With the first day of school approaching, parents and guardians are scrambling to get school supplies, working to reinstate routines, and trying to prepare their children to rejoin a physical classroom for the first time in months or longer. For many students—particularly students who think and learn differently—the excitement of a new school year is often paired with worry or fear. Those internal worries can manifest behavioral changes or physical discomforts, and leave parents unsure about how to help in a way that makes their child feel supported while building the coping skills they need to face the unknowns of a new school year. 

At Learnfully, our specialists help learners and their community develop plans with this exact goal in mind: strengthen the skills they need to independently take on challenges while providing a supportive ecosystem that meets the needs of the whole child. Here are some ways that you can develop similar plans to build confidence and reduce anxiety as they transition back to school.   

The Pandemic & Back-to-School Anxiety

Neither children nor adults need a formal diagnosis of anxiety to experience symptoms, although “39% of teenage learners (13-18) are diagnosed with one of the following: Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Phobias, Panic, Social Anxiety” according to Mental Health America, and across all age ranges, anxiety has significantly increased over the past 18 months. Massive schedule changes, new instructional methods, lack of exposure to social settings, and varying expectations have all contributed to spikes in school-related anxiety. Understanding the different types of anxiety then developing healthy habits when addressing symptoms is crucial to helping your child navigate fears.

Source: https://www.cdc.gov/childrensmentalhealth/depression.html 

So, how do I know if my child is feeling anxious about the upcoming school year?

Transition periods often produce normative behaviors we’re used to seeing, such as butterflies in the stomach, restlessness, and even sleep disturbances. Your emerging first-grader may have an increase in clinginess or your high schooler may become restless. These are nervous behaviors that we’ve all experienced at some point, and when experienced in reasonable amounts, stress can be helpful to a child’s ability to develop coping skills and build confidence.

When these behaviors become consistent or start limiting a child’s ability to complete tasks or attend school, it can develop into an anxiety disorder. And for students who are neurodiverse or have specific learning disorders, the risk of experiencing back-to-school anxiety is even higher. If you feel your child is experiencing continued physical or emotional symptoms of anxiety, it is important that you consult a pediatrician or mental health professional that can best advise with next steps.

Top Tips for Parents and Guardians:

1. Actively listen and validate feelings. If your child expresses worry, actively listen instead of using a common dismissal response. Saying “There’s nothing to worry about” puts them in conflict with what their body is telling them. This can make them question themselves instead of questioning the anxiety as a separate entity. It can also lead to children trying to ignore feelings or dismiss warning signs that arise in the future.

Instead, offer them a safe-space to share with you what they’re feeling and remind them of the positives that come with school. Saying something like, “I understand why you’re nervous. You’ve been home for a while and being away from us can feel scary. But there are also exciting things at school, too, like…” This reminds them that they can feel more than one emotion at the same time, which validates the feelings but challenges the anxiety.

2. Help them mentally separate from the anxiety. Sarah Levine, a marriage and family therapist that specializes in anxiety disorders among other special interests, shared in our most recent webinar that helping a child better understand anxiety disorder starts with a shift in perspective. Remind them that the anxiety is separate from them. They are not the problem that needs to be addressed, the anxiety is the problem. This reminder can help children challenge their anxiety without feeling like they are challenging who they are.  

3. Develop a routine before school starts. The routines of summer break differ from the procedural timelines of school days. Starting a routine for meals, sleep, media consumption, and other responsibilities even a week or two early can give your child a sense of mental calm, and, in turn, ease the stress of transitioning back to school.  

4. Let them struggle. As parents or educators, we want to help a child experiencing anxiety by relieving the feelings of nervousness they are having. Sometimes, we over-control a situation or try to rescue them from the problem. Dr. Anne Marie Albano, the Director at Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders, explains that the “undoing of anxiety is letting them struggle.” Anxiety craves avoidance and refusal, a quick way out of the fear-causing situation. By letting your child work through the problem instead of solving it for them, and praising them along the way, you are strengthening their coping skills. We need to be their coaches, guiding and providing support, but once we start over-controlling a situation, it can backfire.

5. Expose them to what is feared, then practice. If letting them struggle begins to undo anxiety, practicing that same struggle with repetitive exposure is anxiety’s Achilles’ heel. Exposure trains the mind that the situation does not always require a fight-or-flight response and increases their confidence to confront not only the situation, but the thoughts telling them there is something to continuously fear.

If as parents or educators we let the child avoid these situations, we are solidifying the idea that there is something to fear. Practice navigating the hallways of a new school a few days before or even simulate the first conversation with a new teacher. This can make the task seem less scary and more manageable to learners.

6. Normalize talking about anxiety. Be open with your own personal anxieties, and share how you have worked through them. It’s healthy to share personal success stories as well as times when you didn’t respond the way you would have liked to. What were the results of both? What can be learned from what you did or didn’t do? Sometimes sharing mistakes and how you navigated them afterward can be just as powerful as sharing positive experiences with anxiety.

7. However, avoid projecting your own anxieties onto them. It’s not just our children who are struggling with anxiety; parents are experiencing it, too. We worry about whether or not they will make friends, or if they can handle the increased workload in high school. If we project these worries onto them, worries they are most likely contemplating themselves, we are reinforcing that fear. Instead of asking “Are you nervous about being able to handle how much work you’ll have in Algebra?” ask, “What are you looking forward to this year?” Instead of “Did you make any friends today?” consider, “What’s one positive thing that happened at school today?”

8. Share and collaborate with your child’s learning team. From an educator’s perspective, sharing information with their teacher (to the extent that you are comfortable) can be extremely helpful, not only for them to recognize the signs of anxiety quickly, but to proactively develop a plan for intervention and support. It strengthens the success of coping and problem-solving skills to be generalized within their ecosystem of support, both inside and outside of the classroom. Don’t worry that you are bothering the teacher; I want to know what works and what doesn’t, because it is the best way to ensure generalized success.  

As an educator, coach, and parent to neurodiverse kids, the most effective form of teaching personal skills has been modeling. One of my favorite quotes from James Baldwin says, “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.”

Children absorb our energy, and according to the Child Mind Institute, “Anxious parents send anxious kids to school.” Being able to model a sense of calm or demonstrate positive problem-solving skills in authentic situations will naturally teach your child to do the same. We can talk about expected behaviors, but until they see that we can do it too, it is hard for children to emulate it. Practicing deep breathing techniques when anxieties arise in us or self-correcting after we’ve responded negatively are strong ways to reinforce those positive coping skills.  

Alisha Waldrop is a life-long learner who has worked in education for ten years serving as a classroom teacher, educational leader, literacy coach, advocate, design strategist, and curriculum developer. She graduated from Queens University of Charlotte with a BA in English Literature and Education as well as an MFA in Creative Writing. She now lives in Charleston, South Carolina where she loves playing sports, writing poetry, and spending time with her family.

You walk out of a meeting with your learner’s teacher, a psychologist, or the like with what seems to be an endless list of recommendations and referrals. This is all too familiar to the majority of us – the delineation of referral sources and professionals tied to learners these days can be lengthy and, thus, daunting. We would love to help you, as caregivers and educators, tease out who’s who in the field of experts so that you can best support your learner by providing them with the best team members to meet their needs. 

Why have an ecosystem?

Although the saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.” has been used tirelessly, it still manages to prove true as we, ourselves, find the need to outsource the layers of support our learners require in order to reach their full potential. Acknowledging that each player on a team carries a different set of skills, innate strengths, and areas of expertise is imperative as we aim to raise our children to be their best selves. Whereas one may have the patience of a saint and the other can set structured, firm boundaries – we gain monumental benefits from taking a team approach when it comes to the development of our learners. So, the reason for utilizing layers of support across all realms – academic, social-emotional, and so forth – seems relatively easy to understand, but how do you decide who to work with and when? 

Who’s who? 

Ok, you have decided to embark on this journey of finding the golden circle of support for your learner(s), hooray! Let’s spend some time defining who each person is on your learner’s bus and then we will explore how to prioritize the layers of your learner’s ecosystem to expedite and maximize progress. 

Diagnosticians: Professionals who can administer/conduct assessments, then provide sound recommendations and referrals to establish a solid learner ecosystem include, but are not limited to School Psychologists, Educational Psychologists, Neuropsychologists, Clinic Psychologists, Pediatric Psychiatrists, Developmental and Behavioral Pediatricians. 

You might find the following experts in a list of recommendations as well: 

  • Educational Specialists help to develop and implement instructional plans for learners, schools and their support system by specializing in multisensory, evidence-based assessments and curriculum. 
  • Educational Therapists are 1:1 educators who have additional training in therapeutic techniques who implement interventions and consults with learners’ teams. 
  • Learning Specialists/Reading Specialists are very similar to the above and typically work directly in a school environment. 
  • Executive Functioning Coaches address the many layers of complexity within Executive Functioning challenged learners and should (although do not always) have training in neurodiversity. 
  • Marriage and Family Therapists (MFTs)/Counselors treat a diverse range of clients and aim to start with tapping into the reasons behind one’s feelings, emotions and/or actions, then develop a plan to improve their lives as a result. 
  • Mentors, simply put, are experienced and trusted advisors who work closely with your learner to guide their actions, understandings, goals/aspirations and so forth.
  • Assistive Technology Specialists help clients who have learning or physical differences, like vision or mobility challenges, select and use assistive technology devices or programs to increase their accessibility. 
  • Speech and Language Pathologists (SLPs) work to prevent, assess, diagnose, and treat speech, language, social communication, cognitive-communication, and swallowing disorders in children and adults.
  • Occupational Therapists (OTs) are part of the healthcare field and support individuals of all ages to develop and strengthen their movement, motor and coordination skills of everyday tasks in a multitude of ways.
  • Behaviorists are trained professionals who assess, analyze and work directly with learners, families and school personnel to establish positive behavioral patterns. 

How do you prioritize? 

Oof, that’s a lot of professionals to sift through, we get it! Typically, deciding when and what services to schedule for your learner is not something to go at alone. Engaging your learner’s primary educator, school team, psychologist, or consulting service will provide you with the help you need to weigh all options as to what specialists to engage with and in what sequence. A general rule of thumb is to start from the ground up, laying a strong foundation of sensory-cognitive functions for your learner to stand upon as they develop and start to apply/generalize their skillset. If you are unsure of where the gaps might be in their learner profile, you must start there. Then, tackling one or two goals targeting their underlying fundamental skills is key.

As parents, we are always interested in learning how to keep our children healthy and help them perform their best at school. It’s easy to help our children with the obvious, but when it comes to knowing whether your child’s vision is working the way it should, it is not as obvious as it may seem.

Since eighty percent of what we learn is through our eyes, it makes good sense that good vision is essential to a child’s ability to learn in school.  Unfortunately, 10 million U.S. children suffer from undiagnosed vision problems that may lead to failure in school, according to the National PTA.  

“So how is this even possible?” you might ask.  If your child has trouble seeing the board, has red or tearing eyes, rubs his eyes excessively, or squints, a parent would probably take their child to the eye doctor to rule out poor vision as the culprit.  But those are the obvious vision problems.  Even if your child passed vision screenings, he or she could still have a vision problem contributing to learning difficulties.  

A child often knows that difficulties seeing across the room is a vision problem, but seeing double, having words swim on the page or not being able to stay focused on things up close is a different story. Often kids don’t know that these problems are not normal and that others don’t have these difficulties. These are the silent vision problems that often hinder reading, attention and learning.

There are also warning signs and behaviors that alert parents and teachers. Therefore, every struggling student should be observed to see if they have any of the FIVE most important behavioral signs and symptoms that indicate a vision problem is interfering with reading, attention and learning:

  1. Poor Tracking: skips lines or words, rereads lines, takes a long time or makes frequent errors when reading or copying from the board
  2. Fatigue when Reading or Avoidance of Reading:  includes poor reading fluency, poor reading comprehension
  3. Difficulties with attention:  Homework takes forever, doesn’t complete work in class, may hate school, often becomes the class clown, may be considered for medications or already on medications for Attention Deficit Disorder or ADHD.
  4. Headaches:  pain over the forehead or brow during or after doing schoolwork, may just avoid the work or fatigue before feeling the headache 
  5. Poor Visual Integration and Processing: messy handwriting, unable to remember a word that they just saw in the previous line, dislikes puzzles, reverses letters or numbers, difficulty with spelling, more than a 20-point difference between verbal and performance scores on the WISC-V.

To give you a better idea of how vision problems can impact learning, here is Michaela’s story.  In first grade, she was having a hard time reading, writing and playing with others in school. Her parents and teachers were concerned that her attention often wandered, she was easily distracted with school work and often had poor reading comprehension. Her mom recalls her frustrations at hearing about how Michaela’s classmates would laugh at her daughter and how Michaela would cry everyday after school. 

Michaela’s parents were fortunate to find help when she was just in first grade.  Many of the patients we see have struggled for years before finding help.  

As we head back to school millions of parents will be searching for answers to their children’s learning difficulties.  While many parents are hopeful the new teacher will have a magic bullet, others are just as frustrated as when the previous school year ended.  It is time to find the answer by looking for the not so obvious reasons for reading and attention problems by reviewing the 5 behavioral signs of vision problems and schedule a Developmental Vision Evaluation.

Eye-Care Professionals Guide

The early detection of these conditions depends upon the selection of the appropriate eye-care professional to address these specialized areas.  There are four areas of expertise and levels of training that define the providers that address eye and vision health.  

  • Ophthalmologists (MD) are medical or osteopathic doctors who have completed college and at least eight years of additional medical training. They are licensed to practice medicine and surgery and specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of eye disease.  Ophthalmologists diagnose and treat all eye diseases, perform eye surgery, and prescribe and fit eyeglasses and contact lenses to correct vision problems.  In general, they use medications and surgical methods to treat eyes diseases and sight threatening vision disorders.
  • Optometrists (OD) are Doctors of Optometry and the primary health care professionals for the eye. Optometrists complete a pre-professional undergraduate education at a college or university followed by four years of professional education at a College of Optometry.  Following graduation, optometrists have the option to complete a one-year residency for additional training in a specific area of practice (i.e., Cornea and Contact Lenses, Ocular Disease, Vision Therapy/Rehabilitation or Low Vision).  They are licensed to examine, treat, and manage diseases, injuries, and disorders of the visual system, the eye, and associated structures.  They are trained to perform eye exams, prescribe and dispense corrective lenses, detect certain eye abnormalities, prescribe medication for certain eye diseases and may be trained to refer for vision therapy or vision rehabilitation services based on history.
  • Developmental Optometrists provide vision care based on the principle that vision can be developed and changed. They are health care professionals who obtain board certification from the College of Optometrists in Vision Development (COVD) to provide specialized services in behavioral and developmental vision care, vision therapy, and vision rehabilitation.  Developmental Optometrists specialize in the treatment of functional vision problems, including difficulties with binocular vision, eye movements, focusing, depth perception, and visual processing; as well as, visual deficits following brain injuries, and are skilled in the use of lenses, prisms, and Optometric vision therapy. They perform functional vision tests, determine and treat underlying vision deficits.
  • Opticians are the lens and frame specialists.  They are trained in all the different lens technologies that are available and how to help patients choose the right frames.  In addition, they make sure the prescription is made according to the doctors’ specifications (Ophthalmologists or Optometrists). 

According to the American Optometric Association, children should have their vision tested by an eye doctor not only before age one (www.infantsee.org), at age three and prior to starting kindergarten, but also every year while in school. An eye exam by an eye doctor is more in-depth than the vision check performed by the pediatrician during a wellness appointment.  

Lastly, if your child struggles with reading, attention and/or learning, now is the perfect time to find out if your child has all the visual skills required for academic success.  For more information, visit www.familyvisioncare.org and www.visionhelp.org and to find a doctor in your area visit www.covd.org.

Carole L. Hong, OD, FCOVD, board certified in Vision Development and Rehabilitation, has been practicing as a Developmental Optometrist for over 25 years. She is an expert in children’s vision, vision and learning, and treatment of vision problems for those with special needs, concussion, head injury or stroke. She has given numerous lectures, written many articles and teaches Optometric interns. Dr. Hong is accepting new patients at the Optometric Center for Family Vision Care and Vision Therapy in San Carlos, CA, where she practices with other Developmental Optometrists, Justine Bailey, OD, FCOVD, Julie Kim, OD, Cynthia Huang, OD, and Kristi Jensen, OD, FCOVD. Dr. Hong can be reached at (650) 593-1661 or by email at drhong@familyvisioncare.org

Summer is upon us and it already feels like it is FLYING by, but fear not! We have outlined TEN exciting and effective ways to maximize the time that you have remaining as a family and have a blast doing so. No time to waste, let’s live it up this summer!

1. Passion Project

What is a Passion Project exactly? The name pretty much says it all! Essentially, each member of your family decides upon a topic in which they find inspiration and diligently research, create and execute presentations as a family in a few weeks. Last summer, my family decided to use the social climate to propel our music themed passion projects which resulted in our two oldest children curating dynamic presentations (one using a slide deck and the other a poster board) on two musicians who now serve as key role models in their lives. If you happen to want to take this idea to the next level, feel free to find a list of extended project ideas here (thanks, Develop Good Habits!). 

2. Summer Reading

Most schools and local libraries provide lists of suggested (or required!) summer reading materials. If you are searching for something different, head on over to these resources and dive right in: Imagination Soup for all ages, Scholastic’s Middle School list and Understood.org’s list for reluctant readers! Also, don’t forget how exciting receiving magazine subscriptions was for you as a child, try finding a high-interest magazine for your kiddo (Kazoo and Lego are two of our favorites!). So, find a shady cozy nook on a picnic blanket or soak in the sun with a refreshing lemonade and enjoy reading as a family this summer!

3. Game Time

Explore a variety of games – card, board, imagination, mental, online – as they not only help your learners stay engaged and bust boredom, but also to continue strengthening their critical thinking and Executive Functioning skills. As you may know, these are critical components to any learner’s social-emotional toolbox, so best to spend some downtime developing these underlying abilities before it comes time for them to tap into them as a resource come next school year!  For ideas, please check out the second week of our summer video series!

4. Experimental Living

Enjoy spending a little time being a scientist yourself by orchestrating a few simple science experiments for your learners at home by exploring ideas from KinderCare or Business Insider (to name a few!). 

5. What’s (or Who’s) Cooking?

Enjoying your time as a family in the kitchen provides endless opportunities! Learners can write and create menus, grocery lists, recipes as well as prepare and execute meals. My kiddos even use cooking supplies as imagination starters to play music, wear helmets, use as stencils, you name it! Helping you with meals in every fashion can strengthen their feelings of productivity, ownership, creativity and, ultimately, motivate them to continue cooking when the school year comes!

6. Day Trips 

Summer seems like optimal timing for day trips, especially this year when you might not have been able to travel these past 18 months. Discussing ideas and organizing your time together before venturing makes for a fun mealtime conversation! You can also follow an old school printed/paper map, take pictures all along and log your daily occurrences in a journal to have a keepsake to reminisce about in the future (not to mention to continue reinforcing their planning and writing skills!). 

7. Motorize  

Spending time building your learners’ fine and gross motor skills is easy peasy, promise! Encouraging safe, fun-filled, risk-taking behaviors such as climbing a tree, swimming, learning new dance moves, playing hopscotch, or just as engaging low-risk activities such as playing with gak/slime, drawing, coloring, collaging ( just about any art project) can make for ideal pastimes!

8. Gardening Galore

Believe it or not, fall is right around the corner, so why not start planting seeds to enjoy this Autumn?! Produce (pumpkins, kale, squashes, collards, etc.) or flowers (roses, chrysanthemums, sunflowers) can both thrive in the fall season. The Honeycomb Home has many ideas to spark your creative juices. Just remember to check out your region’s list of viable options and the timing for each. Gardening is not only fun to plan and execute, but also to observe as your family sees the benefit of patiently waiting for beauty to sprout! 

9. Journaling 

I have such fond memories of keeping a diary as a young gal, but I know that is not always the case for our little ones. To inspire my resistant writers to continue writing over the summer, I have found these tools rather helpful: Wreck this Journal, invisible ink supplies, Mad Libs, Highlights and travel journals

10. Get Organized

No time like the present to provide your learners with a little summer structure by sketching out a routine and a weekly calendar, right? Might as well utilize the lull to also start setting up their work spaces and use their planning skills to write down a list of back to school supplies they will need when the time comes. It is important, however, when establishing organizational goals for the summer to avoid anything too lofty or you run the very real risk of potentially not finishing what you started which can be even more stressful than not getting organized in the first place!

We hope that you have time to thoroughly explore and fully enjoy each and every aspect of summertime that brings your family and friends joy as we intend to do! Keep learning alive while discovering what makes your learners tick and you will all surely thrive as a result!