This is part one of a three-part series on supporting students who struggle with school-based anxiety. Part one focuses on elementary school children.
For most students, the first few weeks of a new school year are filled with nervous excitement. But for students who suffer from school-based anxiety, it can be a time of nearly debilitating stress affecting every aspect of their day.
To learn how parents, caregivers and school staff can support students who suffer from heightened anxiety, CBC News spoke with Dr. Brent Macdonald, lead psychologist with the Macdonald Psychology Group. He is based in Calgary but maintains an active private practice on P.E.I. and is also registered in Nova Scotia, B.C., and the Northwest Territories.
"In most kids, the majority of kids ... it's that sense that 'I'm looking forward to this challenge. It's a risk I'm looking forward to.' And there's some excitement and there's some happiness and there's some joy that's associated with it and maybe a little bit of fear," said Macdonald.
"With kids who experience a kind of school-based anxiety, that pleasure part, the excitement, the joy, is not there at all. It's just the fear and the worry that 'I'm going to be judged, going to be evaluated. It's going to be unpleasant, it's going to be hard.'"
Macdonald says social interaction is the biggest source of anxiety for children at the elementary school.
"Kids with anxiety feel — and this is not reality — a feeling that they don't fit in, that other people are, you know, making fun of them, other people are teasing them," said Macdonald.
How anxiety affects learning
"An anxious brain is not a learning brain," said Macdonald. "We know ourselves as adults, when we're experiencing high degrees of stress or anxiety, our cognitive capacities, our ability to think and use the front part of our brain, really diminish."
He said children with school-based anxiety experience the same thing. They can't focus or be "in the moment," making it difficult to learn or concentrate. They miss so much that they start to fall behind.
"It has nothing to do with their intellect, has nothing to do with their capacity to learn. It has to do with the experience of anxiety interfering with their ability to learn in that moment."
How to handle school avoidance
"The telltale signs, largely, are those mysterious stomach aches and headaches that happen first thing in the morning," said Macdonald. "They're hoping ... if they're physically sick or their parents perceive them to be physically sick, that they won't have to deal with it."
But avoiding school defeats its whole purpose.
"When your job as a kid is to go to school and learn and socialize ... if you're avoiding, then you're not getting the job done," said Macdonald. "If you are anxious about a school situation and you avoid it, well then, the anxiety is gone ... it reinforces itself and becomes really, really powerful."
We can't as parents or adults in general, including teachers, be sort of like, "Just suck it up and deal with it" ... That's not helpful at all.
— Dr. Brent Macdonald, psychologist
He said if children view going to school as a challenge as opposed to a hopeless situation, they may be a bit more willing to give it a try.
"We have to let our kids know ... 'I know that you have stomach ache and you feel not so great, but what's going to help is, you know, getting you into school, getting you with the familiar routine that's going to be happening there, because if you missed that, it's going to be just a bit even more unpleasant tomorrow.'"
"We can't as parents or adults in general, including teachers, be sort of like, 'Just suck it up and deal with it.' Like, that's not helpful at all," he said.
Listen and advocate
Instead of using temporary measures like reward charts, which he doesn't generally recommend, Macdonald said parents and caregivers should "gently listen," and build a relationship with the child so that they can tell you what would make them feel more comfortable about going to school.
At this point, adults should reach out to the school to make arrangements that might ease the anxiety. And they should tell the child they're working with the school on a plan.
One example Macdonald cites is an alternative drop-off time or scenario — perhaps a little earlier than the rest of the students, or at a different entrance to the school.
Engage a 'guardian angel'
Dr. Macdonald said it's "absolutely critical" for anxious elementary school children to have a "guardian angel" at the school — an adult assigned as a key contact person.
He said this is often a homeroom teacher, but could really be any teacher, secretary, coach or other staff member with whom the child is comfortable. It's someone who can look out for them, and do regular check-ins to see how they're getting along.
Once the child suggests someone who could be that key person, reach out to them.
"Say, 'You know, my kid really respects you or really feels comfortable with you and is going through a period of some anxiety right now. Is it OK if you could check in with them once in a while?'" said Macdonald.
"I can't think of any teacher I've ever worked with who said no to that request and hasn't followed through at least some — maybe not every day and maybe not all the time — but the kid knows that there's someone in the school that has their back."
Next week in part two of this series, Dr. Brent Macdonald will share tips for helping junior high school students struggling with school-based anxiety.