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Thursday, March 17, 2011

Dealing with the anxiety of going back to school

One of the issues that causes anxiety for children with a wide range of behavioural, emotional or developmental difficulties as they return to school after a break include the difficulty of predicting what might happen next.  Due to executive functioning issues, many of these children find it hard to retrieve or apply any previous experiences they may have had if those experiences are not exactly the same (same room, same teacher, same peers etc) or if there has been a break in their routine (eg holidays).  It is kind of like waking up to a new environment every day.

The Comfort of Routine

I don't know about you, but I am a bit of a "home-body".  I like going on holidays, but by the time the second week rolls around I start missing familiar things.  My bed.  My kitchen.  My books.  My routines. 

Imagine if you could never go home.  I know that would cause me great anxiety. There is comfort in routines.  It is the comfort of knowing what to expect.  Constantly dealing with "surprises" is emotionally wearing.  And this is multiply true for children who struggle with flexible thinking.  For these children, and children who struggle with self-regulation, the lack of predictability can lead to frustration and anxiety as they struggle to identify and follow expectations (Swanson, 2005).

Managing Anxiety with Routines and Organisational Strategies

Lytle and Todd (2009) highlight how routines are an important factor in helping to manage the stress of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder.  Anderson et al. (2008) go further and discuss how organisation techniques taught to older students can have an impact on the academic performance of students with behaviour disorders.  Swanson (2005) provides a comprehensive list of ways that we can help children recognise routines and feel in control by being organised.  Below are the key strategies we could use, both at home and at school:
  1. Organise the environment:  Make sure you remove clutter, have clear boundaries for where you do certain activities, and have set spaces where equipment is kept.
  2. Use visual or written schedules: Calendars help children predict what is coming up, especially if you cross off each day as it passes. Visual schedules for the day's routine, as well as a schedule for an activity, will help children be more confident in what they need to do.  When it is holidays, count down on the calendar to when school starts again.  Keep as much of the "school routine" at home as possible, or (as one parent suggested) start the routine a couple of weeks before school goes back.
  3. Clearly identify start and finish points:  Use clocks, sounds, verbal and visual warnings to help children count up to starting points and count down to finishing.  This applies to individual activities, a session or a new school term.
  4. Be organised:  Use containers, checklists, flow-charts to help children be organised and know what is coming up next.
  5. Have rules:  Display rules that clearly set out your expectations - but don't have too many.  Avoid "don't" rules, but use statements that tell children what they should be doing.
  6. Use photos: Prepare children for important people they will meet or interact with through photos.  You might also use video of new settings, people and/or activities.
Hopefully some of these techniques will help your child deal with the anxiety of going to school.  The techniques will be most effective when they are used at home and at school, so it is important that parents and teachers share what they are doing with each other.

Next time I will talk about using relaxation techniques....



Anderson, D.H., Munk, J.H., Young, K.R.,  Conley, L., Caldarell, P.  (2008).  Teaching Organisational Skills to Promote Academic Achievement in Behaviourally Challenged Students.  Teaching Exceptional Children, 40(4), p6.

Lytle, R & Todd, T.  (2009).  Stress and the Student with Autism Spectrum Disorders: Strategies for Stress reduction and Enhanced Learning.  Teaching Exceptional Children, 41(4), p36.

Swanson, T.C.  (2005).  20 Ways to Provide Structure for Children with Learning and Behaviour Problems.  Intervention in School and Clinic, 40(3), p182.


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