All adults and children feel anxious and worried at times. Anxiety is a normal and natural occurrence. It’s part of life.

It can’t be allowed to become overwhelming or defining. Children can experience anxiety about different issues at different stages of their lives. For the most part, this is just one more element of growing up.

However, for many children, anxiety can be overwhelming and for many more it can be even more worrying and interfere with a child’s daily life. Severe anxiety can harm children’s mental and emotional wellbeing and affect their self-esteem and confidence. They may become withdrawn and avoid situations that could possibly make them feel anxious.

Not everyone recognises the signs of childhood anxiety. These can be many and varied. Children may not be sleeping well or sleeping for too long. They find it hard to concentrate. They might be angry and irritable. Most have a lack of confidence. They are unable to face and complete simple everyday challenges. They avoid normal everyday activities such as seeing friends, going out in public or going to school. Teenagers particularly can be anxious, making them avoid social gatherings.

There are trigger points for anxiety. It is rarely just one thing. These can include transitions to returning to school, starting secondary school, moving from the junior to the senior cycle or moving onto college or the beginning of their working life. There can be conflict with parents or teachers or friends. They might feel concerned before a test or exam. Some are shy in social situations. It can be even more difficult if they’re coping with bereavement, addiction, mental ill health, divorce or separation. The children might be homeless or in direct provision but they might also be in what seems to others to be the most normal and happy homes. Many children compare themselves unfavourably to their colleagues and school friends.

The sooner help and support is provided the better the chances of a successful intervention.

Treating Childhood and Adolescent Anxiety

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Treating Childhood and Adolescent Anxiety

Hop, skip and a big jump

Helping your child transition through Primary School
It is well acknowledged that teenagers experience many difficulties and issues particularly when they are transitioning from primary school to secondary school.

But school anxiety is not confined to secondary schools and there are many micro transitions that take place in primary schools which can trigger episodes of anxiety amongst young pupils as they negotiate change.

Children grow a comfortable bond with their primary school teacher particularly when the same teacher is often with them for the full academic year. They get used to their voice, their ways, their rituals, whether it’s treats on a Friday or no homework on birthdays. There is a sense of security in the familiarity of the relationship.

Parents may not be aware of classroom micro changes or the unintentional upset they can cause to pupils, particularly because very young children often cannot articulate their concerns. These changes can be as seemingly small as a new teacher with a different style of teaching or a different school finishing time.

Fergal McCarthy, a resource teacher, regularly liaises with the class teachers and parents of his students if they’re having difficulties with anxiety in relation to transitioning from one subject or from one class level to the next. In an effort to resolve this, at the end of a school year, he arranges to bring his students on a fun visit to their next classroom to meet their teacher and see the layout and new games and toys. If needed he puts together a laminated book of photographs of the child with their new teacher in their new classroom involved in fun activities. This book can be read by the child with their parents over the holidays so they can develop positive associations in relation to the move over the summer break, simple but proven to be hugely successful.

The migration to first class can also give rise to a range of issues for primary school children. Firstly, the school day itself is longer and there’s a slight increase in the workload and complexity of subjects being taught. No matter how gentle the transition, first class and upwards will require more input from the child themselves as the curriculum progresses.

This can be quite exhausting for young minds. They may be playing in a bigger school yard and mixing with older children. They may have started extra-curricular activities or go to aftercare for an hour or two after school.

On a practical level they may need a more substantial lunch to get them through these days.

Extra patience will be required to deal with tired children when it comes to settling down to meals or completing homework after a long day. Nora Tuite, another experienced special education teacher, emphasises the need for parents to tune into their children’s school day. Get to know their schedule. Parents can ask for a copy of the class timetable to enable them ask relevant questions about that school particular day. i.e. What did you do in art today? Was dancing fun?

Nora also stresses that children with special needs or learning difficulties need extra support as they can experience ordinary simple changes very differently from other children.

“Some children get totally engrossed in what they are doing, not realising the teacher and class have moved on to a new subject or are physically moving to the yard or the PE hall”, which Nora explains, “can lead to anxiety, frustration, outbursts or even meltdowns in some cases”. Nora has tips for clear and effective remedies. “Teachers can give a ‘5-minute count down’ to the class to finish their current activity before moving onto the next one, thus signalling change.

Nora also advises parents to ask the teacher, if it’s not already in place, to consider a visual timetable on the wall.
“This helps the child if they feel lost or overwhelmed during the day, one glance at the timetable and they can re-establish where they are in terms of their schedule.

(ie. if they’re finished drama…they’ll have art next (fig.1) )

“Children can help parents to organise and prepare their school bags the night before” Nora suggests, “so ask your child to get their PE tracksuit ready if they have sport the following day, fill their water bottle, pack their lunch and leave their bag ready in the same place every time because simple routines like this can help start the day well and help prevent morning anxiety while promoting independence and organisation”.

Ciara Goragely, a Special Needs Assistant (SNA) in a primary school has observed common difficulties that arise on the social side of interactions, such as in the school yard. “Some children with sensory issues don’t enjoy contact games or refuse to join the class line”, she says. “So it can be beneficial to re-enact and role play at home with dolls or teddies demonstrating how to play nicely together and how to queue in a line for example”, says Ciara.

Ciara also advises parents to notify the school if children in general have any particular dislikes, such as having photographs taken. If the school photographer is due to visit the school, then with notice this is an opportunity for parents to do a mock photo shoot at home first. The importance of using the same techniques and language in the school as at home for children with special needs, is also highlighted by Ciara. If parents use full body listening techniques (where the child doesn’t have to make eye contact but does have to be present for the conversation without any distractions; such as playing with toys or eating lunch etc) then it is beneficial if the SNA also uses the full body listening technique. If parents use certain phrases such as ‘good job’ then it helps the child if the same term is used in school also.

Fergal, Nora and Ciara all agree on the importance of good communication between parents of all children, most especially those with extra needs, and their teachers and SNA’s. An interactive journal which goes back and forth each day between school and home can be used for daily entries to flag an achievement or upset or to make either side aware in advance of any changes to their schedule or day.

We’re all in this together, parents, teachers and school staff alike and good communication between home and school is key to making schooldays some of the best days of our children’s young lives.

Fiona Murray, Parentline

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