September is around the corner and all of us are enjoying the hot summer month of August while at the back of our minds, the lingering thoughts of a next school year remains. For most going back to school means structure, homework and also seeing friends that we did not see the entire summer. But for some students, back to school seems like “impending doom”! Parents observe anxiety escalating and try to ease the situation, but for the most part feel helpless. Parents that have lived through a struggling last year, are feeling the anxiety themselves and dreading the next year as they achieved some modicum of being “stress free” over the summer.
The first idea is to gain perspective on what school means for your particular situation with your child. Even if you gained ground over the summer, the child’s memory is what he felt during the last school year. He does not think about things he may have learnt over the summer and the great camps he might have had. He is expecting what he left at school to still be there when he returns. In most cases of anxiety, the parent, therapists, and teachers are expected to support him and to be available to “anchor” him in his feelings as they anticipate school starting. It is very important to validate his emotions and allow him to express his feelings without judgment. It is equally important not to gloss over their expressions with an “It will be OK, you will see”. Some parents feel the need to try and take away their child’s anxiety with comments such as these and they do not fully realize how the child is perceiving this type of “soothing”. The child is feeling the emotion of anxiety and when a parent tries to “make it ok”, the child feels that it is not right for him to feel this way and this actually escalates the anxiety. Better to go with: “I hear you, you are nervous about going back to school” and the child feels that someone understands and “gets” him, taking away the additional feeling that everyone else around him does not think he should feel this way, for them it is going to be “OK”!
Second idea: Parents and caregivers naturally want to try and “solve” his anxiety when in actual fact it is only the child that can change his perception of his experience. We must remember that we do not perceive the same experience through the same lens as the child. When the child expresses his nervousness, try to refrain from coming up with a plan for him. Rather acknowledge his emotion with a comment about it and try to open up a conversation to get his thoughts out. Expressing his thoughts is enabling him to sort through it and gain his own sense of control over his thought matter. You could even encourage drawing or writing a story on his own or together with you. Build a Lego constellation while carefully creating an atmosphere of sharing. There is no good parent that would not want to take care of it for their child if they could, and while the inclination is nurturing and caring, it also robs the child of the opportunity of taking care of it himself. He needs to feel in control of his expectations, but cannot do this on his own. Make sure time is made to sit with him to sift through his thoughts, so he could get closer to his own answer for the situation. Having him go with you to go shopping for back to school supplies could be a practical outlet that could initiate opportunities for discussing it with you in a warm, safe way.
We must remember that we do not perceive the same experience through the same lens as the child.
Third Idea: The kind of anxiety she is feeling is not a generalized type of anxiety, but more a performance anxiety. She is looking toward a situation where she has to be confronted with areas of weakness for 6 hours of each day for 5 days each week. She knows her own level of shyness, her own lack of feeling in control in the face of the multi-sensory environment, and the fact that while she is there she is on her own. In addition to this, students with performance anxiety really have a fear of the new and novel experience, a new teacher, a new grade, perhaps even a new school. The new and novel hold the promise of throwing unexpected occurrences their way, and they fear they might not have sufficient time to protect themselves from the onslaught. It is so much better for students like her to be eased into a new school situation with no additional performance demands placed on her, but settling in at first. We ask for IEP teams to consider no homework during the month of September and also not to call on this student in the classroom until she has settled in. Some teachers get it and others do not, but in the case of performance anxiety it is simply a task to be in the class itself; which require a good amount of work on her internal state of mind. Her energy is directed to her anxiety and not as available for the rigor of every day school work. It is important that she bonds with her teacher and knows that her teacher has her back. Some teachers fear she will feel left out if she does not have homework. Students with performance anxiety already feel left out and perhaps better to discuss with her how much she feels up to doing. If the performance anxiety persists she is going to get behind in her understanding of the work anyway and with too much homework, she knows she is facing more hours at home going through the same anxiety. Easing her into the school year and increasing the performance expectation gradually will help to ease the perception of challenge and provide her with a feeling that she could cope with the situation and gain control over her performance anxiety.
**Fourth Idea:** Because parents have gone through some years of anxiety at the initiation of each school year and they want to ease the situation, we frequently find that they stop therapies for the month of September to “get into” the new school year. The opposite is needed. Therapies are there for support and now, more than ever, should be continued on a weekly basis as she would be allowed to release pent up anxiety during these sessions. It could be emotional processing sessions, sensory sessions, or physical sessions, but the most important is not to sever the relationships that could anchor her during this time of need. She needs that ongoing relationship to go to that would allow her the space to contain her emotions and give her the relief she needs as she builds up the anxiety in her body over a school day.
Last Idea: Anxiety, whether emotional or sensory, is always helped by a good sensory diet. The parent may need to discuss with his occupational therapist some good ideas to step up to the plate in increasing especially the proprioceptive diet (deep pressure that is calming to the body) for this initial period of time and then to wean it as he settles into the school year. We particularly enjoy teaching families a tactile massage to complete once in the morning and again in the evening. Some students are helped by having an early morning session of OT in the beginning of the day, especially on a Monday to transition back to a school week. The needs will be different for individual profiles, and best to discuss with the occupational therapist on your team.
I sincerely hope these notes are helpful to you, as I know this could sometimes be classified as one of the most difficult times of the year. I wish you a successful transition into the school year for 2016-2017!
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