Strategies to help a child with anxiety transition into prep

September 20, 2018 / Comments (0)


Anxiety can be crippling and can impact enormously on your child’s ability to participate at school and in extracurricular activities, this has a roll-on effect of impacting them academically and socially and can be very isolating and scary. Parents with the support of teachers and other professionals can make a significantly positive impact on a child’s initial and ongoing start to their school life.

It is really important to observe your child and identify signs of when they are starting to get anxious, these may be subtle eg. Pulling their ears, wringing their fingers, chewing their clothes or hands or may be more obvious like recoiling, hiding, crying or yelling. Other signs might be; butterflies in their tummy, feeling sick, increased heart rate, clenched fists, increased breathing, fidgeting etc. Anxiety can be displayed in an array of emotions one of these being anger. Often if a child displays anxiety through anger and yelling they can be misunderstood and the appropriate strategies are not put in place as they are often isolated for ‘poor’ behavior.
Once some of these early signs of anxiety are identified as a parent you can then start to work through these with your child, so they can start to learn their own triggers and own bodies reactions to stresses.
Early identification of anxiety can be a huge benefit to your child as tools and strategies can be implemented before they are overcome and immobilised with anxiety. Some tools to help with emotion recognition include:
Emotion charts: This is an easy and visual way your child can show you how they are feeling if they cannot yet express it in words.
Recording their emotional state: To help recognise the emotions your child may be experiencing in association with anxiety and throughout the day it is good to record for 2-4 weeks how they are ‘feeling’ morning, middle of the day and evening. Look for any patterns or triggers that are eliciting certain emotions.

Planning for transition into prep:
Starting prep is an exciting time but for some children it is terrifying and completely overwhelming. Children transitioning into prep are not only going to a new much larger school environment, but they are also meeting a new teacher and children who they will share their first year of school with. Schools are a big place compared to the kinder environment.

Some ideas to help alleviate the lead up to starting school:
Speak to the school: Speak to the teachers, Principle or Vice Principle about your concerns for your child starting prep, they are there to help make the transition as smooth as possible and to work with you and your child. Put some plans in place that everyone is aware of.

My school book: Make your child a book about their new school. Go to the school and take photos, take photos of your child in their school uniform etc and stick it in their book. You can read it to them and show them pictures regularly to the lead up to starting school.

Going to the school playground: During the school holidays go to the school, let your child play and have fun in the school grounds.

Play with buddies: Try and organise a play at the school ground with some buddies that will be starting school with your child. Make sure when you are there it is about having fun, make it exciting.

Explore: Really explore the school grounds so things don’t appear as new and as overwhelming when they start.

Friendship chair: When at the school sit with your child and have a friendly chat on the friendship chair. Discuss why the chair is there and how they can use it if they feel scared, alone, frightened or would like someone to play with etc.

Start of the school day: Show your child which door they will be entering, casually discuss there is another option if they aren’t comfortable. Talk about the morning routine, that music will be playing, kids will line up etc. Anxious children fear for the unknown so if they know what the routines and plans are going to be this will be a big help.

Walk through routine: Once staff are back after their break see if you can actually walk through the morning routine with your child. Like mentioned above fear of the unknown often can impact an anxious child greatly, they like to have done it before as then they are not then wondering what will happen.

Classroom: Show your child the classroom outside of transition so they can see the whole space, identify with your child ‘safe’ areas to sit and go to if they are feeling overwhelmed.

What are your child’s concerns: Talk about and try and break down what might be or is worrying your child about starting school? Try and really break this down into smaller things to make it less overwhelming. If they are having troubles articulating it get them to draw some pictures, of find pictures in books or magazines.

Acknowledgment: Don’t dismiss your child’s feeling and fears. Acknowledge their feelings are real, acknowledge it can be scary but you and the teachers are there every step of the way to help them have the best and most fun year of prep. Telling your child to toughen up and they will be fine often heightens an anxious child.

School readiness program: Enroll them in a transition into school program where they learn many valuable skills to help them be ready for school. Barefoot OT does these programs.

Playdates: Organise playdates in the holidays with children that are going to be starting prep at the same school as your child if you can.

Make sure the lead up to school isn’t discussions all about worries. Talk about things they loved at kinder, talk about hurdles they jumped at kinder and how fantastic they felt and are for doing that. Let your child lead when they want to talk about going to school, the stress and the emotions that come with it often can be mentally exhausting for a child.
Rest: Make sure your child has a really good rest and some down time and lots of fun time before starting school.

Goal setting:
It’s important to set some goals with your child of what they would like to achieve in their prep year, make sure they are realistic. For an anxious child these may be; lining up to go into the classroom every morning, transitioning between classes well, being able to take in something for show and tell, going to swimming lessons or participating in sport, music, art etc. If they are struggling to set goals or finding it too overwhelming help them set some goals.

Remember these will be enormous goals and steps for someone with anxiety and can often seem unachievable and lead to even more anxiety thinking about doing these.

Smaller goals: It’s crucial to break these down into very small goals and let your child know that it is perfectly fine and ok if they don’t line up at the start of the year, or all year, you just want them to be happy and to learn. Don’t make the end goal the main focus as this will often derail them. Choose very small goals eg. Going into class earlier with mum, dad, a relative or friend (who ever drops them off) and walking into the classroom, or into the corridor outside the classroom. Gradually build on these goals, make sure each week there is some step forward even if it seems very small as then your child can look back over the weeks and months and see the progress.

Children often feel empowered when you set goals with them, they feel a sense of control so it’s really important to make sure they play a key role in the goal setting, even if you are guiding the goals.

At school:
Don’t forget the plans and discussions you have had with the school prior to your child starting, make sure you put these in place. Remember to work closely with the school, in particular your child’s teacher, they are there to help every step of the way. It is very important to remember to implement the strategies around the goals you have set for your child. As stated earlier children with anxiety do well with routines and knowing what is going to happen, often any deviation from this will trigger heightened anxiety.

Some techniques to use once your child starts school:
Sensory concerns: It is difficult as a parent to want to recognise that there are other concerns that are impacting our children, but it is very helpful to look into any sensory issues that may be affecting them. These sensory concerns may be with hearing, touch or sensation. Identifying these early in a child can really support a child transition into school well. The use of headphone, sensory/fidget toys, low sensory area, weighted lap blankets, sensory cushions etc. can help significantly in children that need them. An OT can work with a child to determine if there is or isn’t any sensory concerns.

Distraction: Distraction at drop off works for many children with anxiety. Think about what your child likes? eg. feeding the fish, helping clean up, playing naught and crosses, looking through books, helping sort the textas or other things in the classroom? If your child likes routine pick something they will enjoy helping with when they come into the classroom every morning and ensure you trial doing this every day for at least 3-5 days, this will help determine if distraction is a good coping tool for your child. For some children distraction won’t work, discuss and trial other ideas with their teacher if this technique doesn’t suit your children.

Earlier starts: Go into the class early (eg. 10-15 minutes before the bell starts) when it is less busy and quieter it can often be very beneficial, the teacher will be there and will help guide your child to settle into the classroom before most of the other students arrive. It’s important to talk to the teacher and other staff members eg. Vice Principle if this is the plan for your child so they can ensure your child is well supported at this time. Often anxious children feel very overwhelmed with too many people and noisy environments, especially in the courtyard ready to line up for the day, this can eliminate some of the stressors and provide for a smoother transition.

Fidget toys: It is often effective for your child to have something small in their hands they can manipulate and play with to distract them from the immediate triggers of anxiety. There are several available, discuss with your teacher or an OT.

Photos: Take a picture of your family to leave in your child’s pigeon hole or photocopy and put in their pocket, maybe a picture of their pet if they have one they are attached to. Photos or pictures often make someone feel their family or loved one are close by, this is very reassuring for children.
More photos: Get the teacher to take a photo of a good drop off, a good interaction, a happy moment playing with friends in the playground etc and blow it up and put it in your child’s pigeon hole or take it home, continuously refer to it and talking about how happy your child looks. Ask them questions around why it was such a good drop off or interaction with friends, continue to build on this positive conversation, ask them how we can make every drop off this happy. Children love seeing photos of themselves and can often relate to the emotions in a photo.
Zones of regulations: These are zone that easily help your child identify which emotional zone they are in and should aim to be in. These zones of regulation are taught through an OT and teachers.
New experiences: There are many transitions for a child starting school to undertake, they are required to transition between different classes, different teachers and often different buildings in the school, it is often also the first time a child has been on a bus ‘excursion’ without one of their loved ones. Make sure you discuss with the teacher a plan around these transitions, so your child isn’t left wondering what to do and wondering how they will cope.

Sports carnivals/athletics/ concerts: Your child will need additional support with these, sometimes having a parent there isn’t the best solution. Look back at the goals that have been set and work on a plan to integrate your child somehow, this may be just watching. Ensure your child attends these events, they can observe and start to participate and realise they are fun events.

Resources: Utilise books like ‘The Kissing hand’ or ‘Hey Warrior’ and discuss with the teacher if they can read them in class with other peers to let your child know they are not alone. Also read these books at home.
School resources: If the strategies you are putting in place aren’t working talk with your child’s teacher and ask if there are any additional resources the school can implement to help eg. OT, Psychologist, sand box therapy, Chaplain etc. You may need to utilise some of these resources outside if school.

Important: Make sure your child doesn’t take days off due to being anxious, this isn’t an option as this will set up and tell your child when things are hard or stressful they don’t have to do it. You need them to know they must go to school but there are options to make it easier and not as scary and that there is always someone there by their side.

After school:
Anxious children often learn and learn well how to hold in many different emotions throughout the school day, they need an avenue to let these emotions out and often this will be at home where they feel safe and unjudged. It is crucial that children are given the opportunity to unravel these emotions, which can be in various forms from crying, yelling, meltdowns, intolerable to siblings, extremely quiet etc. This emotional outlet starts at school pick up, it is good to have some immediate strategies as soon as your child comes out of class.

Some potential strategies to use at school pick up:
Running off energy: Let your child run or play with some of their buddies in the school playground for 5-15minutes after school
Food: Have food like and apple or banana in your bag or in the car
Fidget toys: Fidget/sensory box in the car which they can fiddle and distract themselves with as you drive
Space: Give them space if they need it (some children will and some won’t) eg. They might want a quiet car ride home filled with no music and no talking, particularly about school

Questions: Don’t bombard them with too many questions about school, ask fun and positive questions like what was your favorite thing you did today?
Extracurricular activities: It is valuable to encourage your children to do activities outside of school so they can increase their confidence, broaden their skills and also find something they love, and not to mention some skills are really important like learning how to swim. Children are spoilt for choices these days, so it is important that you don’t schedule too many after school activities. Starting prep is exhausting, mentally and physically and down time is needed.

Choosing the right extracurricular activities: As parents we often want our children to do what their buddies are doing and our kids often might say I want to do what ‘xxx’ is doing. It is important to look at choosing the right activity for their own needs and looking at are they ready to do that on top of school. It is difficult to work out what is the best fit for a child, as parents you know them best and know their interests, strengths and most importantly what they can cope with. Don’t force your child into something like Aus Kick if you know situations like this are too overwhelming for them. Find something they like and gradually build on it. If AUSkick is at the school take them along to watch, show them how much fun the kids are having and that it isn’t scary and talk about strategies to help them participate and play the following year.

Doing well: Tap into things your child is achieving at school eg. Reading, mathematics, art etc and do some fun learning activities at home around these things, giving lots of positive and continuous praise.

At home:
There are numerous things that can be implemented at home that combined with the school techniques can have a significantly positive impact on your child.

Often children who suffer from anxiety like to know exactly what is ahead. Have the class weekly planner on hand so you can let them know as they are bound to ask several times what they have on the following day. You can then discuss and build on some goals and strategies they are feeling fearful about, it may be about a subject eg music. You may be able to break this down that the music is too loud and overwhelming for them.

Children who suffer from anxiety will have breakdowns and will be inundated with a big array of emotions, this is often very challenging for the child and also the parents to deal with.

Some potential strategies to use at home:
Space: Do they have their own space at home away from siblings to let off some steam, to cry, to punch a pillow or to just have some quiet time, like colouring in or building Lego. This can be extremely difficult if there are other siblings in the house. Making ‘Do not disturb’ signs or ‘stop’ signs can help let other siblings know that they need to give their brother/sister some space.

Their own book: This book is a very special book just for your child, a scrap book or book with blank pages is ideal. They can draw or write whatever they like. Often if they have had a ‘bad’ or challenging day it allows them to draw or write their feelings, this is a good outlet for them. It not only gives them some quiet time, but they often let go off some of the emotions that went with the situation. Your child can choose to show you what is in the book or to keep it just to themselves, if they don’t want to show you what they have drawn or written, as parents we must respect this and not look at their ‘special’ book.

Emotion charts: Helpful to continue to use these and have a few places they are stuck up in the home as a quick reference for your child.
Zones of regulation: If your child is learning the zones of regulation at school it is very helpful to carry this on at home.
Avenue to let off steam: Sometimes children just need to go a little crazy at times and really let off bent up energy. Energetic activities are a great avenue eg trampoline, doing an obstacle course in the back yard, bike riding, the park etc.

Goal setting: Children like most people need to feel a sense of achievement and it is really important for anxious children to be able to look back and see just how far they have come. Each week set a small and realistic goal for your child, get them to do at least one thing a week that is beyond their comfort zone, eg going up and paying for the milk, gradually build on this and reflect back at the end of each month what your child has achieved.
Hobbies: Harness the positives and build on their hobbies, if you know they love something often you can set little goals to push them whilst they are having fun.

Parent challenges:
Expectations: As much as each parent wants their child to do well and wants to see them participating at things like the athletics carnival, swimming lessons, school concert etc it is vital that we think about realistic goals for our children. If a child is extremely anxious and is struggling getting to school, we need to think, is it realistic that our child will stand up on a stage performing in front of a packed hall at the school concert? Sometimes as parents we need to take a step back and adjust our own expectations and be ok if our child just can’t do some of these things from being immobilised with anxiety and fear. The most important thing is setting that goal but it may not be realistic until Grade 1 or Grade 2, set goals and put steps in place to reach this much larger goal.

Emotions: It can be heartbreaking and very difficult seeing your child struggling every day. It is important as a parent to also keep check of your own emotions, it is ok to let your child see you cry and let them know it makes you very sad to see them struggling but you are there to help and work with them. Sometimes children need to know that someone gets that the struggles are very real for them, and they are not alone. In saying this it is also important to be emotionally strong in front of your child when they need you to be strong, especially when they are in the depths of struggling through an anxious time eg. School drop off.

Support: It can be extremely tough to deal with your child’s emotions and your own, make sure you seek some support, this may be from speaking to a friend, talking to other parents whose children are struggling with anxiety or even seeking advice and support from a counselor. There is support available and the school can certainly direct you where to find it.

Reflection: Day after day we might see our child struggling, we often lose sight of how far they have come. Remember to also reflect back from the beginning of the year and realise all your hard work in implementing several strategies is paying off.

Books and apps:
These are some great apps and books:
Smiling minds app (mindfulness and meditation)
FabFirst5 app (recognitions of worries and plans to overcome these)
The kissing hand by Audrey Penn (a lovely children’s book)
Hey Warrior by Karen Young (a book written for kids to explain anxiety)
A is for Attitude by Julie Davey (the little book of inspiration and encouragement)

Remember: Each child is different, there will be a strategy or strategies that works best for your child, keep trialing things but also give your child control and ask them what they would like to try with yours and the schools support.

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