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All images and posts written by and copyright to Amanda Clements (nee Gray) 2009-2012 unless otherwise indicated.

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.


Monday, March 14, 2011

Parent stories: Different types of anxiety

So... I found after my last post that comments on my Facebook page indicate that if your child struggles to re-adjust to school after the holidays, you are not alone. One parent said that they had to help the children re-adjust every school holidays - not just after the long summer break.

There were also some strategies suggested by families to help their children adjust. They included:

  • Playing schools during the school holidays.
  • Starting the school routine a few weeks prior to school going back.
  • Relaxation therapy prior to and at school - such as deep pressure therapy.

Different things will work for different children/youth. But it helps to understand the type of anxiety your child is feeling.

Environmental Anxiety

This is the label I have given to behaviour that comes out due to anxiety in a specific event. For example, something may happen in the classroom, at school or at home that may cause an immediate reaction. Parents of children with Autism Spectrum Disorders often talk about a child screaming or shutting down, chewing clothing, biting others, running away and/or hiding when something occurs to distress them.

Anxiety due to an ongoing activity or trigger

Other behaviours show that the anxiety is due to a repeated event. These behaviours may include moodiness, nightmares, wetting the bed, the need to cling to someone and so on. This usually indicates that there is an ongoing activity that is causing the child anxiety.

Anxiety Disorders

If a child is showing signs of constant, ongoing anxiety over a period of 6 months or more, it may be time to consult with a psychologist. Kanakos (2011) provides a brief overview of different types of anxiety disorders. These will need to be dealt with differently than the more transient anxieties mentioned above.


Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Ask Amanda - Dealing with anxiety

I wanted to put a vote in for the "Ask Amanda" days - this occurred to me last night as I tossed and turned trying to work out how to help my daughter deal with anxiety. She has just started Year 1 and has had a number of wee accidents at school (none over the break) and she wakes up every night and insists on sleeping in our bed - both these behaviours have started with the new term hence I think they may be about her anxiety...would love any advice/tips or simply stories of similar experience...


Imagine this...

You have just been invited to a new friend's home for dinner. It will be the first time you have been there.

Getting there

First, you double check that you have the address right and you are given a description of the place. You might even get someone to drive you past just so you are confident you can get there.

Then you consult Google maps and get a set of written directions, a map and a street view of the place. You are getting even more confident.

On the night you have butterflies in your tummy, but that is expected. Another friend who knows the way offers to come with you. So now you barely worry at all.

With a little anxiety, you get in the car. But because you have someone you trust with you, and you have a written road map, and pictures representing the place, you manage to get there and enjoy the evening - and get home!

A break

But then you don't get invited there for a while. Until one day, a few weeks down the track, you get invited again. Because you have been there before, you don't really worry. You just set off....

Getting there again

But last time you were driving at dusk, so now all the landmarks look different.

And while you thought you could remember all the turns, it turns out that you don't... and you forgot to bring the maps and instructions. And this time you are giving a lift to someone who "sort of" knows the way, but you don't know them well enough to trust them.

You do get there. But by the time you get there you are so anxious it is hard to relax and enjoy the company - all you can think of is having to drive home again.

But you don't really want to tell anyone because you feel like you should know what to do because you know you have done it before.

The analogy

No, this isn't just a random story :). It is an analogy of how a child may feel as they transition back to school after the school holidays...

"Landmarks" change, "supports" are different or fewer. And the expectations are different. For children with developmental disabilities, add to this a difficulty with problem-solving and analysing your environment, and it is no wonder that the transition back to school after the holidays is a very anxious time.

So what can we do?

I will take a little time this month to talk about what can be done. But if anyone reading this blog has a story or some advice to offer, please post a comment here.



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