Traditionally, anxiety can be defined as having feelings of nervousness and worry that interfere with daily functioning. For some, getting to work or going out into public or social situations in general can be difficult. However, anxiety doesn't always manifest in the same way for children as it does for adults.
Children with anxiety aren't necessarily wringing their hands; they're rarely able to even identify what they are feeling. Instead, they may present as angry, irritable, agitated, or tearful. You may find your child crying about what clothes, shoes, or headband to wear to school, crumbling up homework, or out rightly refusing to complete it.
Because childrens' anxiety presents itself differently than that of adults, it can be a challenge to manage anxiety in the classroom and at home. While helping children cope with anxiety at home is important, it is equally vital to implement strategies to reduce their symptoms while at school.
Anxiety-Reducing Strategies for the Classroom
If you come to suspect that your child has anxiety, talk to your child's teacher and guidance counselor to discuss strategies that can be used in the classroom to manage anxiety. There are multiple plans set up for children who are in need of further assistance in school. Here are some options you can discuss with your child's educators:
- Intervention and Referral Service Plan (I&RS): You can request an Intervention and Referral Service Plan (I&RS) if you think the anxiety your child is experiencing is short-lived and will resolve soon.
- 504 Accommodation Plan: If you have a formal diagnosis and are looking for accommodations that are more long-term, such as statewide testing accommodations, then request a 504 Accommodation Plan.
- Individualized Education Plan (IEP): You can request an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), if your child needs an academic program developed.
Accommodations at School
First and foremost, staying home from school should not be an option. Even though your child is anxious and anticipating an upcoming gym class or math test, avoid allowing your child to stay home because he is distressed or is upset. The longer he is away from school, the harder it is to go back. For many of the parents I work with, I encourage both parents to be present in the morning. One parent drives, while the other parent is in the back seat with the child. That may mean a crying, screaming, punching, biting child who threatens to open the door or unbuckle her seatbelt. It will take two of you until your child understands that staying home is not an option.
Work with your child's teacher, principal, and guidance counselor to implement strategies for your child once he/she is in school, such as:
- Modify the duration of the school day.
- Allow student to arrive when the halls are clear.
- Shorten your child's day to arrive in the morning, or the afternoon (slowly increase amount of time in school until reach a full day).
- Request counselor support upon entering school.
- Modify work in the classroom by assigning fewer items.
- Decrease amount of homework (complete odd or even items).
- Avoid calling on the child in class.
- Offer a break when the child seems overwhelmed or scared.
- Offer the child a safe place in the classroom or school building where he/she can decompress.
- Provide extended time on tests and quizzes.
- Break down multi-step tasks into smaller steps.
Anxiety-Reducing Strategies at Home
It's very easy for you, the parent, to lower your expectations for your child's behavior. In fact, you might allow your child to go to bed later, have extra dessert, or watch extra tv with the goal of lowering her anxiety. Although you might be thinking that you are helping by showing a loving and understanding parenting style, you could actually be increasing your child's anxiety. Instead, consider using these strategies in the home environment:
- Create a routine that is consistent day to day – e.g., morning, after school, and bedtime.
- Re-establish yourself as the authority figure in your home.
- Assign chores for your child/children to complete each day; assign a dollar value (e.g., $.25 per chore) or a short-term and long-term reward.
- Be clear and concise in your rules and consequences, and be CONSISTENT in reinforcing your rules and consequences on a daily basis.
By establishing routines and rules in your home, you place boundaries on your child's world that will help him/her to feel safe because you are in control. Anxiety can give one a false sense of self-control, the world, and others. By dispelling this idea, your child may feel a sense of relief that he is not in charge.
As a parent, if you are having a hard time managing your child's anxiety, consult with a psychologist who uses Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. You will benefit from the support as much as your child does as you create a consistent and predictable home environment and identify the type of support your child needs in school.
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Date of original publication: April 10, 2015
Updated: March 14, 2016