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School’s Back: Calming the Nerves & Training the Neurons

There are a variety of reasons why kids might feel anxious to go to school, and the anxiety may present itself in many ways. Sometimes you can see physical or emotional signs, and other times it is not so obvious. They may present with stomachaches, constant headaches, migraines, or they might refuse to go to school, appear withdrawn or disengaged in class, or struggle with forming relationships. No matter how they present, there are two important facts to acknowledge: 1) the anxiety is real for the kids who feel it, and 2) their brains are not at an optimal state for learning when they are in an anxious state. So, what can we do?

The Anxiety is Real

  • Ask your child some open-ended questions to get a sense of their school experience. You don’t have to take any action, just talking about it will help.

  • What is school like for you?

  • What are some things you enjoy at school? What are some things you don’t?

  • What are some things you’d like to change about school?

  • What’s your dream school like?

  • What can we do to make school better for you?

  • Connect, validate, relate.

  • Engage in a conversation to allow them to express how they feel about school. Involve touch and other comforting items during this conversation so the brain eventually learns that a sense of safety and calm can be felt even while talking about difficult situations.

  • Let them know it’s normal to feel nervous about school and that it’s only a small part of their brain that feels this way.

  • Try to tell them a story where you felt anxious or nervous about school.

Train the Brain

  • The brain needs experience to learn. We need to teach the amygdala, the part of the brain mostly responsible for our fight, flight, or freeze responses, that it doesn’t have to react so strongly to anxiety-provoking situations. Experiences lead to neural rewiring, and rewiring leads to learning (in this case, that school isn’t so bad, after all).

  • Training in School:

  • Incorporate fun experiences for them to look forward to while at school such as having their favorite dessert after lunch, having a cool fidget in the locker, or getting access to a “privilege” (e.g., 5-minute walk break, extra time on the playground, etc.)

  • Work with their teacher to help create a sense of purpose and self-esteem in the classroom such as having a small daily classroom job that they would love to do or setting up rewards for participating in activities they normally would shy from.

  • Identify their go-to person at school, perhaps a school counselor, who can help them get back to a green zone.

  • Training at Home

  • Use the power of imagination to practice difficult situations, such as giving a presentation, completing an assignment on time, doing well on a test, or even just raising your hand. This technique is called imaginal exposure and research has found that people who practice this daily actually changed the physical structure of their brains in just a few weeks. It’s a great way to recreate an anxiety-provoking situation in a safe setting.

  • Practice mindfulness. Help your child learn the power of breathing and that nothing lasts forever, including their emotions. One moment you feel nervous, but just like a wave, it’ll crash eventually. Just like that. One might come again, but that, too, will crash eventually.

Recommended Books

  • Anxiety

  • Worry Says What by Allison Edwards

  • The Invisible String by Patrice Karst

  • Wilma Jean The Worry Machine by Julia Cook

  • Tomorrow I’ll Be Brave by Jessica Hische

  • Anxious Ninja by Mary Nhin

  • A Little Spot of Anxiety by Diane Alber

  • Don’t Feed The Worry Bug by Andi Green

  • Mindfulness

  • I Am Peace by Susan Verde

  • Breathe Like A Bear by Kira Willey

  • A Little Peaceful Spot by Diane Alber

  • My Magic Breath: Finding Calm Through Mindful Breathing by Nick Ortner

  • Alphabreaths: The ABCs of Mindful Breathing by Christopher Willard and Daniel Rechtschaffe

By Dianne Rausher

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