School can be one of the most difficult periods of time for children and their parents when struggling with anxiety. Often schools have very little training in mental health conditions, therefore, are not aware of how to identify anxiety in children, often misinterpreting behaviors as purposeful defiance. In my experience, I find that most teachers and school staff mean well when first presented information on a student, but that positive attitude quickly fades when the daily anxiety presents itself. Additionally, anxiety is unique to each child, causing teachers to make assumptions based on their experiences with anxiety either personally or professionally. While there is no foolproof plan to help students with anxiety, and the plan will evolve over time, I am including options that I have used successfully as a teacher and have seen used successfully with my daughter.
IEPs and 504s are both formal plans offered to students to help them succeed at school. They contain some similar features but there are key differences. For either option, parents can request that their child be evaluated for additional services at any time. Once requested, school personal will begin working with parents and the child to gather information from teachers and parents to see what, if any, services could benefit the child. Below I will summarize each one. For more detailed information visit understood.org
IEPs have two requirements in order to obtain: A child has 1 or more of the 13 specific disabilities listed in IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). A child’s listed disability must impact his or her educational performance and/or the ability to benefit from the general education curriculum, leading to the need for specialized instruction. An IEP is more in depth and more specific than a 504.
504s offer more flexibility by allowing a child with any disability that interferes with learning in the general education environment. A child who does not qualify for an IEP may qualify for a 504.
Before I begin describing ways in which the school can assist an anxious child, please note there is a legal difference between an accommodation and a modification. Accommodations change HOW the child learns the material. Examples include listening to a text rather than reading it, seat placement within the classroom, or time allowed on an assignment or assessment. Modifications change WHAT a child is taught or expected to learn. Examples include reading a shorter text or learning math at a lower level. The team put into place will decide what accommodations and/or modifications are best for your child’s current situation. IEPs and 504s can be modified as the need arises, but do require proper documented support and a formal discussion in order to make that happen.
Ideas to Help an Anxious Child at School
As mentioned, anxiety presents itself differently in all children, therefore, you may use bits and pieces from any of these suggestions, but my hope is that these ideas give you a starting point in talking with your child’s school.
For many children, getting from home to school can be an anxious experience. Some children will relax and enjoy the day once this transition has occurred, while others remain anxious throughout the day.
- Prior to the first day of school, drive or walk to school, practice getting out of the car and walking towards the door practice breathing techniques and talk about fun topics to make this experience a positive one. Most teachers must return to work a few days before the first day for students. Ask if your child can meet the teacher and spend a few minutes in the classroom prior to the first day.
- I have found that arriving at school right before or after the intended arrival time can ease anxieties because the school entrances and hallways are relatively quiet and free of people. Ask for someone who knows your child to meet you either at the car or at the doors. This person will be there to help transition between the parent and the teacher. Create a quick but calm good bye routine and leave your child in the care of the trusted adult. A more intense intervention would be asking the school to find a quiet space within the school that your child and the trusted adult could go to for a period of time before transitioning into the classroom. For some children, having a family picture or special stuffed animal waiting in the classroom can ease this adjustment.
- For older children who may struggle with separation anxiety, sending a few emails home throughout the day allows for non disruption connections between the child and the parent. Most students have email access during the school day. I send a fun,relaxed email to my daughter each morning. When she is nervous she can open her email and there is a message from me. II do not suggest that children use their personal phones to send the emails, as it opens the possibilities to phone calls and texts. The school should supply a device for your child to send email while in the classroom.
- Knowing the plan for the day can help children adjust. Ask the teacher to leave a basic outline of the day either on the board or on the child’s desk. Allow the child to ask clarification questions about the day in order to relax about what lies ahead.
Classrooms can be an overwhelming experience due to the number of people, constant noise, many transitions, etc. These tips can assist anxious children and children struggling with attention issues.
- Allow the child to find their most comfortable place to sit, whether that is off to the side as to not feel crowded, or close to the teacher’s desk for more security
- Allow the child to bring in non distracting comforts from home or fidgets as needed. Gum chewing can also help kids who are anxious or have trouble focusing
- Allow child to take scheduled, structured breaks as needed. The break details should be laid out with length of time, places that can be accessed during break times, and how to let the teacher or aid know when the break with take place. Some children use a card or large eraser, placed on their desk when they need a break. This lets everyone know why the child is leaving the classroom. This system works great for children who are independent and responsible. Some children will need school staff with them for these breaks, but it should be an option for any child who needs movement or a change of scenery when feeling anxious.
- Give children options when group work is required. Not all children can successfully work with peers
- Ask for assistive technology as it applies to your child. Technology can provide relaxing music, oral presentation of written material, or the ability to type for the child. Here is a link for more details on assistive technology in the classroom understood.org
- A child can be allotted more time on classroom assignments, projects, or assessments. Work can also be completed in a more calm environment elsewhere in the school.
- In extreme conditions shortened school days may be an option for children who cannot handle the classroom environment for 7 hours. This is a case by case decision but has been used effectively for students who need an opportunity to attend school but fall apart with a full day. However, for families with two working parents, or one working single parent, this option is not possible.
- A child may need a teacher’s aide to support during transitions within the school day, during times of over stimulation such as lunch, recess, or PE, or during academic work time. This extra support is hard to secure. Make sure you do your research, noting how and why your child will benefit from the additional support. When possible, have your child’s therapist or doctor advocate on how an additional staff member would benefit your child emotionally and academically.
- A child may need help staying organized within the school day, getting to classes on time, managing unplanned situations that arise throughout the day. There needs to be a safe place that your child can go to when their anxiety begins to get out of control. Without a place to manage their anxiety, no learning can take place.
- A child may need assistance getting prepared to leave for the day...support in making sure assignments are noted, materials collected, and the bus caught on time.
- Use a reward system to praise the efforts when using the tools that are put in place- rather than acting out during an anxious moment, a child goes to the specified safe location or a child may work through their anxieties to complete a challenging assignment. These rewards can be anything that is important to your child...a snack, working towards a new game, extra time before bed.
- Document, document, document- keep track on what you see as negatives arising during the school day. Schools need to know specific instances of where your child is struggling in order to meet his or her needs
- If behaviors are happening due to anxiety, it must be noted that poor behavior choices cannot be tolerated even with anxiety, BUT the school needs to put forth the effort to reduce the anxiety triggers so that the bad behavior is not occuring
Finally (and I believe the biggest reason that anxiety is so high in schools), teachers and staff need educated on what causes anxiety, how anxiety can present itself in students, and tools and procedures that can assist anxious children. It is imperative that those working with your child have a clear understanding how anxiety presents itself in your child. If you are working with a therapist, ask your therapist to be part of the meeting or at least make a connection to the school via phone or email. Teachers must help identify your child’s anxiety as it rises in the hopes that together, it can be calmed and a positive outcome is learned. Sometimes, a teacher simply taking a minute to remind a child to breathe, engage in a funny story, or take a walk around the playground can diffuse the anxiety enough to return to learning within the classroom.
You know your child better than anyone else. You MUST be your child's advocate. It feels overwhelming and intimidating but you can do it. Get your thoughts and requests organized and move forward helping your child have the school year that they deserve!