Advice from learning & behavior consultant Bev Johns
Adults need to learn what the triggers are for the children, and then help the children identify those triggers, so that they can do better. For instance, in a classroom, it might be certain words that trigger something worrying. The first thing we have to do is know our children, and what I call the emotional baggage that they’re coming into the classroom with, because a lot of our children are coming in with a lot of baggage.
We need to not make assumptions based upon children’s observable behaviors, because underlying those observable behaviors may be issues that are far more complex and involve a mental health issue. For instance, the child may act out because of anxiety or because someone moved his book out of place and he has obsessive compulsive issues.
I always remember a little guy that I worked with, he was one of my favorite students. None of his materials could touch other materials. So in other words, the reading paper couldn’t touch the math paper, couldn’t touch the social studies paper. Well, if they did touch, somebody forgot and that happened, he might start screaming because his pattern was upset. And so it was related to what was going on with the child. But the observable behavior was the screaming. But if you didn’t understand what had happened before, you wouldn’t understand how to work effectively with the student. That was always a trigger for him.
We have to remember that not only do our children have trouble emotionally regulating, but they have something that we call the ‘lack of cognitive flexibility,’ meaning the ability for them to move from one activity to another. So that’s why we want to do one step directions. We’re not giving them multiple things to do at one time, because multiple things to do at one time, regardless of their age, is very difficult for them. And then we need to make sure that our directions are clear.
One of the big concerns that I see with children is that we switch activities, and we switch activities fast. And sometimes our children can’t move from PE class to math, because that’s just too big of a jump. So we might need to build in an intermediate step. So for instance, rather than going right from PE to math, maybe we can go from PE to doing an active activity in math, that involves some body movement.
The other problem that I see is with worksheets. If you have problems with cognitive flexibility, a lot of our worksheets today switch directions on one sheet of paper six times. So I say to teachers, don’t put more than one direction on a sheet of paper at a time. Because otherwise, you’re causing that child to have more anxiety. Sometimes we just don’t think about those things.
If we say to children, ‘you have five minutes to do this,’ that in itself is going to cause anxiety for some children. It’s probably much better to say, in math, do two more problems, or in reading, answer one more question, or if you’re an art teacher, finish painting with this one color. It’s those little things that can really make a big difference for a child, and can avoid a lot of stress and anxiety.
For children with anxiety, we need to be careful of the use of timers because those may be upsetting to them. They’re so busy worrying about ‘when is the timer going to go off?’ that this may not be an effective practice for them. So remember to instead say things like, ‘let’s do two more together,’ as opposed to using timers.
We know about children who have trouble with tests. I was working with an older student one day, and she was so anxious because she had put so much pressure on herself. She had to do well on the test, she had this goal. And if she didn’t do well on the test, she wasn’t going to be able to meet her goal. She spelled her own name wrong. Those things break your heart.
We could reduce some anxiety if we taught our children how to take tests. There are lots of well-researched test taking strategies that are out there for students. Test taking is a skill.
Never assume that children just automatically know how to emotionally regulate. They have to be taught, and they have to be taught first by co-regulating with someone. So for instance, when we see the child is stressed, or where we’re stressed, we may need to teach them some deep breathing activities, we maybe want to teach them things that are what we call ‘cognitive distractions.’ In other words, let’s move to another activity, or let’s change the topic.
How do you know if a child is a worrier, or has an anxiety disorder?
We all worry. One of the things we can do with children and with ourselves is identify those things that make us worry. But once we get into anxiety disorders, then what we’re talking about are the children who the anxiety is interfering with their life functioning. There are certain things that they’re not able to do and are developmentally inappropriate. Young children are going to worry, it’s just part of development. But when it’s lasting for six months or more, then it’s a concern for us.
Bev Johns has been an active member of the Learning Disabilities Association for many years serving as a State President and State Presidents’ representative. She is very active in the Healthy Children Project. She has over 35 years experience in special education in the public schools in Illinois. She is now a Professional Fellow at MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Illinois, and is a learning and behavior consultant. She has chaired legislative committees for a number of professional organizations and was the recipient of the 2000 Outstanding Leadership Award of the Council for Exceptional Children. She is the author of over 20 books in the area of special education and working with children with challenging behaviors.
For more information on mental health from Bev Johns, listen to episodes: Learning Disabilities and Mental Health, and Supporting Children with Anxiety in the Classroom.