adults are caring, fair, trustworthy, and reliable. These are qualities that many children with toxic stress do not witness in the adults with whom they live. It’s our job to be that constant in their day-to-day lives.
  • Allow options for self-regulation by modeling appropriate responses to stress. Teachers should consider making a “calm corner” or quiet space in the room designated for cool down time so that students can have a private place to gather their thoughts when emotions run high. Teachers should also consider working out a system where students can use nonverbal cues to communicate their need for a breather. The point is to create classroom procedures that allow students to express their emotions in positive and productive ways. These strategies become habits that children can then employ outside of school when stressors run high.

American Heart Month—Teen Relationships Pt. II

In continuing our look at unhealthy teen relationships, we hope to not only educate families on the warning signs, but also equip parents with methods to intervene. It is important to recognize that an unhealthy relationship is built by manipulation, coercion, intimidation, and by chipping away at a person’s self-worth. Because the abuse can have such a stronghold, it is crucial that parents know how to get their children out when problems begin to arise with their child’s romantic partner.

 

If suspicions arise, it is probably a parent’s first instinct to either “forbid” the relationship, or criticize the boyfriend/girlfriend in an effort to get their child to open his/her eyes to the issues. Parents should stifle both of these urges. Forbidding a teen from doing anything, especially seeing a partner, has a tendency to have an adverse effect. Rather than pulling the two apart, the demand might actually drive the two closer together.

 

  1. Instead, encourage time apart or to spend more time with close friends. Help your teen plan an “all girls” or “all boys” excursion, activity, sleepover, or weekend trip. The key is to create subtle distance by reminding children of their other friends and family that may have gotten the boot when the toxic relationship began.
  2. Instead of outright bad-mouthing their partner, focus the conversation around your teen’s feelings. Ask questions like, “I see you’ve been down, anxious, depressed and short-tempered recently, do you know what might be causing this?” Or, “how do you feel when so-and-so yells at you, criticizes you, controls you, calls constantly, etc.?” Your goal is to highlight the concerning behaviors by examining the effects they have on your child, not by outwardly criticizing the partner or abuser. Use your own experiences with controlling or difficult relationships or friendships to create a space for dialogue that is free of judgment. In the simplest, non-threatening way, you want teens to recognize the negative effects that this unhealthy relationship is having on them.
  3. Monitor and limit phone use if necessary, including text messages, voicemails, email, etc. Frame the conversation as though it is in your child’s best interest to give the phone a break during certain times of day. Create family expectations that during and after dinner, phones should be used minimally, and only for important circumstances. However, parents themselves should follow suit as well—it is difficult to ask teenagers to part with their phones if the adults are not willing to follow the same expectations.
  4. Seek help from a third party. An expert with a neutral vantage point, such as a child psychologist or family therapist, may be the key. Oftentimes, teens feel that parental advice is meant to control them or persuade them to do whatever it is that the parent suggests. A neutral third party willing to listen and absorb the whole situation from multiple sides will be better equipped at getting through to your teen. He or she is trained to help mediate family strife. Therapists are also often able to shed light on an issue without casting judgment or blame, making teens more apt to listen.
  5. Expose your teen to new experiences, hobbies, or activities as a means of taking his or her mind off of the significant other. Set up a family movie marathon, visit a local museum or art studio, go indoor rock climbing, plan a spa day, try cooking a new recipe together, or go to the driving range. The list is limitless when it comes to finding new outings for the family. Whatever you decide, make sure that your teen enjoys the activity and that it doesn’t feel forced or contrived. The point is to create space between your teen and his or her significant other, while showing your teen that there are plenty more happy experiences to seek beyond this controlling relationship.

Dealing with School Drama at Home, Part I

While the middle and high school years are most notably fraught with drama, elementary-aged children are also seeing their fair share of peer disputes and social squabbles. More often than not, drama that occurs during the school day makes its way home with students. Like gum on the bottom of a sneaker, a social issue with a peer tends to latch on and attract more dirt and grime throughout the day, only to become an even bigger issue later on. Since the prevalence of peer issues truly reaches all age groups, it is important that parents have plenty of strategies and tools to utilize when drama rears its ugly head.

 

Avoid fueling the fire or taking on the emotional burden. This is easier said than done because, of course, as a parent, your instinct is to defend and protect by immediately taking your child’s side. However, this instinctual defense mode could simply cause your child’s emotions to become even more dramatic. Instead, use these conversations as an opportunity to diffuse the situation simply by listening. Merely talking about the issue can bring about a level of comfort, so act as the sounding board, not the hype girl.

 

Try not to downplay your child’s feelings with phrases like, “Everyone deals with drama,” or “It’s not that serious.” Your perspective is helpful, but not when it serves to discredit or minimize your child’s feelings. As adults, we can easily forget how these moments in school felt like the end of the world.  Compared to our real world drama we get to experience in adulthood, these quarrels may seem like nothing, but to your child, they are a big deal. Therefore, it is important that they feel heard.

 

You want to be sure that you are not pressuring your child about maintaining or discontinuing a friendship one way or another. It is perfectly helpful for parents to give advice when it comes to friendships, but often times, you may find yourself saying things like, “You two have been friends for years, why let something like this ruin that?” Or, “Our families have known each other since before you were born, you should really try to work this out.” You must allow children to make their own judgement call when it comes to friendship drama; you also want to avoid minimizing their feelings by simply telling them to work it out for your own sake. Furthermore, just because the “close family friends” scenario is convenient, it does not mean that your children are naturally going to get along with your friends’ children.

 

Help them take their mind off of the drama by expanding their circle to include new peers and activities. Ask about neighborhood friends, after-school activities, weekend extracurricular opportunities, and clubs they may want to join. Sometimes a little “friendship break” is all it takes to breathe, regroup, and reset the relationship. In the interim, it is helpful for children and teens to have different options for socializing—casting a wider net ensures that drama can be avoided simply by socializing with other peer groups from time to time.

Anxiety: Ways to Spot a Problem at Home

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As a parent, you have certainly experienced your share of anxiety. Whether stemming from a feeling of nervousness, worry, uncertainty, or fear, that sense of anxiousness from a lack of control is familiar to everyone at some point.

Even if you do not suffer from clinically diagnosed anxiety, it is important to recognize potential signs of an anxiety disorder in your child. The important thing to remember is that, if your child is struggling with anxiety, there are ways to manage it once diagnosed. Research suggests that 80 percent of children with clinical signs of an anxiety disorder are not getting treatment. The key, then, is awareness and the ability to spot how anxiety manifests itself in your child’s behavior.  

One thing is for sure—anxiety affects every child differently. Because anxiety is such a complex condition that is unique to each person, the symptoms vary greatly from child to child. Below are some of the more common indications that your child may be suffering from anxiety.

Avoidance

Again, everyone will experience anxiety from time to time, as it is a normal reaction to stress. However, an anxiety disorder begins to come into play when children start to exhibit avoidance behaviors. Because anxiety creates such a sense of helplessness, sufferers begin to avoid anxiety-inducing situations all together. For instance, if your child appears to be intentionally and regularly avoiding friends or activities, it may be in an effort to escape the anxiety that is produced in certain situations.

Inability to be comforted

Children with an anxiety disorder cope differently depending on each situation. One common thread is that, when anxiety strikes, the child is likely not easily comforted by a parent’s attention or coddling. This is obviously difficult for parents to understand, as your number one role is to comfort and soothe your child’s anguish. Just remember that anxiety can be an all-consuming emotional reaction to stress—one that is not eased simply with attention and hugs.  

Abnormally withdrawn

Shyness is typical in children. However, a child with an anxiety disorder is not only shy, but noticeably intimidated, withdrawn, and reluctant to engage with others. A child with anxiety may also be resistant to making eye contact, especially during one-on-one conversations. Avoiding eye contact or reluctance to speak (selective mutism) are signs that social interactions produce debilitating anxiety for your child. Social anxiety disorder affects children specifically in social situations. This may occur when a child feels uncomfortable with direct attention, large group settings, or meeting new people.

While occasional anxiety is typical and varies from child to child, it is important to know the common signs of a possibly larger problem. Statistics indicate that 1 in every 8 children will suffer from an anxiety disorder. With such a staggering number of affected children, awareness is the first line of defense when diagnosing and treating anxiety. For parents, knowing the signs and symptoms of a larger issue will mean the difference between proactively managing the condition and suffering in silence.  

 

It’s Not Always What it Seems: Anxiety in the Classroom

 

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Anxiety is something that educators are seeing more and more of in our children. With countless theories on the causes of this rising diagnosis, one thing is for sure—anxiety affects every child differently. Because anxiety is such a complex condition that is unique to each person, the symptoms vary from child to child. In fact, the symptoms may even vary from situation to situation. For instance, a child with anxiety may display different symptoms in different situations throughout the day.  Anxiety may manifest itself differently from classroom to classroom simply because of the environment or different stressors present.

Because anxiety presents itself in many different ways, it is often hard to initially see or understand, especially in the classroom. With this knowledge, it is important that teachers take a closer look at different behaviors and tendencies. For instance, a child with anxiety may present different behaviors depending on comfort level.

Here are a few signs to look for in children who may be suffering from anxiety:

Eye Contact

A child with anxiety may be resistant to making eye contact, especially during one-on-one conversations. It is important for educators to be mindful that the lack of eye contact is not a defiant or dismissive behavior. Instead, direct eye contact may be intimidating or anxiety-producing because the child feels uncomfortable with the direct attention. This can often be closely related to a more specific form of anxiety called social anxiety disorder. Children who suffer with social anxiety disorder exhibit symptoms of anxiety when they feel that all eyes are on them. Especially in social situations, such as in a classroom, a child may be reluctant to participate, work with others, or even answer one-on-one questions because of the discomfort.

Inattentiveness

Similarly, a child with anxiety may appear aloof, inattentive, or “checked out” during classroom instruction. Again, this may be an anxiety disorder rearing its head. A child with generalized anxiety disorder is often consumed with worries, fears, or concerns about an aspect of his or her life. When children fixate on a concern or worry, they are likely unable to concentrate in the classroom. This is very different from a student that is simply bored or disinterested. Furthermore, the constant fixation and worrying often continues at home, making it difficult for children to refocus or “power down.” The GAD symptoms will often result in insomnia or restlessness.

Irritability

Sometimes due to the insomnia, students with anxiety may exhibit irritability at school, as well. Of course, when sleep is regularly disrupted by anxiety, a child may appear to be more fatigued or ill-tempered. This type of behavior is different from a child who is simply choosing to disrupt or defy. When anxiety takes over, the irritability is simply an outlet for the frustration and stress.

With this in mind, it is important for teachers to identify behavioral concerns that are separate from the anxiety disorder. Often times, taking a little breather or moment to get a drink of water will be enough to allow the student to reset and alleviate the stress.

Homework Time Made Easier

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Homework is simply a fact of life for today’s students. As early as kindergarten, children are bringing homework home from school. While homework has its many benefits, the majority of students would rather forget about the additional practices, projects, and papers. With such an aversion, homework time at home can be a real battle. Yet, it does not have to be. There are many tried-and-true strategies when it comes to alleviating the stress of homework.

Here are some of our favorites.

First and foremost, a key to easing homework stress is to make sure that the homework actually makes it home. Depending on your child’s age, it may be a struggle to simply keep track of the many worksheets that need to travel to and from school. Keeping your child’s work organized can make all the difference when sitting down to work. Try using a homework folder designated for nightly assignments. Use color-coded tabs or sticky notes to manage daily assignments and due dates. Staying organized is a significant start to managing the homework routine.

Set a Schedule

Set expectations by creating a homework schedule. Between the many afterschool activities and busy schedules that each family undoubtedly juggles, homework may become an afterthought. Make sure that your child knows when and where he or she should be completing homework each night. Set limits on the use of technology during homework time. Cell phones, television, and other distractions can make homework completion impossible, so it is best that these things remain off limits until homework is completed.

Break It Down

When homework has mounted to a seemingly unmanageable level, break the assignments down to avoid a mental meltdown. Especially during the middle and high school years, the amount of homework assignments can increase greatly. Staring down a mountain of papers can stress out both you and your child. If your child is unable to chunk the assignments into manageable pieces, help them out by creating an “order of importance” list. Arrange the work into a schedule based on difficulty and due date. This way, you and your child can prioritize the homework and alleviate any stress from the many assignments.

Promote Practice, Not Perfection

When it comes to difficult assignments, emphasize the importance of effort and completion, not necessarily perfection or 100% correctness. When homework becomes a frustrating tear-session for your child, explain that homework is meant to be practice. Too often, students stress over the need to answer questions and submit flawless assignments. Yes, that is the eventual goal, but homework is meant to provide practice—not display perfection. In fact, most homework assignments are intended to show the teacher whether or not students understood the content. Teachers also use homework assignments as a way to gauge the pacing of lessons or content. So, when the tears start welling, remind your child that homework is for practice.

Teacher’s Learning Secrets to Use at Home

censorship picGetting 30+ children in a room, and keeping them quiet, engaged, and focused for any length of time is no easy task. As educators, we must show prowess in pedagogy and behavior management at any given moment. We know what it takes to manage, encourage, educate, and inspire children—after all, it is our job. However, it is not our job, alone. As parents, you help to shape your child’s educational experience and expectations. It’s a team effort, which is why I want to share some tried and true learning and behavior management strategies that can boost comprehension and cooperation at home.

“You don’t have to do anything that you don’t want to do.”

This statement will literally stun your child at first—as it should. Children are used to following rules and listening to directions. So, if you’re ever in the “But I don’t want to” battle over homework or studying, start with this statement: You do not have to do anything, but you must be ready to accept the consequences. When you explain to children that they have some autonomy in their own decision-making, they begin to comprehend independence and consequences more clearly.

When students ask me if they have to do something, I always respond like this: There is nothing in life that we have to do, necessarily. We do not have to show up to work every day. We do not have to brush our teeth. We do not have to tell the truth. But in every decision that we make, we must be prepared to face the consequences. So, the next time your child asks if she has to read for her book report, give her the honest truth—she does not have to read the book, but she will have to accept the consequences of neglecting the reading, i.e., failure, stress, lower GPA, etc. Your child will make the right decision when faced with the options and consequences.

Push reading of any sort or genre

I often get questions like, “What should my child be reading in her spare time?” or “How can I get him interested in a different genre?” Too often, parents want to steer a child’s reading interests, or discourage certain juvenile or fictional selections. The key to reading for pleasure is that it is pleasurable. Encourage more reading at home by allowing your child to select from any genre. When children have a genuine interest in a book, they’re more likely to retain the information. The same thing is true with engagement in the classroom. This is why teachers are constantly tasked with making lessons relevant to our students’ real lives. That said, encourage reading for pleasure by leaving the selection up to your child. After all, when kids are picking up a book instead of a remote control or smartphone, I consider that a win.

Master the follow-up question

The follow-up question is a great technique to prompt your child to expound upon a statement or idea. You can use a follow-up question for conversations beyond homework, as well. For instance, the ever-so-popular “How was your day?” question often elicits an unenthused response. Instead of settling with a blasé reply, follow-up with another question. Ask your child what exactly was “fine” about today? Prompt him to define the word “fine.” Ask how the day could have gone differently or inquire about what your child hoped would have happened today.

Of course, the follow-up question applies to academics, as well. Ask your child how he or she would describe the main character of an assigned novel. Then, follow-up with the “why” question. What happened in the story to bring him to this conclusion? Does he think that his opinion of this character will change as the story continues? These questions urge your child to elaborate and explain in detail. This practice, which teachers use frequently, demonstrates the importance of being able to not only answer appropriately, but to explain how one came to that conclusion.

These teacher’s “secrets” can be just as effective at home as at school. And when employed by both parents and teachers, these learning strategies encourage and enhance student autonomy and achievement.

Things I’d Like To Tell My 12-Year-Old Self: Observations From An Educator

Things I’d Like To Tell My 12-Year-Old Self: Observations From An Educator

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Times have certainly changed since my elementary school days. Granted, it was not that long ago that I was furiously memorizing times tables and MLA works cited formats. However, today’s youth is experiencing something that I didn’t recognize until my adult years: extreme stress. This year, especially, I’ve found myself repeating stress-relieving mantras to our students on a daily basis. From tears over B grades to pressures at home, my current students are slowly breaking my heart with their ever-growing worries and concerns.

Yes, I worried as a child—we all did at some point. But my students this year have been talking candidly about debilitating, sleep-interrupting, all-encompassing anxiety and stress. I’ve seen children break down in sobs, asking questions like, “How can I be better?” What I want to tell them in these moments has nothing to do with literary elements or plot diagrams. I want to tell them the same things that I wish I could tell my 12-year-old self when I felt stressed or lost.

You will not be the best at everything.

…But you don’t have to be. You will find that you are amazing at something—maybe even a few things. These are your passions—follow them, nurture them, be proud of them.

You will make mistakes.

…But your mistakes are your greatest teachers. You will learn more from your mistakes than you will from your successes. So use this knowledge and know that you will learn from your errors.

Your parents are always proud of you.

…Even when you fail, stumble, and struggle.

It’s okay to disagree with your friends.

…They are not always right, and neither are you.

People are going to be mean.

…But pay them no mind—it’s not you, it’s them.

Apologize when you mess up.

…And forgive those who apologize to you. Remember that saying sorry and being sorry are two different things—know the difference.

Life is not fair.

…So do not expect it to be. There will always be people who have more than you.

The only thing that you can control is yourself.

…Do not frustrate yourself with things beyond your control.

Trust yourself.

…You are capable of much more than you’d imagine. Take chances—you will likely surprise yourself.

Everything will be okay.

…It might not seem like it right now, but you will get through these tough times. The struggles will only make you stronger, so don’t give up.