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Leveling back-to-school anxiety

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Back to school is a wonderful time for most children, not to mention parents. There are new teachers and classrooms, new experiences, and friendly faces. Most kids are eager to make friends and join the fun, even if they aren’t exactly thrilled about the work. But there is a small population of kids, from preschoolers to teens, who absolutely dread school because they suffer from anxiety.

For these kids, it is not as simple as jitters before the first day. The American Academy of Pediatrics advises parents to not discount a child’s fears. “Because anxious children may also be quiet, compliant, and eager to please, their difficulties may be missed,” it says.

Anxiety can manifest itself in a number of ways — as physical ailments, outbursts, depression, or even anger. It can arise, seemingly out of the blue, in a child who was once previously happy and calm.

Children with anxiety disorder experience physical symptoms, some disabling, which inhibit them from being able to just shake it off. So telling a child he has no reason to be afraid may not help. In many cases, the child already knows that he shouldn’t be scared of the test or the teacher or one of many things that stresses him out, but he doesn’t know how to stop doing so.

Alternatively, understanding and validating a child’s feelings does help. That’s not to say parents should let their children avoid every anxiety-provoking situation. On the contrary, children need to go to school and find ways to be successful despite their anxiety. They also need to know that they can overcome it with help. Parents need to be their kid’s biggest support and cheerleader. Children who know that their parents are there to support and fight for them and are with them, who know their troubles are being taken seriously, and who know they are not alone, have a much better chance of overcoming anxiety long-term.

It is quite distressing to see your child suffer, but there are ways parents and teachers can help. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America offers the following tips for parents:

• Pay attention to your child’s feelings.

• Stay calm when your child becomes anxious about a situation or event.

• Recognize and praise small accomplishments.

• Don’t punish mistakes or lack of progress.

• Be flexible, but try to maintain a normal routine.

• Modify expectations during stressful periods.

• Plan for transitions. (For example, allow extra time in the morning if getting to school is difficult).

In some cases, anxiety in children is severe enough to impact their ability to attend school. The Association advises parents to “reach out to school personnel about any accommodations that may help your child succeed in the classroom. You have the right under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to request appropriate accommodations related to your child’s diagnosis.”

Some of these include:

Safe person: This could be a counselor, nurse, teacher, or any adult that the child feels comfortable with whom the child can go to during anxious moments. This person can talk to the child for five to 10 minutes, help calm him down, and return to his normal school day. Often just knowing there is someone who understands and will help him is just the bit of reassurance and support a child needs.

Cool down pass: This allows the child to leave the classroom when he is feeling anxious to put some cool water on his face or wash his hands, restore himself, and return to class less nervous.

Seating: An anxious child will do better sitting in the most quiet spot in the room, away from louder and unruly students. He will also often benefit from being seated near the door. Parents can also request that their child be moved to a smaller class.

Testing conditions: The child can be allowed to take tests in a quiet room or have extra time to finish. Often knowing that they have extra time to finish allows their minds to settle down, and they often do not need to use the extra time.

Many schools are willing to help these children and their families, but many are not. Once a child is diagnosed with anxiety, a parent can fill out a 504. Section 504 of The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires public schools to provide medically compromised students reasonable and appropriate accommodations, so they may participate fully in school. This will protect the child by ensuring that his medical needs are addressed and also that accommodations will be provided. Parents are the first and strongest advocates for their child.

For more information on children and anxiety, 504s, and school accommodations for children with anxiety visit, worrywisekids.org.

Danielle Sullivan, a mom of three, is a writer and editor living in New York City. She is a rare species called a Brooklyn native and very proud of the fact.

Updated 5:24 pm, December 9, 2016
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