One of the most common parental concerns I come across in our clinic, is classroom learning difficulties experienced by children and teenagers.
The first step in trying to determine why a young person may be experiencing learning difficulties always involves a detailed assessment of that person’s thinking skills and their ability to process information effectively. From there, I assess their academic skills - typically, focusing on the skills that are associated with specific learning disorders such as Dyslexia, because these skills are considered to form the foundations for all academic achievement.
Sometimes by assessing a person’s ability to think and process information, and taking a look at their academic skills, it’s possible to identify a clear difficulty that is limiting their ability to learn in the classroom environment. Sometimes however, that person may score in the average range for thinking and academic skills and have no clear difficulties – in which case I’d need to explore further. Generally, I find that approximately 8 out of every 10 young people have symptoms of anxiety which may be affecting their learning. In fact, anxiety disorders are widely recognised as the most common psychological difficulty experienced by young people today.
Of course, we can’t expect to eliminate childhood anxiety or worry altogether. It goes without saying that healthy emotional development throughout childhood involves a small amount of worry and nervousness. However, for approximately 10-15% of children, these worries are overwhelming to such a degree that their anxiety then interferes with important parts of everyday life, including classroom learning. So, when I’m looking to determine the underlying cause of a learning difficulty for any given person, it’s important to consider how well the person deals with anxiety and stress. You see, while they may have the same ability to think and process information, and the same academic skills as other people their age, they may still be having difficulties with completing tasks due to distracting thoughts and uncomfortable feelings.
If a child is experiencing anxiety or worry, their uncomfortable thoughts may overwhelm whatever else it is they are supposed to be focusing on, which in turn can affect their learning dramatically.
For example, someone who finds themselves distracted when listening to another person may begin to scribble, draw or write something completely unrelated to their current conversation; the result being a loss of focus and an inability to comprehend what the other person is saying. Similarly, a young person who is experiencing anxiety in the classroom may focus on their worries and unhelpful thoughts, rather than listening to the teacher or focusing on the task at hand. Or, when a young person is reading; anxiety might cause overwhelming worry. The worry then becomes that person’s primary focus, making it very difficult to retain reading flow or understand what it is they’ve just read.
Signs - Is Your Child Impacted By Anxiety or Worry?
So what are some of the signs that your child’s learning may be impacted by anxiety or worry?
Physical signs of anxiety can include:
· Excessive movement and fidgeting
· High levels of distractedness
· Complaints of headaches or stomach aches without medical reason
Emotional signs of anxiety can include:
· Defiance or refusal to engage in tasks
· Panic attacks
· High levels of sensitivity
· Worrying about assessment and tests
· Fear of completing work in front of friends
· Fears of making even minor mistakes
Behavioural signs of anxiety can include:
· Avoiding participating in social activities at or after school
· Refusing to go to school, or to interact with peers or strangers
· Questioning inexplicable situations (i.e. “What if an earthquake happened”)
· Giving up without reason
· Withdrawing from activities previously enjoyed
· Compulsive behaviours
Supporting Kids Experiencing Symptoms of Anxiety
Tips For Parents
Parental involvement in their children’s education is considered a key predictor of school success. Positive parental involvement has been attributed to higher reading scores, language and growth development, motivation to achieve, pro-social behaviour and quality of work. Parents can promote changes in a child’s unhelpful thoughts through encouraging their child to take smalls steps to overcoming their worries. The following strategies might be helpful:
- Engage your child in learning activities that are fun to reduce emphasis on performance. Try playing educational board games.
- When homework becomes hard, use relaxation techniques with your child, like simple deep breathing. Breathe in deeply on counts of 1,2,3,4 and then breathe out on counts of 1,2,3,4,5,6.
- Before leaving for school in the mornings, promote positive self-talk such as "I am calm." "I am relaxed." "I feel safe." Your child can think up their own mantra (a mantra is an expression or idea that is closely associated with something - in this case, a feeling of well-being - and is repeated often without thinking about it.)
Tips For Teachers
- Use uplifting songs to spark enthusiasm and energy.
- Allow students to make the classroom his or her own: permit each student to bring a favourite item like a poster, memento or trinket to exhibit.
- Bring in a lamp and houseplants to foster a homey feeling in the classroom.
- Keep lighting bright enough. Even when showing a video or overhead transparencies, never turn off all the lights.
- Provide the young person with regular access to the school Guidance Counsellor.
- Assign the young person to a buddy to support them during unstructured times such as lunch breaks.
- Recognise small achievements.
- Prepare a peaceful place, for example a wigwam or a tent in a corner of the room. Give the student a card or signal to show or put in a designated place when they need to go to their retreat.
- For younger kids, prepare a box of sensory items, such as squeezy things, slinky or toys with gently lights or sounds and allow the young person access to these when they feel they need them.
If you notice that your child or one of your students is experiencing any of the concerns included in this article, it is recommended that steps are taken to help them cope.
The best place to start is with an open and non-judgemental conversation about the kinds of thoughts that the young person is having. You, or someone you trust can ask them if they would be happy to speak to a professional that will help to make learning easier and/or reduce their worries.
Next, arrange an appointment with your GP or an Educational and Developmental Psychologist for further assessment. Your selected health professional will be able to guide you from there.
BPsySc (Hons.), MPsyc (Ed&Dev), MAPS