Conquering back-to-school anxiety, part 3: Strategies and interventions

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the finale of a three-part series on back-to-school anxiety by the Tourette Syndrome Foundation of Canada.  Part 1 was published on Friday, and part 2 was published on Tuesday.

There are a number of intervention strategies for combating school avoidance, many more than can be discussed here. The following provides a brief overview. If you suspect that your child or a child you work with is struggling with school avoidance, speak to a professional counsellor, doctor or psychologist to obtain more information.

For students whose avoidance behaviour is driven by depression, effective interventions might include cognitive behavioural therapy, prescription medication, gradual re-entry to school and rewards for school attendance.

A different approach might be take for separation anxiety-driven school avoidance behaviour. Teachers can encourage students to bring a “transitional object” from home (e.g. a favourite stuffed animal) and to take a special object home from school, such a drawing or a book, during the first couple of weeks of school to help the student feel more comfortable.

Parents can pre-arrange a particular time when their son or daughter gets to call home. For example, the student might get to phone home once they finish their work in a particular class.  Allowing students to phone home to report success tends to be more effective than a cold turkey approach or permitting the student to call whenever they feel the need to do so.

If possible, parents can also try to systematically increase the amount of time their son or daughter is separated from them while in the home or outside of school. Morning drop-off can be particularly challenging for children with separation anxiety, so if possible, parents should consider having someone else drop off their child to make it easier for the child to separate and enter the school.

There are several strategies that teachers can employ in the classroom to help children with social/performance anxiety-driven school avoidance. Children with this particular difficulty may require additional adult support during interactions with peers, lunch hour and during transitions.

During new or novel situations, teachers can help students with social anxiety disorder by providing them with specific instructions. For example, a teacher could tell the student, “When we get to on our field trip tomorrow, you can help by checking off each student’s name as they get on and off the bus.”

Because presentations are a source of panic and anxiety, it is a good idea for the teacher to allow anxious students to watch others do their presentations before asking them to get up in front of the class. Together with the student, teaching staff should plan what the student should do when they feel panicky.

This plan may include breathing techniques (e.g. diaphragmatic breathing for 10 breaths), thinking about how a good friend might handle the same situation, exiting the classroom for a brief walk, standing out in the hall for a few moments, and/or going to the office or special education resource room.

We wish all of our young ones the very best at school this year. Be aware of your needs, be ready to speak up, and most of all, believe in yourself!

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