When your child has anxiety, every part of life can be harder for them. As a homeschool teacher, learning to teach around anxiety is challenging. There are techniques, coping skills, and choices you can make, to help you anxious child do better with their homeschooling each day.
It Isn’t About You
First off, don’t take your child’s anxiety personally. Anxiety can present in a variety of ways including crying, anger, hiding, or running away from school work. It rarely looks like a child actually saying “This makes me anxious.” Anxiety is a primitive feeling that can spur a “fight or flight” response to whatever caused the anxiety. This means that if your child’s math makes them anxious, they really will get ready to fight it with anger or fly from it by running away. While these don’t make schooling easy, understanding that your child’s brain is responding the way it was designed to respond to a threat is important. This isn’t about you. This is about how your child’s brain tells them they need to react.
Once you recognize that this isn’t about you, the next step in helping your child is figuring out if you can possibly make the school work less threatening. Some books, programs, or assignments may just be a bad fit. To assess this, the first thing to consider is if your child has other learning challenges or a learning style that is a bad fit with this curriculum. If your child has dyslexia or is struggling with reading, a reading heavy program may cause anxiety before you even open the book. If your child has trouble with auditory comprehension and understanding spoken language without other context, reading the lesson to them without giving them something to look at is also difficult.
Many children struggle with lessons that are long, boring, or hard to understand. But when anxiety is at play, the first question should always be whether you can adapt the lessons to meet your child’s needs. Not to force your child to work with a program that isn’t a good fit.
Cortisol, the Anxiety Chemical
Your child’s brain makes a cocktail of chemicals all day, every day. Some help them remember what they are learning, some tell them they are hungry, and others make them feel happy and tired after lunch. However, when stress and anxiety come into play, cortisol leaps into action. Cortisol can cause you to start breathing faster and harder, make your heart beat faster, and raise blood sugar so you have more energy. All in preparation for running from danger. It puts you on high alert and makes it near impossible to do anything besides focus on the perceived threat.
Sometimes, no matter what you do, at least one subject will be an anxiety inducer for your child. I recommend saving that lesson to be the last one in your lineup for the day. That way, your child can accomplish their best work in their other subjects without anxiety being a factor. I know sometimes we want to have a child work on their hardest subject first to “get it out of the way” but this means your child’s brain is going to be flooded with cortisol from the difficult lesson and none of their lessons are going to go well after that.
Keeping lessons short and focused and skipping anything you might consider “busy work” also helps keep cortisol at bay. Forcing them to complete unnecessary work, and spend a long time on it, is stressful. Reducing stress where you can is important. Each added bit of stress can be a step towards the triggered anxiety. Your child may usually be fine with doing ten math problems each lesson, but if they had a stressful morning, five might be their limit today. This may also mean that your child will take longer to complete a curriculum, doing smaller parts each day, and doing only some subjects on some days of the week and not everything every day.
Sensory Strategies to Help
Sensory strategies can be used to help children feel calmer and less stressed while completing school work. We have an eight-pound weighted lizard that is very soothing to hold. He often lays on an anxious child during math lessons. This is helpful for when you and your child have agreed the lesson has to happen, and they need some help calming down to focus. The weighted toy can just lay on their lap or even shoulders while they talk to you, do work, or rest between lessons. It provides a sense of calm that you and your child can harness to suit them best.
Some fidget toys are also helpful for anxious kids. Things to squeeze, crush or stretch are especially popular. However, if your child also has ADHD they may enjoy a variety of fidgets. Having a basket that lives near your child’s desk or school area makes them more likely to be used when needed.
Another way to work with your child’s “fight or flight” response to school work is to give them an appropriate way to do those things. Allowing a stressed child to “fly” and go outside to climb, swing, or jump on a trampoline can help their system reset. This works for two reasons. First, the brain feels more satisfied that it did want it wanted to do, run away. And second, their brain feels better because it is being fed good sensory input. Positive sensory input, like swinging and jumping, cause the brain to release chemicals that are calming. Happily playing releases serotonin, which counteracts anxiety and depression.
It can be helpful to give your child a limited number of things to do before they are allowed to “fly away” if you know they don’t like to return. Asking them to only do a handful of math problems or complete one more worksheet before taking a break to go swing or jump can help them complete their work, knowing the break they need is coming soon.
For some children, a punching bag to hit or a heavy ball (I like a 2-pound one for kids) to use for playing catch can make them feel satisfied that they have “fought” with their attacker. You can use this technique by having the punching bag or heavy ball close by and using it as part of your child’s regular lessons. Have them play with those every 10 minutes while working, or between each subject area. Other toys you hit, such as a Bop-It can be a great choice for reducing anxiety. Bop-it makes a silly game out of being hit and even asks to be hit more! Perfect for the anxious child!
Working with a child with anxiety is not easy. Seeking professional help can not only help your child but help you, too. A good psychologist or therapist can help your child work on coping techniques that work for them. They can also advise you on further ideas for how to support your child. Don’t feel guilty if you need to get expert help. It isn’t weakness. It is good parenting to seek help for you and your child when it is needed.
On a Personal Note
I did everything in my power to give my children an anxiety-free life. There was breastfeeding and co-sleeping and all the attachment parenting! But, it didn’t prevent them from experiencing anxiety. I felt like all my hard work was for nothing when my child needed a professional therapist. But it wasn’t. Giving my child all I had to give, and getting them help when I couldn’t help them myself, was good parenting. Their therapist taught me that.
P.S. This is the weighted lizard I mentioned. I really like this little guy. And some of my favorite fidgets are included below, too.
About the Author
Laura Sowdon, OTR/L is an occupational therapist, writer, speaker, educator and creator of the Five Senses Literature Lessons homeschool curriculum. She has worked as an occupational therapist with children in public and private schools, as well as private practice. Laura has taught and managed homeschool co-ops as well as homeschooling her own three children. Laura is dedicated to the idea of educating children at a pace that aligns with brain and physical development milestones and respects neurodiversity in all its forms.
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