School anxiety

“Many worries are born of fatigue and exaggeration”
Apologies to the poem Desiderata

At the beginning of the year, I took a small group of six year olds to read with me. One of the little boys put his hand over his mouth and shook his head.

“I don’t want to go!” he said.

I was surprised. He knows me well, and even if he didn’t feel like reading, there is always the Reading Fairy, waiting in my room, with some treats for students who try hard. Usually it is not hard to get this age group to come and read with me. Then he said from behind his hand, 

“I think I forgot how to read in the holidays!”

I could see he was genuinely anxious about this situation, so I said,

“…not to worry…we are all starting again this term.”

Only then he was happy to come along. To his great relief, when we opened the book…he had not forgotten after all! This is just a small example of the type of worry a child may have at school, especially in the first few years. I was lucky that he could articulate his worry so clearly and it was an easy worry to overcome. In my teaching experience, worrying is a great blocker to learning!

The beginning of the school year, for many students, can be stressful, with different teachers, and classrooms, and often, different classmates. On a very simple, practical level, we can help children to keep the worries at bay in these ways:

Talking and listening. Give your child time. Pay attention to what they are saying to you. Sometimes, a worry can be “nipped in the bud” with some practical advice from mum or dad, or the teacher.

“I’m scared that the kids don’t like me and don’t want to be friends” 

“Well, let’s talk about some games you can play on the playground, so that you can ask Allie and Matt to play with you.”

When a child expresses a worry, try to give them a practical suggestion to overcome the problem. Even though you may be thinking,

“Oh this is a terrible thing to happen to my child…she has no friends” 

Keep your response practical and optimistic. If you seem worried, your child understandably thinks,

“Oh no, Mum thinks this is terrible, it must be terrible” 

Making home “a port in a storm”

Predictable family routines during the school week may seem a long way from worrying, but the reverse is true. Every adult knows that when life is unpredictable, then the safety of home, the familiar and predictable routines and meals times, are a relief from outside pressures.

The beginning of the school year is really hectic for children, parents, and teachers. Almost every teacher I know wants to crawl into bed at about 8.30pm in the first few weeks of school. It is just the same for most students. If a tired child goes from school, to an intensive swimming lesson to a late dinner, and a later bedtime…he will be tired, and less able to cope with the following day. 

In the words of the Desiderata poem, “Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.”

…let’s put aside loneliness, fatigue is enough to bring on the worries.

Realistic ways of thinking and behaving…

My daughter and her friend had just learnt to drive, and drove off to a party. (This situation alone is enough to strike fear into the heart of most parents.) Later that night we had a phone call from our daughter…both girls were coming home in the car, and a big huntsman spider crawled across the front windscreen of the car. They managed to pull over to the curb without crashing the car and both ran (probably screaming) from the car. The only thing they could think to do was to ring their Dads for help! 

(as parents we get 0 out of 10 for teaching them resilience). To their credit both Dads told them to flick the huntsman out of the car with the street directory! They thought this was the drama of a life time, which shows they have been very lucky in life!

We, on the other hand, had anticipated car crashes, and all the collective worries of teenagers and parties. In reality, they drove well, and had a happy time at the party. The huntsman was the only real worry!

Some children are more prone to drama and worrying than others. Other children are perfectionists and worry about any imperfections. Most children (and adults) who are anxious, overestimate how likely it is that bad events will occur. Secondly, they assume that the outcome will be terrible and unbearable. When children are anxious, it is worth discussing some of ways around worrying:

“if we are late for school, what is the worst thing that can happen?”

“you can take a note to the teacher, and you may have missed a bit of the lesson, but not all”

“if I am late to pick you up, it could be, because of the traffic,…I had a late phone call,…the car broke down.”

If your child anticipates situations and worries, give her some safety nets.

“If I am late, I have organised for Joan to pick you up”

“if you put your reader in the same place every night, then you will remember it the next day”. 

If children are worried and anxious, here are some strategies that do not help:

• Being tough on a child

• Refusing to talk about it

• Becoming impatient with the child

• Ignoring the child’s anxiety

• Excessively reassuring the child especially while showing anxiety yourself.

Change Your Thinking: by Sarah Edelman  ABC Books
Helping Your Anxious Child: by Rapee, Spence, Cobham, Wignall  New Harbinger Publication
How to succeed with Developing Resilience: by J.Allen, M.Murray, and K. Simmons. Curriculum Corporation

by Geraldine Mackey