Tools and tips for parents of teens with anxiety

Guest contributor Courtney Harris is a child-centered and teen life coach. She supports teens and tweens in moving from anxiety and overwhelm to self-love and intentional self-expression. She also partners with parents to integrate new skills and improve communication and connection within the family. Courtney Harris Coaching offers 1:1 coaching sessions and Austin-area workshops and events; follow Courtney on Facebook to learn more.

In my nine years in the classroom and one year working with young people and families privately, I have come to hear the terms anxiety, social anxiety, and overwhelm more than I can count. Starting at very young ages, our children are internalizing patterns of overwork, perfectionism, and constant public performance. According to Psychology Today, 7 percent of the population in the United States is estimated to have some form of social anxiety within any given 12-month period.

Many of our children, especially those who identify as introverts, are highly sensitive, or have learning or developmental disabilities, do not feel supported by society. They feel that their way of being is not acceptable according to many social norms. The pressures to perform both inside and outside of the classroom are often too much to handle, particularly when the young people are not affirmed for the patterns and behaviors that are most natural and comfortable to them.

During this past year, I have been working with a 13-year-old who prefers face-to-face communication over social media, which feels isolating to him, given his friends’ heavy technology use. Yet he found it difficult to identify shared interests to relate over in person when he had those opportunities. All the while, he was managing and worrying about his honors courses, feeling exhausted by the workload, managing demands and expectations from his parents, and struggling to ask for help. Under the weight of these pressures from home, school, and social life, this teen was exhausted! He felt robotic, disempowered, and stuck in his life. Every Sunday was a source of anxiety for him, knowing the the cycle of overwhelm was starting anew. After months of watching him living this way, his parents saw that he needed to slow down; they recognized his need to feel secure and grounded and to develop new patterns for being his most authentic self.

If your child is already beginning to fear the pressures of the upcoming school year or is refusing attendance at a summer camp, rest assured that there are pathways to greater ease and peace for your child and your family. I’d love to share some of the big tips and tools that worked for this 13-year-old on his journey, especially when starting a new activity or semester.


Most of these are simply opportunities to think about your own thinking and share your process with your child. By telling them about how you think and problem solve, you can invite them to develop their own (not necessarily the same) processes.

  • Show your tween/teen the planners, calendars, and time management techniques you use. Talk about how your system works, how you prioritize tasks, when you say “no” to things you can’t commit to (or don’t want to). Allow your child to choose the type of system they prefer.
  • Create family routines around planning the week ahead. On a designated day, at a set time, stop to talk about the upcoming week. Discuss which activities bring a sense of joy and ease, and which activities bring up stress.
  • When talking about upcoming activities or plans, you can share your inner dialogue about how you are preparing for the week. Describe what kind of things you need to do in order to be prepared for your meeting, or in order to have all of the meals cooked for the family, or in order to get the bills paid on time.
  • Encourage your child to mentally prepare as well. Ask questions like, “What do you need to do in order to feel prepared for the test?” or “What do you need in order to feel safe on the first day of school?” Letting your child name their own needs will give them a source of power and control, which will motivate them to take action.

Outside of scheduling and planning, there is a great deal of metacognition you can share with your child to help them develop self-awareness.

  • Talk about how anxiety feels in YOUR own experience. How does it show up in your body? Give qualities and descriptors to it. For example, do you get tense shoulders, a racing heart, shortness of breath, scattered thoughts, etc.? You also might consider giving your anxiety a number, using a 1–10 scale. In naming our anxiety, we can begin to understand that while it is something we experience, it does not define us. Over time, if you notice anxiety or tension in your child’s body, words, or behaviors, you can begin to ask them to notice what they observe or to rate their sensations. They will have the language for this through your modeling!
  • Make time to talk about support systems and resources. Tell your child about those you go to for help. Whom do you seek advice from? Where do you get your information? Whom do you open up with? Tell them what this experience feels like. Ask your child whom they feel comfortable asking for help. Help them identify the people they can socialize with comfortably. Role-play situations in which they ask for help. The more your child practices this with you, the more prepared they will be to advocate for themselves as needed.
  • Help your child generate a list of the top five topics they like to talk about with peers. Share the types of questions you like to be asked when meeting new people. Help them develop some go-to questions to ask new acquaintances and friends.
  • Share with your child about the ways you incorporate peace and quiet into your life. Do you read for 20 minutes before bed? Do you do a crossword over coffee? Encourage your child to commit to time in their day for quiet and calm. Help them pick places they can go during the day to recharge or get away from the chaos of school life. Having routines that offer safety and security will enable your teen to feel more equipped and energized for the other activities that may be more draining.

The more often you and your child engage in conversation about the ways we perceive and process the world, the more self-aware they will be, and the more connected you will feel. While transitions may still be challenging in your family, the more intentional practice we have with approaching new opportunities with authenticity, the more confident and grounded our young people will feel.

Courtney Harris


Lifelong outcomes and micro schools

There’s an exciting new middle school starting up in Austin, and our friends at Tiny Schools are here to explain the rationale behind the micro school model. You can follow Tiny Schools on Twitter and learn more on their website.

The World Economic Forum recently published its list of the skills every 21st century student needs.  A few years ago, Tony Wagner published his Seven Survival Skills for the 21st century.  I could go on . . .

Plenty of people have thrown in their submission to the “what do kids need to know?” sweepstakes. Or, calling it what it is, “what do we teach kids when the nature of jobs and the value of knowledge seem to change every few days?” And we aren’t wrong to wonder—the turmoil in both higher ed and the job market has a lot of people scratching their heads. But I’d like to consider that the list of what we should teach kids has never changed.

Let’s compare Wagner’s list with that of the World Economic Forum:


  • Critical Thinking and problem solving
  • Collaboration
  • Agility and adaptability
  • Initiative and entrepreneurship
  • Accessing and analyzing Information
  • Effective oral and written communication
  • Curiosity and imagination

World Economic Forum

  • Complex problem solving
  • Critical thinking
  • Creativity
  • Communication
  • Collaboration
  • Curiosity
  • Initiative
  • Persistence/Grit
  • Leadership
  • Adaptability
  • Social and cultural awareness

Roughly 17 of these 18 skills listed overlap. The only non-overlapping skill is “social and cultural awareness.” However, I have a hard time believing that Wagner wouldn’t accept that skill as important. And it isn’t just these two lists that emphasize these skills or some variation on them. All the traits in the lists above basically capture the ethos of liberal arts education, not to mention that they show up in the story of just about every individual who has done something remarkable.

And we’ve always known the essential worth of these skills, usually through the lives of exceptional people. I bet we could cross-examine each skill, weigh it against monumental changes in technology and labor markets, and we’d arrive at what we already know: all these skills transcend time and place. People with some combination of these skills often rise above circumstances to lead extraordinary lives. The right question to ask may be: have people acquired these skills in spite of school?

In education we know the hard part isn’t the what, it’s the how.

The issue is that the educational system necessary to properly teach these skills doesn’t exist. The shortsighted, large-scale, factory-like system we use today won’t start manufacturing the answer out of nowhere. We need disruption. And to that end, methods like personalized learning, mixed-age classrooms, and Socratic dialogue all show promise. But if we want to make the right changes in education, we must encourage driven educators to launch new education programs quickly, and with as few administrative snags as possible. This idea is our lodestar at Tiny Schools.

The micro school concept offers a solution in which the focus is on great programs and great teachers. And this concept has taught us two important lessons about school change in today’s world:

First, you must start in the right place: good classrooms. If you have a great teacher who engages students, you have a working model. Great teaching occurs when teachers are unencumbered with the layers of management and minutiae that seems to permeate all schools. So hire great teachers and facilitate their ability to work independently in the classroom.

Second, throw out the bathwater. We’ve learned that it is quite hard to re-engineer an existing school from the inside (there are numerous examples of school leaders providing vision and funds to experiment; none “worked”). Toss out the legacy facets of schools and literally start with a basic premise: we’re going to build an environment that permits students to take risks with their learning. That means that young people will feel comfortable failing because they know it is part of the learning process and failure won’t mean the student is no longer favored. To borrow a phrase: fail fast and often.

If the challenge is to place great teachers in a position to be successful, then we believe the tiny or micro is the solution. Like a great cup of coffee, there isn’t a lot of mystery in education. Professionals that love what they do—and a milieu that nurtures that passion—will produce a successful setting for learning. Simple ingredients, a professional, and some “space” for them to work. Start there.

Tiny Schools

Creating your own high school

Kristin Kim, founder of Sansori School, is on a mission to transform the world collaboratively through compassion, community, and commerce. Along the way she has served in multiple roles: educator, Harvard program director, attorney, nonprofit developer, parent, and many more. She joins us on the blog today to announce a new program for teenage independent learners and to explain why she decided to create it.

Is your high-school-aged child charting his or her own path? Does your son or daughter already know what s/he wants to do (e.g., writing, dancing, firefighting, farming), pursuing in-depth training in that chosen field supplemented by community college courses in math and science? A dear friend recently shared her observation of this trend, and as someone who started an alternative high school in Austin last year, it made me pause and reflect. Of course, my initial response resembled fear—I wished for more students to come to our full-time high school program. But the more I thought about it, I couldn’t help but smile.

I have to admit that I like that these families are bucking even the alternative school model. They are going on their own and integrating a hands-on learning apprenticeship model. This path is not for everyone. Some need slightly more structure and/or more time to discover their passion or select among a few. But for those who are clear about what they want to do, at least for their first career, and are disciplined, creating their own high school allows for ultimate customization, freedom, and cost savings.

So I applaud these families, and would like to see teenagers who are inclined to follow this path do well. One way to encourage their growth is to bring these independent thinkers and doers together, to meet other trailblazers from our vibrant local sustainable business community, and to share and forge their ideas for living that are, as much as possible, free from the collective thinking that is so prevalent in our times.

I am proposing a once-a-week program for these independent teenagers to come together at Sansori to share what they are learning, reflect about life and being active citizens, meet local sustainable business leaders, and share music and art. This gathering of like-minded souls will strengthen, embolden, and liberate each person further than they could do on their own.

I invite teenagers who are already pursuing their own independent projects and taking one or more community college courses to find others on the same path and co-create a gathering space at Sansori. If your son or daughter is already on this path and this invitation resonates with you, please write to me (

The plan is to start with a Saturday gathering in early September 2017.

I am still learning about this amazing place called Austin, and I especially look forward to co-creating these Saturday gatherings with local mavericks.

At the core of the alternative education movement, we find our aspiration to liberate our children from the traditional model that is geared toward standardization. The more choice we can offer our children, and the more independent thinkers and doers we have, the better we all are.

Sansori is located in South Austin, at 8601 South 1st Street (near Slaughter). It is an independent alternative school and is not affiliated with any religious, ethnic, or political organization.

Kristin Kim

Austin Yawp!: A welcoming new learning community where families connect

A new unschooling and peaceful parenting space called Austin Yawp! has emerged in the past few months, so I decided to grab the opportunity to learn more about it by talking with Hannah Ford, one of Yawp!’s founders. Although unschooling has been around as an alternative education option at least since the 1970s, the concept is new to me (but not to my sister and Alt Ed Austin founder Teri), so I began by asking about some basics.

What exactly is unschooling? Hannah explains that unschoolers allow kids to learn naturally, without an imposed curriculum. “You work together as a family, and kids are empowered to make choices just like adults are able to make choices. We respect children, and we trust them.” She says that it’s a little crazy that the world believes everyone needs a piece of paper and test scores to prove they are learning, when learning is such a fundamental, natural process.

But unschooling is not exactly “child-led” as people sometimes describe it. “The child is not always leading, because that would presume the child knows all that’s available. What we’re doing is looking for sparks of passion, and feeding them. We’re constantly watching to see what kids are excited about. ‘Strewing’ is a good term. You look for what makes a kid’s eyes light up, and help them find information—books, people, museums—and let them go as far as they want to. If your children are interested in fish, you follow the fish as long as they want to!”

Hannah emphasizes that although she favors unschooling, Yawp! welcomes families pursuing a whole variety of approaches to learning, including various forms of homeschooling, alternative schooling, and even public school.

“We’ve been reassuring people that there is no test. If you’re interested in peaceful parenting and trusting and respecting children, we want to hear what you have to say. We want to be inclusive of a variety of philosophies. When you come here, you’re acknowledging respect for what we’re doing, respect for all the other families.”

Unschooling is still an uncommon choice, which can be isolating. Hannah saw that families needed a way to combat that isolation, and that’s how Austin Yawp! was born. “I feel like not only are families connecting with each other through Yawp!, but they’re also deepening family relationships. We have some kids who previously weren’t that comfortable in social settings, but here there’s a space where the vibe is welcoming to everyone, and that allows for connections and friendships.”

“And it’s really nice to meet other families on neutral ground, where no one has to worry about tidying up the house, and there’s no one hushing you, as you might have at a library or coffee shop,” says Hannah.

A typical day at Yawp! includes some planned events as well as open drop-in hours when families can meet to pursue any activity that interests them. Kids have met up for Minecraft, to create elaborate cardboard houses, and to play with DIY light sabers. The space has also hosted Raising Resisters, a parent discussion group that focuses on anti-oppressive parenting and education tactics.

Yawp! currently operates in a small space in the Mueller neighborhood, and they are planning to expand to a second location that will offer more room and a better outdoor play space. Watch their Facebook page for more details and information about upcoming events. And to learn more about activities, visiting, and the member agreement, check out the Austin Yawp! website.

Shelley Sperry

A tour of parenting (and educating) cultures with two kids

GloboGirls YouTubers Harper and Lyra celebrate the hard-to-describe beverage they came to appreciate while living and learning in New Zealand

GloboGirls YouTubers Harper and Lyra celebrate the hard-to-describe beverage they came to appreciate while living and learning in New Zealand

Well, even as I know I need to devote less time to mucking around on YouTube, Twitter, and the wonderful world of the web generally . . . sometimes it’s just so interesting! This week I decided to check in on Slate writer Dan Kois, who is spending all of 2017 traveling the world with his wife and two daughters for a book project, tentatively titled How to Be a Family. I used to enjoy listening to Dan on the parenting podcast Mom and Dad Are Fighting, until he left to pursue his traveling and writing project.

In part, this Media Monday is a recommendation to be on the lookout for the book because Dan is a lively, slightly curmudgeony writer whose insights about traveling, learning, and enjoying life with kids are bound to be fascinating. Unfortunately, the book is not due out until 2019! But as I was searching for the latest interviews with Dan (see below) to find out how his odyssey is shaping up, I found a terrific little surprise: the Kois kids, Lyra and Harper, have their own YouTube channel, called GloboGirls, where they are recording their adventures and the education they’re getting as their parents take them hopping from New Zealand to the Netherlands to Costa Rica to Kansas, with side trips to Hawaii and Dubai! So far, the girls have lived in and attended school in Wellington, New Zealand, and have just recently moved to the Netherlands.

In New Zealand, kids at Harper’s school took their shoes off before entering the classroom. At Lyra’s school, where kids of many ages are mixed together, she was greeted by a traditional Maori welcome ceremony. Yes, I’m a little jealous.

Dan says that he chose to go to places where families are good at things that his family is not so good at. I really like that as a reason for travel! So in New Zealand, that meant living life mostly outdoors. Maybe in the Netherlands it will be living life mostly on bikes? With tulips? We’ll see . . .

Take a listen and look at the Kois family chronicles:

Shelley Sperry


Media Monday: “Our grade book is the real world.” Learners take control.

“It’s time for education to be transformed,” say the founders and curators of Trailblazers, a new journal about what’s happening in learner-centered education right now. Of course, we couldn’t agree more. But what’s worth noting and celebrating about this manifesto is that is it written, edited, and designed by students themselves. They plan to publish once each semester.

Anya Smith-Roman, Kaylyn Winters, and Abigail Emerson are all students at Atlanta’s Mt. Vernon Institute for Innovation (MFIVI), which is linked to Mt. Vernon Presbyterian School. As part of a unique “innovation diploma” project, the students and their friends are energetically doing all the things alternative education is about: They’re connecting with community members and entrepreneurs. They’re making choices about their own learning and creating something new and all their own. They are declaring that they want to “blur the line between school and the real world and leave the world better than we found it.”

At MVIFI, the emphasis is consistently on getting out in the community to act and interact. “Our grade book is the real world,” says 10th-grader Brady Vincent. Brady is an entrepreneur who has consulted with outside organizations and is now working on a backpack with modular, interchangeable parts.

The first issue of Trailblazers includes a look at a recent learner-centered education conference through interviews with participants. Education Reimagined'sPioneer Lab program hosted the conference in Washington, DC, last fall, with more planned for this year.

Also in the journal: Neel Pujar, now in college at UC San Diego, talks about his experiences working on Design39Campus, a unique K-8 learning environment within a traditional public school district in San Diego. And New Zealander Kim Mi Yeoh writes about blending her interests in animals, architecture, and activism against factory farming in Auckland while studying at  Hobsonville Point Secondary School. Cali Ragland of Perkiomen Valley High School in Pennsylvania explains how she is pursuing a way to enhance curiosity in education and approaching it as a design challenge:

We identified Curiosity . . . as an important component and aspect of learning. We determined that this was an important quality for learning that is often not included in education, and, as a result, we are now trying to determine how a system of education can include Curiosity to better meet the needs of the 21st-century learner.

For more information about learner-centered education, take a look at the Mount Vernon Institute for Innovation and at Education Reimagined, a national organization promoting learner-centered approaches. And check out the video below:

Shelley Sperry