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Xavier, a sophomore at Lenape High School in Medford, was in seventh grade when he was officially diagnosed with anxiety. But – truth be told – his school-related jitters trace back to kindergarten.

During that first year of formal education, the 5-year-old was already losing sleep over what to write in his journal the following day, says his mother Diana Tavares, a Cherry Hill elementary school teacher. In second grade, he started seeing a therapist, who helped him cope with his feelings of being overwhelmed by school work. But by middle school, increasing academic demands proved too taxing.

“He had a breakdown in science class over a group lab that he felt they were not doing correctly,” says Tavares, recalling a chilling call from her son’s school. “He couldn’t get on the bus because he was so upset.”

Shortly afterward, Xavier was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. There was a period of trial and error with different therapists, medication and even school changes, but today he has far better coping skills. “He’s much more successful now,” Tavares says. “In part it’s due to growing, maturing and keeping up with his medications and therapy.”

There are many moving parts to help a child cope with school-related anxiety, including therapy, medication or a school-intervention plan. But many experts say support at home is just as important.

Here are seven strategies to try:

 

1. Help them connect with teachers.

Some anxious students dread the idea of talking to teachers, especially if it’s to admit they don’t get a concept taught in class. But if this fear prevents your children from understanding the material, grades can suffer, which leads to heightened anxiety, cautions Jay Cohen, supervisor of the transitions/balance programs at First Children Services in Cherry Hill.

Some parents email teachers to initiate communication, but a more long-term solution is to encourage children to take matters into their own hands, says Cohen. If your child plans to ask a question after class, suggest they have it written down so it can be read aloud if the child gets too flustered. Or there’s plan B.

“If a child is too afraid to ask the teacher questions about a new lesson or concept, I suggest the child pass a note to the teacher with his or her concern,” he adds. “This should hopefully motivate the teacher to orally communicate with the child, conveying a level of comfort for the student which will eventually guide the child to more easily approach the teacher.”

 

2. Create a plan for school absences.

For some students, missing school is a major trigger – even when the reason for the absence is legit. Missing a few days’ worth of work, even for an illness, means they’ll have work to make up. You can help by emailing your child’s teachers (or better yet, have them do it). You may learn they have more time to submit missed work after an absence, says Cohen. Some classwork may even be excused.

“I always recommend the parent request all support and encouragement possible from the student’s teachers, so the student can maintain a sense of self-confidence about re-integrating into the school community,” he adds.

 

3. Whistle a happy tune (in your head).

Exercises that lower the heart rate may help your child get through nerve-wracking moments, says Julie Lyons, middle school and upper school counselor at Moorestown Friends School.

Start with breathing drills. Have your child inhale and exhale slowly while counting to 10. The idea is when the heart stops racing, the child can think more logically. If counting seems too forced, remembering a favorite song and singing it in your head can be calming too, says Lyons.

“The idea is that you have a connection with a song that helps you feel better and distracts you from that anxious moment,” she explains. “You should practice this in non-anxious moments, so it becomes part of your coping skills. Then it becomes easier to do in anxious moments.”

 

4. Be open to heart-to-heart conversations.

Let your child know their feelings are valid. When you say things like “I understand” or “You will get through this,” you show that you care and provide your child a sense of relief,” says Tavares.

“Anxiety can feel very lonely, and one of the strongest anchors to this issue is letting a child know that he or she is not alone,” she says. “Being aware of what your child needs is the biggest obstacle and the biggest key to helping. There are times when your child needs to talk it out and other times when the parent has to be able to offer a distraction from the anxiety, whether it’s through a card game, funny cat videos, memes, etc.”

 

5. Create reasonable goals.

Together, create baby-step goals your child can easily accomplish, even if they seem unattainable when in the throes of anxiety. For example, they can strive to attend school every day next week or finish homework every afternoon this week. Let them know that you realize these are challenging tasks for them, Lyons says. And when they achieve the goal, reward them in a meaningful way. Maybe your child gets to decide what to play on family game night or scores ice cream out for the entire family.

“Try not having it be monetary-based,” she suggests. “It’s more about the experience and the connectiveness with the parents. Think about the dialog that can happen when you’re all sitting around enjoying a frozen treat.”

 

6. Praise effort.

Let your child know you’re aware how hard he’s working to do well in school, even if grades don’t reflect it.

“Say, ‘Regardless of how well you do on the test, I saw how much you studied, so go in and do your best,’” Lyons says. “It’s all about the effort, not the results. The focus shouldn’t be on straight A’s but on the overall health of the child. Getting into Harvard doesn’t guarantee happiness. There’s a false sense of security that if the child can do well in school, they are going to be okay in life, and that is not necessarily going to happen. How they deal with issues – taking a test, making a sports team, navigating the social world – that will help them be happy as adults.”

 

7. Address worst-case scenarios.

If your young student has an unreasonable fear, talk it over with her to identify the validity of the situation, Lyons says. If an upcoming history test makes her feel so nervous she thinks she’ll faint in class, discuss the likelihood of it happening and how she’d cope in the moment.

“You can say, ‘Have you ever fainted before,’” says Lyons, noting that such fears are often unfounded. “Then ask, ‘What would you do if you had the sensation that you were going to faint? You could raise your hand. You could go to the nurse. You could say, ‘I’m feeling light-headed,’ and a friend could walk you down to the nurse.’

“Anxiety is about a loss of control,” she adds. “The more we can put control back into thought patterns, the less anxious we will feel.”

February 2019
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