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.
Shawna Wingert is a special education teacher turned educational consultant, and mom of two brilliant boys who have learning differences and special needs.
Shawna has also written four books: Everyday Autism, Special Education at Home, Parenting Chaos, and Homeschooling Your Child With Special Needs. A passionate advocate for individualized education, Shawna is frequently featured on Today.com, Simple Homeschool, Weird Unsocialized Homeschoolers and The Mighty. She can also be found supporting parents online at her own site, DifferentByDesignLearning.com.