Care and Feeding

My Child Desperately Wants to Perform. The Problem? He Has Terrible Stage Fright.

A boy on stage.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by ChiccoDodiFC/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Adam Taylor/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email askateacher@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

I’m looking for help with stage fright. My child was so excited for the school Christmas program when he was in kindergarten last year, but when it came time to perform, he came out and looked like a deer in the headlights the whole time. In hindsight, I think he wasn’t prepared for the size of the crowd. He has had two more school performances since then and was slightly better but still subdued during the actual performance despite being an exuberant singer and dancer at home. He has a performance coming up and is so nervous. He came home from school saying he has stage fright (I’m not sure if a friend or a teacher told him that term). I told him it’s OK to be nervous, but I don’t want the nerves to get in the way of having fun. Do you have any suggestions?

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—Scared Silent

Dear SS,

Stage fright is common and normal. I work with the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies who struggle mightily with stage fright and most people identify public speaking as one of their greatest fears. As someone who has been producing Shakespearean plays with third and fifth graders for 25 years, and as someone who performs onstage regularly as a storyteller, stand-up comic, and public speaker, I can assure you that this happens all the time.

I see it from novices and experienced performers. Corporate folk. College presidents. Clergy members. Nearly everyone whom I work with and alongside struggles in some way with this problem.

In fact, I don’t particularly like the phrase “stage fright,” since it’s the most common reaction to public speaking and performing. I think it’s far more unusual to be someone like me, who is never nervous before or while performing on stage. We are the weird ones. Everyone else is perfectly normal.

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I would ensure that your son understands this. Often the worst part about being nervous onstage is the thought that you are the only one. When you feel you alone are the problem, that can be crippling. When everyone around you is feeling similarly, it’s communal, manageable, and normal.

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Let your son know that public speaking and public performing are hard, and almost everyone— even people who perform for a living—feel nervous before and during a performance. You may not see their nervousness, because they are trying so hard to hide it, but it’s almost always there.  (This clip of Patti Smith singing at Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize ceremony is particularly moving and wonderful for children to watch—see right before the two-minute mark.)

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I’d also let your son know that the more you perform, the better it gets. There are lots of reasons to be nervous or afraid on stage, but part of it is the unknown. Rarely do we need to perform in a high-stakes scenario without being permitted to practice in the same conditions under which we’ll be performing.  But there are no practice audiences. No chances to simulate the conditions of an actual performance. We rehearse to empty chairs but perform to a full house. That represents an enormous unknown.  But the more you perform, the more you know and the less mystery remains. That will help a lot. Knowing that will help a lot.

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Work hard to normalize the fears that your son is feeling so that when he takes the stage again, he understands that his feelings are normal, common, and absolutely surmountable.

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Then tell him to have fun and break a leg. Maybe then explain the meaning behind “break a leg,” too.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

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My 4-year-old son has a July birthday and our large, city school district has a September cut-off for kindergarten. The district takes a very hard line against “redshirting”—if you wait until 6 to send a kid to school, they’re going to first grade not kindergarten. But my kid is autistic and has a severe speech delay that can be summed up as “reads as well as he talks.” Two years of pandemic isolation did not help any of this. He’s now in an immersive therapeutic preschool and improving leaps and bounds. We’re hoping by 6, his speech and social skills will have improved enough that he’d be comfortable in a kindergarten setting with minor accommodations and no IEP. But if we send him to school at a very young 5, it’s pretty likely that he’ll still need significant push-in support. I’d like to prevent that. I don’t want him to skip kindergarten, because kindergarten stresses the soft skills that he needs, rather than the academics he’s ahead on. And we’d like to get him into a mainstream environment rather than keep him in a therapeutic or special education setting.

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Is it unheard of to ask to start kindergarten at 6 as an accommodation? It seems like a win for everyone—less cost for the district, better fit for my kid. Or are we really stuck between moving to the rich, suburban districts where redshirting is common, or sending my kid at 5 when he’s not ready?

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—Not Ready for K

Dear Not Ready for K,

Generally, I’m with your district: I am also against redshirting. I also don’t see anything wrong with your son needing push-in support. Those supports exist because they work well to help kids develop the skills they need to be successful in school later on. And regardless of whether your son starts kindergarten at 5 or 6, he may still end up needing some amount of push-in support, if the immersive therapeutic preschool classes are at a significantly smaller ratio than a regular kindergarten. Imagine going from being one of 6-10 kids in a class to one of 20! That would be stressful for him in a way that is unnecessary, and totally preventable by having additional help in the class (thereby lowering the ratio).

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I cannot think of an instance where I’ve seen redshirting as an IEP accommodation. If anything, it’s often harder to hold back students with IEPs because there’s a concern about districts discriminating against their disabled students by holding them back due to their disability. That being said, those are always students who are already in elementary school, not students transitioning from preschool/early intervention programs into elementary school. I never had a parent ask about holding a kid back in preschool.

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As a general rule, I always say it can’t hurt to ask. Since it seems like you have a good relationship with the preschool, I would start there. They probably know what the district is willing to do, and what your options are for programs with different amounts of support. There may be a kindergarten program in your district that offers a level of support you’re comfortable with that would suit your son’s needs well. If you express your concerns to the preschool team now—before they have finished his kindergarten IEP—they can incorporate addressing those concerns into the new IEP, with whatever solution makes most sense for your son and for the options available in district. I would start with that conversation, and keep an open mind about what your options are before you resort to moving.

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—Ms. Sarnell (early childhood special education teacher, Colorado)

My sweet and sensitive 7-year-old is doing well academically in second grade, but he has struggled with anxiety about his classroom, sometimes to the point of tears. He’s repeatedly said that the biggest source of his anxiety is the rowdy misbehavior of the other kids, and the collective punishments that sometimes are the result wherein the whole class misses recess, etc. He doesn’t have any good friends and mostly spends recess alone.

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We brought him to a therapist that he’s seen before (also to talk about his prior anxiety to noise and crowds more generally), and her reaction was that he seems significantly above his grade academically but not emotionally. She asked if the school had a gifted and talented program and thought he might be significantly better off in a classroom of other GT kids. As it happens, he was tested last year and easily qualified for a GT program. However, our (highly rated) local IB public school deliberately doesn’t track GT kids separately. The idea is that the various IB projects give all the kids the benefits of GT education.

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I know that there are well-supported critiques of GT programs. I also can imagine that my kid might be genuinely better off if we could find a class that is maybe a little quieter and calmer where he might more easily find other quiet and cerebral kids. Is it time to look for another school, or do you think things will get easier for him? Do you have any recommendations?

—Separate Track?

Dear Separate Track,

Some questions need to be answered before making a decision. It’s still early in the school year, so are things improving in the classroom, remaining the same, or getting worse? It’s not usual for behavior to improve significantly as the year progresses, so perhaps things are getting better and will continue to get better.

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Is this particular class of students especially difficult, or is this a difficult group of kids across the entire grade? It can take just a handful of students (and sometimes just one) to create enormous problems in a classroom. If this is the case, things might be much better next year for your son when that particular group of students is separated.

Is this a teacher who struggles with classroom management? Sometimes the problem isn’t the students as much as the ability of the teacher to manage the students effectively. Again, if this is the case, next year might be far better for your son.

Are these issues currently being addressed by the administration? Essentially, does anyone see this as a problem in need of immediate intervention?

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Before deciding if you should move schools, I would answer these questions first.

As for a gifted and talented program being a possible solution, even if your son gained access to the gifted and talented program, that is typically time spent out of his classroom but not complete removal from his classroom. He may receive instruction in an alternate setting with his gifted and talented teacher for a few hours a week, but it will not be a panacea for the problems he’s facing.

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I’d seek to get those questions answered first before considering a move, which probably means scheduling a meeting with the principal. I’d express your concerns and ask him to be honest about what he sees in the future in terms of your son’s classroom environment. Only then can you make an informed decision. Best of luck.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

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