Solve Back-to-School Anxiety For Children With Learning Difficulties

Solve Back-to-School Anxiety For Children With Learning Difficulties

Takeaway: Learning differences and difficulties add to existing back-to-school anxieties, creating a toxic anxiety-avoidance feedback loop. The solution? First, listen to your child’s fears so she feels heard, and then help her build a new, stronger self-identity.

Back-to-school anxiety feels horrible and can make children want to avoid school.

Anxiety is a normal reaction to possible future stress. And at this time of year, it’s a normal reaction to the stress of restarting school. But this back-to-school anxiety can be overwhelming as it affects children at many levels. For one, anxiety changes the way they think – making them hypersensitive to potentially-difficult challenges like a new syllabus, higher expectations from teachers, or a heavier workload. Then there’s their body’s physical reaction to these fears – with symptoms like sweating, nausea, a tightening chest, a rapidly beating heart, etc. And these mental and physical triggers make them avoid things they would have usually faced confidently. So, now they have to tackle this new avoidance reaction that complicates their lives even more.

Ironically, this avoidance reaction worsens the initial triggering anxiety.

A child’s initial anxiety might be justified – for instance, she might be anxious about getting a new teacher because her earlier teacher had a short temper. But as uncomfortable as this initial anxiety might be, it’ll only worsen if she tries avoiding school. That’s because it’ll reinforce her assumption that she can’t cope with new challenges, which can affect her self-confidence and self-esteem. So, a relatively minor problem quickly snowballs into a larger one through this anxiety-avoidance feedback loop. And as her anxiety levels rise, it gets harder to think through possible solutions calmly. (Remember, anxiety affects our brain’s working memory, making it harder to focus, think, plan, and act rationally.)

Unfortunately, this anxiety feedback loop hits children with learning difficulties the worst.

Children with learning differences and difficulties already face tough challenges. For instance, they might struggle to read (dyslexia), write (dyspraxia), and do maths (dyscalculia). Or they might find it hard to understand facial expressions and body language (i.e., non-verbal learning differences), speech sounds (auditory processing disorder), and more. So, unless they’ve adapted their learning styles to allow for these differences, they’re already anxious about not being able to keep up in class. Now, imagine what it’s like to stack the anxiety-avoidance loop on top of this pre-existing anxiety! We’re sure to see significantly higher panic levels and significantly lower levels of self-esteem.

To complicate things further, children with learning difficulties are experts at masking their anxieties.

Children with learning difficulties usually get embarrassed about falling short of their potential, despite being intelligent and capable. So, they blame themselves for ‘failing,’ and try to mask their difficulties – for instance, copying homework so that teachers don’t notice they’re struggling. But their anxiety doesn’t go away just because they deny it. So, it transforms into social anxiety/withdrawal, aggressiveness, persistent nightmares, body aches, and more.

As parents, our first task is to explore our children’s anxieties and validate their concerns.

So far in this post, we’ve been looking at anxiety objectively as detached outsiders. But really, we need to explore what back-to-school anxiety feels like on the inside. For instance, what is your child thinking about when she zones out during conversations? Or what does it feel like when she’s struggling in class or tongue-tied around friends? Is she worried about getting more homework than she can handle? And if so, what specifically is worrying? But remember: don’t try and start problem-solving immediately or insist on healthier, more ‘positive’ thinking. She knows she hasn’t been performing as well as her classmates, so any positive thinking tactics and self-esteem boosts you push will seem insincere and detached from reality. Instead, simply accept and validate whatever she tells you, helping her feel truly heard. That alone is so stress relieving.

Next, help your child create a new self-identity by celebrating small wins.

Because of all the anxiety, your child is likely focusing only on her weaknesses and ignoring her strengths. So, here’s where you can help her re-envision herself as a resourceful, resilient student. And you’ll do this by giving her tiny, easy-to-face challenges that she can string together as a sequence of small wins. For instance, if she loves art, have her make cute ‘thank you’ cards for you to use. It’s a chance to enjoy her art skills, with the added bonus of helping her parent out with something practical. Similarly, untangle large projects into component threads. So, if her dyscalculia makes maths difficult, you can divide the challenge into three projects: (1) Work with a dyscalculia specialist. (2) Practise alternative learning techniques (e.g., convert maths problems into easy-to-visualise drawings). And, (3) Spend 20 minutes reviewing whatever she learned yesterday. So, the scary, formless fear of ‘maths’ is now a series of manageable projects/habits on a checklist. And each small win reinforces her new identity in a way motivational pep talks can’t.

But a new self-identity alone isn’t enough. Your child must also learn to spot and tackle anxiety episodes early.

Your child is actively dismantling the anxiety-avoidance feedback loop by facing her fears. But that doesn’t mean her anxiety will instantly disappear. So, the next challenge is to tackle it early, before it spirals out of control. And for this, she’ll need to learn new coping tools. For instance, a short daily mindfulness practice makes it easier to spot anxiety early. And distraction techniques like chewing peppermint gum or going for a short walk can get her out of her head long enough to derail an anxiety attack. (Remember, once the anxiety goes beyond a certain point, she’s in flight-or-fight mode, and nothing will get through to her. And the memory of that intense anxiety makes it even harder to face the challenge next time. So we want to spot and tackle anxiety as early as possible.)

Spotting triggers and learning coping skills can be tricky, though. So it helps to have a specialist guiding you.

Back-to-school anxiety is more complicated for children with learning difficulties, and there’s a lot you could potentially do to help. For instance, you could hire a private tutor, ask for classroom accommodations for your child, use exposure therapy or cognitive-behavioural therapy techniques, etc. But more isn’t always better, and some methods combine better than others. That’s why many parents prefer to consult with specialists who can guide them through their options. At The Ed Psych Practice, we offer face-to-face and online assessments, consultation, advice, and problem-solving strategies for parents, nurseries, schools, and universities in London. We have psychologists, paediatricians, and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support. To consult with us or set up an appointment:

Want to see how else you can help your child? You might enjoy some of our other posts.

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