- How to spot childhood anxiety and what to do about it
- Childhood anxiety can be treated, but the challenge is to recognize it
- How does anxiety affect your child’s academics?
- What’s the most effective way to treat children with anxiety?
- All work and no play: Why your kids are anxious
- How can I cope with an anxious child?
- How to discipline a child with anxiety
- How to help your child with school anxiety
- Should my anxious child go on medication?
School can seem like a dangerous place to a child with anxiety. With lots of activity, separation from parents, being away from home, and with different foods, smells, and people, school can be a trigger for anxiety and panic attacks. Pressure to perform well on tests, fit in with peers, or the stigma of being “different” can also add to the challenges faced by a child with anxiety. Solid routines, preparation, and getting the school involved can help your child with anxiety be more prepared to manage time at school.
Retrain their brain about school
We all know that there are anxiety disorders, but school anxiety is a little bit different. School anxiety is real fear your child is responding to in an irrational manner. In other words, their brain is convinced that school is unsafe, and it needs to protect the student. Consequently, when the topic of going to school is brought up, it triggers the fight (defiance) response or flight (avoidance) response.
The first thing to remember when trying to help your child through school anxiety is to realize that the “tough love” or “suck-it-up” response will not work with school anxiety. The best thing to do is empower them by teaching them to put the “thinking” part–the frontal cortex–of the brain back in control instead of the primal response portion–the amygdala. They can do this by “re-educating” the brain that there is nothing to worry about when it comes to school.
This can be accomplished by a lot of encouraging reminders from you, as the parent, that school is fun and safe. Your child can also help themselves by something called positive self-talk such as, “School is fun. My friends are there,” “School is safe. My teachers are there and they would not let anything happen to me,” etc.
Also, the relaxation technique of breathing in deeply through the nose and exhaling through the mouth several times helps.
Finally, being organized for each school day can give your student a calm, secure start to the day. Make a checklist if you need to in order to make sure nothing is forgotten: backpack —check, lunchbox—check, homework—check, etc.
You need to advocate for your kid with the school
As a teacher, my heart breaks for kids and their parents who suffer from school anxiety. As hard as it is, you are your child’s biggest advocate. You really need to get the school on board to support you. They may be able to identify any factors that are exacerbating the anxiety, but it is most important that you provide a means for your child to enter school successfully and have a pleasant experience.
This will need to be done in such a way that ALL other focuses of school are removed initially, with the only focus being to get to school. From there, as they develop strategies and confidence, the other stuff can be added back into the mix.
Transitions are a big part of school anxiety
At the toddler stage, most school-related anxiety will be related to separation anxiety and fear of the unknown. It can be helpful to have a “Goodbye Routine” that happens each time you leave your child. This might involve you staying for a set number of minutes to watch them settle in, followed by a hug or a high five. Your child should know that you are leaving, as it will erode their trust if you leave unexpectedly.
A teacher can then distract the child with a fun activity to re-engage them with their play. If possible, ask the teacher to let you know if there are going to be any activities that are out of the ordinary such as a visitor or an outing so that you can prepare your child for the change in routine.
It is never pleasant to not want to do something due to anxiety, so school that is compulsory can be very challenging for an anxious child. One of the key factors in helping your child with school anxiety is having a firm routine. Make sure to build in extra time for transitions (e.g., leaving home) to prevent panic and make sure that all projects, assignments, and tasks are completed as soon as they are received to avoid anxiety due to last-minute rushing.
If your child has social anxiety, you can help them learn some basic conversation techniques to make “small talk” easier. You can also act out some scenarios using role-play to prepare them for how a situation may unfold or how they will feel. Make sure the teacher knows your child is anxious and ask them where possible to have a safe space where your anxious child can go when they are feeling overwhelmed.
Work with others to assuage your child’s school anxiety
School can be a big trigger for children with anxiety. But you can help by creating a calming morning routine that helps your child be prepared for the day. Perhaps a checklist, picture story, or social story can help you and your child make sure they have everything prepared for the day so they aren’t triggered by forgotten homework, a messy desk, or a missing snack.
Work closely with your child’s teachers and guidance counselors. In most cases, they will already have ideas and strategies to implement to help your child cope with his or her school day. Together, you, your child, and his or her doctor can put together some specific coping ideas, such as a comfort item, the opportunity to take a break in the nurse’s office, or perhaps the opportunity to call you during their lunch or free period.
Spend time talking with your child about the triggers at school, and reframe them in positive ways.