Anxiety and Learning - Article Author: Danielle Copplin - Registered Psychologist.

 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.

Danielle Copplin

BPsySc (Hons.), MPsyc (Ed&Dev), MAPS

Bullying - Article Author: Michelle Grosvenor - Clinical Director/Principal Psychologist.

As a child and teenager, I was overweight. I clearly remember being taunted with the words “fat Day is a dog” in primary school over and over. I also recall being pushed off a bench…for absolutely no reason. A girl simply walked up to me and without comment pushed me. I was totally shocked. Fortunately, this kind of thing did not happen to me very often but sadly this is a daily or weekly experience for many children.

My younger sister was one of those people who were targeted mercilessly in primary and high school by bullies. She was quiet, she didn’t have a lot of friends and she dared to be different by cutting her hair very short. Unfortunately, I didn’t do anything to help my sister at the time. I am ashamed to say I took the “it’s not my problem” road. This is one of my biggest regrets. Thus, as a parent and as a Psychologist I am passionate about supporting children and young people who are being bullied.

For a behaviour to be considered bullying, it must occur repeatedly and the bully must have “power” over the person they are harming. Power can include being older or physically stronger than the other person. Conflict between peers and isolated incidents of verbal or physical aggression, are generally not regarded as bullying.

With one in six Australian students being bullied at least once a week, this is an issue of concern for many school aged children and their parents.

Bullying is a serious issue, which can lead to increased risk of depression and suicide.

As children are often too embarrassed to tell their teachers or parents that they are being bullied, it is important for parents to be aware of possible signs of bullying which include:

·        Decreased school attendance – often due to headaches, stomach aches, nausea and vomiting which can be triggered by anxiety

·        Sudden changes in behaviour e.g. A happy child who usually enjoys school, becoming quiet and withdrawn

·        Unexplained bruises, cuts, torn clothes or damaged/missing school books or bags

·        Appearing worried and sad, particularly at night time and in the morning

·        Poor sleep, nightmares and bedwetting

·        Not going to the bathroom during school hours so needing to go urgently on arrival home (bullying often occurs in isolated places such as toilet blocks)

·        Decreased school grades

·        Requests for extra money or food to take to school

If you suspect your child is being bullied, it is important to talk to them about this calmly. If you appear anxious, upset or angry they are less likely to share any concerns or problems with you.

It can be helpful to raise the topic of bullying in a casual way while watching a TV show or movie where someone is being bullied. You can open the conversation by saying something such as “what would you do if something like that happened to you or one of your friends at school”. If they seem upset or unsure of what they would do, you can then share some tips with them.

Educating your child about the difference between “dobbing” vs “reporting” can also be helpful. “Dobbing” can be explained as telling the teacher about something that another student is doing e.g. talking in class, which is not directly hurting anyone else. The intent of “dobbing” is usually to get the other person into trouble for breaking a rule. Whereas reporting is seeking help when someone is intentionally hurting you or someone else. The intent of “reporting” is generally to get the harmful behaviour to stop. Helping children to see the difference between “dobbing” and “reporting” may help them to voice their concerns if they or someone else is being bullied.

If your child tells you that he/she is being bullied, it is important not to dismiss their concerns or to tell them to “just ignore it”. Instead, it is helpful to:

·        Thank them for telling you – acknowledge that it takes courage to share these kinds of things!

·        Ask them how they feel about what is happening and offer them empathy e.g. “that sounds tough. I’d be upset or worried if something like that happened to me too”. A supportive family environment can be a protective factor for children who are being bullied.

·        Let them know that you are going to help them through this

·        Avoid telling them to hit back or respond aggressively to bullying – this approach is likely to get them in trouble thus causing them more stress.

·        Teach them to respond assertively to bullying by standing tall, looking directly at the person who is bullying them and saying in a calm, clear voice “stop bullying” then leave the area. It may be helpful to practice this with them by doing role plays. When a child responds in this way, the bully is less likely to continue.

·        Let them know that bullying is about “power”. Bullies feel powerful when they see other people looking scared, upset or angry in response to what they have said or done. Responding calmly and assertively means the bully is less likely to get a “power kick” from their actions and so is more likely to stop.

·        Help your child to develop positive social skills as children who are isolated are more likely to being targeted by bullies.

·        Let the teacher or school know what is happening as soon as possible. It is best to do this privately to avoid embarrassing your child in front of their peers.

·        If the bullying continues, ask for information about your school’s bullying policy and request a meeting to discuss the situation with the teacher or principal to develop a plan to support your child. Try to remember that in most cases the school or teacher are doing their best and that they are not always aware of what is going on.

·        Teach your child to speak up if they see someone else being bullied. This is a very powerful deterrent to bullies.

·        Encourage your child to participate in fun activities outside school e.g. sport, art classes, drama classes that build self-esteem and confidence.

If the bullying continues or if you are concerned about the impact that the bullying is having on your child’s well-being, it is a good idea to seek support from the school counsellor or a psychologist who works with children and young people. A psychologist can help your child express their feelings, and teach them strategies for responding assertively to bullying, making friends etc.

If finance is a barrier, please speak to your GP to see if your child is eligible to receive psychological treatment under the ATAPS program.


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That One Moment In Time

Letter From The Heart

It is 6:30pm and time for all seven of us to head to the Friday night ball game.  The weather is perfect and the excitement and energy in our car is catchy.

My husband and I are enjoying this moment of celebration - seeing my sister, her spouse and their three kids for the first time in years since moving back home. Prior to this moment, we’d lived overseas and the distance between our homes was difficult to overcome.

But on this day we were joyful and simply loving being back together, all of us completely unaware that our lives would soon change in a heartbeat.  This family car trip with my sister at the wheel would change everything. 

Our journey began, but as we drove out of the driveway, we literally only travelled for a minute or two before the impact and then a darkness that swallowed me up and changed everything. I’m not sure how long I was out for, but I awake to my niece screaming, deployed air bags, thick dust and the sensation that we are spinning out of control. As our car stopped, I realised we’d been in a terrible t-bone car accident and the impact of the collision was directly on my side of the car.

I searched for some sort of equilibrium and noted my spouse running to our niece as the rest of us all sat bewildered, trying to get bearings, assess our injuries and exit the car. As I emerged from the wreck, a man introduces himself to me as a firefighter and directed me to speak with the emergency dispatcher as he put his phone into my hand.  In a daze I listened and responded as a man on the other end of the line asked me what seemed like a thousand questions until the response team arrived.

The scene was hectic and surreal. I remember a paramedic guiding me into an ambulance to escort my sister to the hospital and when we arrived the emergency room was a flurry. All I could think to say over and over to my sister was“The kids are okay. You did not kill your kids.”  At some point, a police officer arrived and reassured my sister and I that the kids were in good condition and that she was not at fault in the accident. He told us that the driver of the other vehicle admitted it was all his fault.

So the medical team, law enforcement all set about doing what they needed to and by the time we get home, it was late at night and we were exhausted. Everyone went to bed and I begin to understand something was wrong. As the rest of the household settled in to try to rest, I became aware that I hurt in a way I had not ever experienced. Funny how sometimes, in the heat of the moment we go into survival and shock mode and our concerns are only for those around us – all the while we remain unaware that we need medical attention ourselves. I realised in the middle of the night I hadn’t been checked over myself at the scene of the accident even though the impact had been on my side. I began to worry and couldn’t ignore the discomfort in my body.  Still, I didn’t go to the hospital because my thoughts were with the household of injured guests in my home.

On Monday morning, I finally went to the doctor and my physician informed me that I was pretty banged up. Shortly thereafter the family vacation is declared over and my visitors go home to recover – and my own journey from injury begins.

Later I would learn, the next 1283 days of my life would be spent in grueling rehabilitation; only to fail functional fitness exams and be classified as 100% disabled.

I now have significant injuries to the left side of my body, my spine, my lungs and a traumatic brain injury. Some days are very dark and lonely, especially the day my doctors informed me my journey to recovery wouldn’t be months but years.  I have spent day after day with pain levels so high I sit and think about how I could remove a limb or body part because I believe an amputation would surely be less painful. 

I am not and I have never been angry with the driver of that other car, but I am angry that I now miss life as I knew it before the accident and he list of things I can no longer do is long.  Employment isn’t feasible and the career I worked decades to build is over. Many tasks at home are dangerous or impossible for me to complete, even seemingly easy things like changing a light bulb.  My bike, snowshoes, and hiking boots sit collecting dust because I can’t bear to say goodbye to them, yet I cannot use them now.  It is all a part of a life I no longer recognise but must accept none the less.

The gift of the survivor’s journey is a new perspective on life and helps me to better understand and appreciate what is truly important. I am no longer working long hours in a high-stress corporate job. My days are now on my own terms, running my own business helping people find a life they love. I have time and flexibility to participate in things I never could have before.  I found strength from within that did not exists previously and I refused to give up or allow my disability to define my future.

My life and my family’s life was forever changed in a moment because of one distracted teenager. Our lives are changed forever because one person not paying attention had lost focus, lost control and set into a state of panic as he accelerated in the side of my sister’s car.

As tough as this event has been on our entire family - and continues to be, I know that I have a unique opportunity to inspire people around the world to dream more, live more, and be more than they ever thought they could be. I can inspire people to make the most of their lives while they’re still here. More than that, I can help people realise that being a victim is more often than not a choice – that we can choose to be a victim of our circumstances or we can choose to be a survivor and use this for greater good.

I choose to be a survivor. I know life is about making today incredible, because tomorrow is never promised.