Dear Dr. Debbie,
We’re considering homeschooling our older daughter who is struggling with anxiety in kindergarten. I didn’t think 5-year-olds could have anxiety, but that’s what the guidance counselor is calling it. We get tears every morning as she’s dressing and eating, and sometimes sighs or sniffles on the walk into the building. The teacher brought the guidance counselor into the picture the second week of school and the three of us, and sometimes my husband, confer often about how to support each other with supporting her.
Her issues include noise, crowds, change in routine, textures of clothing and foods. I believe these are all temperament issues that won’t change. I have some of these myself (loud noises and textures of food). How can we help her to cope better with the demands of her day? My husband, just tells her to stop being upset which usually just makes her more upset.
Inside Voices and No Bananas Please
Don’t miss last week’s column How to get your preschooler to be more compliant — Good Parenting
Your description of your daughter’s behavior, list of issues, and correlation to your own sensitivities definitely point to temperament. Temperament differences are part of the physical make-up of each of us and don’t change throughout a lifetime.
A good analogy is eye color, which is apparent at birth or soon after. It is possible to mask one’s true eye color with dark glasses, but it may not be comfortable nor appropriate to keep these on all the time.
As long as her team of grown-ups uses temperament as a base for the plan, it could be possible to reduce your daughter’s anxiety enough for school days to be more pleasant. Temperament issues are like any other individual differences in a school setting. They call for understanding and accommodations to lighten the stress load for the child who is different. And like learning differences and learning disabilities, it is often harder for others to accept that something is as difficult for this child as a staircase would be for someone in a wheelchair. Some of the physical genetic differences of temperament are becoming obvious under a microscope to experts in this field, but to the informed parent’s or teacher’s eye, they can readily be seen in patterns of meltdowns.
An accommodation for noise, for example, could be to keep her in the quietest part of the classroom (and the lunchroom) as much as possible. Give her a 5-minute and 1-minute notice before any loud noises are expected. I don’t know if an exemption from fire drills has ever been granted to a student, but the school counselor should explore the logistics of gracefully taking noise sensitive children outside before the alarms blare.
Since you have an insider’s view of texture issues with food, you have probably gotten used to choosing and avoiding foods for yourself as you shop, cook and eat out. Help your daughter to identify acceptable and unacceptable ingredients so you can avoid the meltdowns over what’s on her plate at home and distress of finding something repulsive in her lunchbox or on the cafeteria tray. Gradually she can take more responsibility for what’s on the family shopping list and help to prepare more of her own foods.
Unacceptable clothing textures are also easily discerned once you know what you’re looking for. Usually the standard of comfort is on the “low stimulation” end of the scale. Stiff, scratchy, tight clothing is unbearable and therefore unwearable. Cotton is a good choice for fabric. Look for shirt and dress styles with a wide neck opening. Your daughter may prefer used clothing to new. Let her kick her shoes off as soon as she gets home.
For her issues with crowds and unpredictability, she would do better if an adult — teacher, counselor, parent or classroom aide — could routinely accompany her during special activities, assemblies, field trips, etc. This will help provide one-on-one reassurances during these stressful experiences.
Someone without temperament challenges (her father, perhaps) might not understand or think it is necessary to give special attention to a child who cringes in a crowd or who goes on high alert when there’s an unexpected change in routine. A disease with obvious physical symptoms is easier to understand — a diabetic monitors blood sugar level, learns what foods to avoid and how to manage a spike or drop with quick action. The symptoms of anxiety can include dizziness, a rapid heartbeat, sweating, difficulty breathing and shivering.
An anxious child needs her adults to be aware of what triggers her spikes in stress hormones so they can help her to prevent an emotional crisis. A panic attack comes from feeling like one is strapped to a jackhammer, or running out of breath underwater, or tottering on the edge of a cliff, or made of the thinnest porcelain about to crumble in someone’s hands.
Homeschooling is an option for children who don’t easily fit the mold expected in mainstream education. You set the pace of each day, control the social and physical environment, and can be infinitely more flexible with a student’s interests, abilities, moods and needs.
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.
What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com