Helping Anxious Young Students
Question: My 5-year-old is about to begin kindergarten. Caden has been anxious about every start so far in preschool, and his anxiety has lingered through the year. He does well with friends and enjoys activities, but requires a great deal of teacher support and encouragement. He also avoids conflict and stretching himself into new and untested areas. I think we know how to help him prepare for the upcoming year, but we are unsure how to help him once he is actually in school. Can you provide some advice if the anxiety returns when he begins kindergarten?
Answer: You are wise to plan ahead, and there are ways you can help after determining the possible reasons for his anxiety.
Why would a child be anxious in school?
There are three reasons a child is anxious in school. It is important to make your best determination about which one or combination is affecting Caden, because the help you provide will be different in each situation.
The first possibility is that a child might not have the ability to function socially or academically. There are many reasons why that would be. Some common ones are limitations in the ability to understand language, social relations or certain learning tasks. Children recognize that they cannot accomplish what is required, and they become anxious.
From what you have written, Caden appears to have the ability to function well. Therefore, a lack of ability does not appear to be the reason for his school anxiety, although we could only say that confidently if we knew him better on the basis of an assessment.
The second possibility is that a child has not fully separated from his parent(s). When this happens, the child relies excessively on his mother and/or father for help, particularly when he or she faces a situation that requires a little extra emotional strength. It seems possible that Caden's anxiety is partly or mostly from this source.
The third possibility is that a child has developed an internal conflict. For example, some children who are conflicted and risk-averse are concerned about the possibility that they will be upset and angry because they are unnecessarily guilty or worried about such emotions. In this case, even though a child may have separated well from parents and be able to manage in ordinary situations, he or she may have insufficient emotional strength to cope with mixed-up feelings. It also seems possible that Caden's anxiety is partly or mostly from this source.
Helping with separation lags
We suggest the following ways to help Caden with a possible lag in his separation process. If separation isn't causing his anxiety, these steps are perfectly good things to do anyhow!
Help him maintain a mental image of you during the day by telling him what you will be doing when he is in school and discussing your day when you reunite.
If it is possible in your family life, pick him up at school or the bus stop, and have a preserved period of time when you can reconnect.
If he is more demanding, needy or less reasonable when you reunite, consider this a time to refuel and stretch your usual tolerance for acceptable behavior.
Ask whether he is anxious or worried. Don't wait for him to bring it up. You won't build bad habits if he is not worried, but you will show you are available to talk.
Send something every day that he can open at lunch as a reminder of your love. His reading ability is limited if present at all, so be creative. Avoid food treats; it is better to offer something that connects with cherished pets or people. Photos, drawings, simple messages when he can read ("I love you!") can provide a needed boost during the day.
Helping with internal conflicts
There are also strategies to help Caden with any internal conflicts about anger and aggression. Again, if this is not a cause of his anxiety, these actions are still helpful.
Continually distinguish between feelings and thoughts and actions so he can learn that all children and adults have a variety of acceptable reactions that are part of being human. He should act kindly and respectfully, but won't always have kind and respectful thoughts. Occasionally share your own unkind thoughts if they would make sense to him.
Explain that others may be upset when he pursues his own legitimate goal — and that is OK. For example, if he wins a game, someone else loses and may be distressed. If he is assigned to a desirable center in class, someone else may be jealous. These can be difficult situations for empathic children who may feel unnecessarily responsible and guilty for these inevitable by-products of fulfilling their own desires.
Model assertion and stretch yourself. Showing is always more effective than explaining. Caden knows the things that are hard for you. Let him see his parents taking some risks and standing up for themselves. Establish a path, and he is likely to travel along it.
Sometimes sensitive parental support is enough. Sometimes it is not, and a careful evaluation to determine more about the source and solutions for the anxiety are in order. But either way, Caden is fortunate to have concerned and supportive parents, and he will deeply appreciate your efforts.
The Lucy Daniels Center for Early Childhood is a nonprofit agency in Cary that promotes the health and well-being of children and families. The question may be a composite or illustration of parents' questions.