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How to Deal with an Anxious Child in your Classroom

How do you deal with an anxious child in your classroom?  What is socially acceptable and what isn’t?  When do you speak with the parents?  When do you seek outside help?  What can you do to ease an anxious child?


First off, I would like to state we live in a fast paced society.  As adults we tend to move from activity to activity without giving much thought to it.

Children cannot always process the quick pace of adults.  They need time to process, want consistency and need time to transition to new activities.  Each child is different. They develop at their own rate.  While one child may be ready to do an activity at age 4, another is not, until age 5.  One year can make all the difference.

In the beginning of the year, you will have children that may have never been away from a parent before.  You will need lots and lots of patience, consistency, praising the good days, and trying not to make a big deal out of anxiety.

Setting up the Classroom:

Before the school year starts, set up a picture schedule.  Children like to stick to a routine, something they can count on.  It also aides in keeping you on track and gives you and the children the chance to look at a wall to see where you are in the day.  Children this age can’t read yet but they can see where they are within the day by using a chart.

A Timer:
Purchase a Digital Timer and set the timer for activities.  The children will know when the timer goes off it is time to pick up and move to the next activity.

You need to give a warning about 5 minutes before the timer goes off.  This will give children the chance to finish up a project they are working on.  Use Transition
songs, tunes and activities listed here to ease children into the next activity.

Have a few activities the children can chose from upon arrival in the morning.  This will provide an instant way to give children a choice on how to spend their time.

For Children with separation anxiety issues, it will give the parent a chance it ask their child what activity they would like to do.  Get them started and say their goodbyes.

Tips and Tricks for Extreme Anxiety:
Crying is a normal part of this process.  Crying can include temper tantrums as well.

Actively Listen and Formulate a Plan
With worriers, I make myself available giving them even more active listening when they start to escalate.  I stop, actively listen to what they are saying, make eye contact, and ask them, “What’s the worst that could happen?” At four, they should be able to progress through some scenarios with you and reach a logical ending for each of the potential outcomes they are contemplating. If those scenarios are worked through, then they will be able to mentally formulate the plan if that situation begins to bother them again.

Children need to define the problem, the potential outcomes, and the release of responsibility. “So you think there could be a problem that mommy or daddy won’t pick you up?” “If they were to forget you, then what would happen?” “Yes, I would call them and they would come get you and you would wait at school with a teacher until they arrived. NO PROBLEM.” I’ve found that addressed just like this consistently for a few times, if the child receives the exact same information, in a very direct non-nonsense manner, that the issue often fades away.

For security the first month maybe the parent can find a house key to attach to the child’s backpack.  Something the child thinks the parent will have to come back for.  For some reason children this age believe that the parent will truly forget about them.  I had one parent leave their garage door opener in their child’s cubby each day.  It worked to ease the child into their daily ritual and that’s all that mattered to us.

Blankets, toys and such are also ok.  However, they tend to get lost and most often than not become an unwelcomed distraction over the course of the day.

If a child needs something as a reminder to carry around with them I suggest a worry necklace, stone or bracelet.

The Buddy Plan
Find a child that is a leader to be a buddy and help a struggling child with their day. Have someone to play with and encourage them to participate. Pairing up the child with a possible friend and freeing up the teacher for the other kids.

Flip Schedule
Create a pocket flip schedule out of index cards and a ring.  The child could flip through the schedule anytime she needs reassurance.  Sticking to a routine they can count on.

How to Approach the Parents:
Chances are if the child is exbiting behaviors at drop off, the parent is aware of some issues in the school setting.  After about a month, you should see a decrease in anxiety in drop off and the school day, but what if you do not?

First step is for you to delicately talk with the parents to see if they share the same concerns you do. In younger children it can often present as immaturity and behavioral problems but it can be something else that is organic in nature (e.g. OCD /autism spectrum etc).

Trust your instincts.  You know enough about children and spend enough time with them to be able to get a feel if this is a real problem or a behavioral issue.

If suspect it is a real problem suggest they speak to a professional like a pediatrician, child behavioral specialist, mental health consultant etc.

You’ve identified some real concerns here, but can you think of any strength this child has and focus on them with the parent as well?

Books to Share with Children:

Again, you will need lots and lots of patience, consistency, praising the good days, and trying not to make a big deal out of anxiety. However, you will need to trust yourself enough to let a parent know that there may be an underlying problem if you suspect one.

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