When Your Child Is Too Anxious To Learn

Too often, my child is too anxious to learn anything at all. I am learning how to help.

I have many memories of elementary and middle school.

Good ones like singing in the choir, participating in history day, and my sweet third grade teacher calling me “love bug.”

Like most of us, I also have some bad ones. Being teased about my clothes, being publicly embarrassed by a teacher, and being bullied on the playground are among them.

All the memories, good and bad, are mixed with a visceral reminder of how anxious I was as a young girl.

I was scared of walking alone to the bus stop every day. I worried incessantly about getting a bad grade, although I was a straight-A student and knew my mom would understand. I felt a constant, undercurrent of stress that persisted no matter what the circumstances.

It wasn’t easy, but I was able to function. I matured and did not feel so bad in time.

And, despite the low-level of anxiety that persisted in my youth, I was able to learn.

Fast forward thirty years.

I still feel anxious at times. But my anxiety is nowhere near the levels that my children face every day.

Both of my boys also struggle with anxiety – so much so that they have received anxiety disorder and for my youngest, panic disorder diagnoses.

Looking back over their early years in school and the beginning of our homeschool journey, I can see just how much anxiety affected our lives and their learning.

I am ashamed to say I did very little to help them with it. I thought they were misbehaving or lazy. I tried to force them to get back on track, to finish the worksheet, and essentially to learn.

Suffice to say, it did not go well.

In fact, the more I ignored their basic need for relief, the less and less we accomplished in our days (never mind how miserable they felt – poor kids).

When Your Child Is Too Anxious To Learn

It seems obvious. A child who is overwhelmingly anxious is not going to learn in a productive manner.  And yet, how often do we dismiss this basic, fundamental need for safety and security in the interest of math?

My children have chronic conditions. Unfortunately, even on their best days, anxiety is a clear and present part of their lives. Because of this, through so much trial and error, we have found some ways that help them feel less anxious and help them progress is in their learning.

Calm Down First

Always, always, always. No matter how much I may want to push through a project that we are working on or a book that we are reading, if my boys show signs of anxiety, I have learned it is essential that we stop and help them calm down first.

For my oldest, this means going to the peace and quiet of his room for a bit and listening to music. For my youngest, this means getting outside and moving his body.

Only once they are feeling a bit calmer, do we move back into any learning for the day. (I know this sounds simple and maybe I am just thick, but I can’t tell you how many years I fought to keep us on schedule for the day instead of responding to their needs.)

Learn About Anxiety

We have time built into our homeschool routine for mindfulness and behavioral exercises that help regulate mood and decrease anxiety. We have also completed workbooks together that help identify triggers, determine coping strategies and create a common language in our home for dealing with anxiety on tough days.

Because sensory issues increase both of my boys’ anxiety levels, we have started to build up a stash of calming, sensory fidgets and toys that they can reach for when they begin to feel anxious. One of our favorite options for calming manipulatives is the Sensory TheraPlay box.

This monthly box of OT-like toys, manipulatives and fidgets is perfectly designed for the sensory kiddo in need of a break. I find we reach for these items more than any other, when sensory sensitivities are increasing the anxiety levels in our home.

Focus On Strengths

Sometimes, all it takes to help one of my boys get back on track is to change the subject or topic to something that is naturally a strength. For example, if my youngest is having a tough day, rather than practicing reading, we will complete an animal study. This simple adjustment can make all the difference in diffusing increasing anxiety and helping my sons enjoy their learning.

Get Out Of The House

This is my tried and true, last-ditch, when all else fails and we all need a little break strategy. We load up in the car, Try Audible and Get Two Free Audiobooks""” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”>turn on an audio book and go for ice cream or drive-thru Starbucks. I drive around while they relax and listen to a good book. It counts as learning and it helps us all feel a little bit better about our day.

Let It Go

Finally, the truth is, some days we need to toss out the plan for learning and just focus on decreasing one of my boy’s overwhelm. I used to feel frustrated by this, but the truth is, no learning is going to happen anyway once we get to this point. More importantly, one of the greatest benefits of homeschooling is the focus on relationship and closeness that naturally develops. Some days, I need to just let go of all the expectations, curl up on the couch with a boy or two, and turn on a movie.

Dealing with childhood anxiety is not easy – not for mom and certainly not for the child. Add the constant presence of homeschooling and it can become messy for everyone involved. The good news is, homeschooling allows the flexibility and individualized attention that childhood anxiety craves and that helps our children feel secure.

I am so very grateful that we get to work on it together.

This post is part of an ongoing series, 5 Days Of Anxiety-Free Homeschooling.

5 days of anxiety free homeschooling

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  1. Yes to this, a hundred times.

    I used to lose my temper with my son because I didn’t recognize the anxiety behind his freak-outs when we did math. (How’s that for counter-productive?) He just knew it was “boring” and he “hated it.”

    I could see it was harming our relationship, so (after trying many other things), I quit doing any math with him, middle of third grade.

    He played with his baseball cards. Messed around with statistics.

    The next year we enrolled him in a part-time-school (for homeschoolers) and used their curriculum for 4th grade, including math. He had taught himself almost all of it already, just from messing around with baseball statistics.

    He skipped 5th grade math. He still gets a little anxious when there are math concepts he doesn’t already know, but at least now we both recognize what’s going on and we’re on the same team.

    He hopes to get a Ph.D. in statistics, for baseball.

    Thank God for the crazy, wonderful ways in which he works sometimes.

    1. Has he read or watched Moneyball? I bet he would love it.

  2. Jen in Oz says:

    I am only just realising that the anxious person in our household is me. I swing between between getting things done effectively and having what I call Mama MIA (Missing in Action) days where I just can’t handle any decisions and I don’t have a plan so I hide in Facebook or Netflix but it doesn’t help. It only increases my stress the next day because we are “behind”. And cue more anxiety. ?. I would love to know how to not be on this mouse wheel. Maybe I should try some of your boys’ ideas.

    Best wishes
    Jen in Oz

    1. Hi Jen!
      Sometimes, I feel exactly the same way. Maybe we should both do their exercises!

  3. Thanks so much for this. I had a child who when we started would cry before EVERY LESSON. 20 minutes of crying before reading sometimes (even with the most gentle of encouragement). This was after a year of crying his way through public school KG (could not do that again…it’s why we homeschooled).

    All of what you wrote is such great advice. I have a few things to add that worked for me.

    1. During those breaks add physical activity. A game of tag or jumping on the bed can ease the tension (and there’s been studies showing physical activity helps brain activity). In fact, if you can, do some work WHILE doing simple physical activity. We did math drills while jumping on the bed. (You can do it while tossing a ball too. Answer a problem…then toss/catch.) Swinging while trying to count to 100. Etc.

    2. Snacks. Have you ever got shakey hungry? Could make you anxious, right? But also I learned that some brain experts suggest eating a candy bar or some other snack because your brain burns energy when you are thinking and a snack can give you an energy boost and help you through a problem. Plus there’s the aspect of “comfort food.” Our go-to at the table snack foods were popcorn, gold fish, and peanut M&Ms. Just a little M&Ms.

    3. This one won’t work for everyone but it saved our homeschool. I noticed that my child didn’t get anxious when we were playing school, even when I inserted real things in it, like doing spelling words. So I tried doing ALL our lessons in play school (or almost all). With me as a dino teacher (and some of the students) and him playing various other “students” from lego men to stuffed animals, we got school done and the crying mostly went away. It made it fun, but more than that, I think there’s something about trying something new while pretending that takes fear of failure away. “It’s not ME that got the word wrong, it was doggie!” And that makes it much less stressful. (Also, it helped that I played “students” too that made mistakes sometimes.)

  4. This sounds so much like our experience, thanks for sharing! It’s good to know it’s not “only us.”
    Could you share which anxiety workbooks or resources you used with your boys? I would love to add that to our homeschool next year, but there are so many choices of workbooks out there.
    Thanks again for all you do to encourage us and share ideas!

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