THE BLOG
12/19/2014 02:00 pm ET Updated Feb 18, 2015

Helping the Anxious and Sensitive Child in the Classroom

Imagine that you are floating in an ocean. The water is cold, almost freezing. Because you've been here before, you know that somewhere close by there is a warm spot. You navigate to that spot. Once there, you feel more than a sense of relief. You feel whole again, as if you had been made up of tiny, fragile pieces. You can breathe, but you know that you will need to leave the warm spot very soon. So you wait and hope the warmth you feel now, will be enough to last for the rest of the day.

This feeling of trying to get to the warm spot in the ocean is how many of our children feel when it comes to negotiating the long day at school. For those who suffer from anxiety or an acute sensitivity to their environment, the lights are brighter, voices of their classmates are louder, even threatening, and the smells coming from the cafeteria are more than just a little distracting. Some of these children may fall somewhere on the autism spectrum. They can be either introverted or extroverted. These are the children who ask to go to the school clinic daily because they have a headache. Or, they might refuse to go to gym class or the school cafeteria because it's too noisy. Although they have friends, they prefer to do most of their work alone, instead of in groups. Many times you catch them daydreaming and even strongly suspect they are ADD (attention deficit disorder). These children yearn for some type of solace during the school day, but most of them use the only coping skill they have which is just to disconnect (daydream).

The problem in the classroom is that unless these children are identified as having some sort of handicapping condition (in need of special education services), their teachers and parents will have a difficult time when it comes to getting the best out of them while they are in school.

When I was a school counselor I worked with many of these kids. They were easy for me to spot because like the saying goes, "It takes one to know one." In elementary school, I was the one who spent afternoons in the school clinic. My anxiety manifested itself in the way of an upset stomach. I pooped in my pants, often. There were no support services back then, and the only intervention I remember was when a well-dressed lady came to observe me in the classroom. Nothing happened after that. It wasn't until years later that I realized my own way of coping with stress was the same as how my students were coping with stress.

I observed a boy who like me was anxious and fearful of seemingly everything, but nothing in particular. Somehow, though, he had found a way to cope. One morning, he had gone missing. When I found him in the bathroom he was resting his arms on the sink watching the water fall into the basin. Then he plugged it up with paper towels. He watched the water slowly cascade directly to the floor. He smiled. For an otherwise quiet child, this behavior puzzled me. If he knows this could potentially get him into trouble, why would he do this? The answer came to me as I was sitting in my own bathtub.

Water has always had a calming effect on me. Not long ago, I would take up to four showers a day. Now, I am down to one or two. Water not only has the power to restore energy, but it's calming as well. Whether you are in a pool, a river, or a tub, water has the power to heal. The same is true for fire. Remember the fascination you had watching a fire burn in a fireplace or lighting a candle? Not only is there a great power for fire to destroy, but there is also a greater power to calm and restore. The air we breathe carries power as well when we take those long deep breaths to calm ourselves, even better when we are outside of the confines of the school walls.

My theory is that the best classroom for an anxious child is one where the students will have access to the natural world. Since we are made of natural elements ourselves, we are naturally attracted to them, particularly the hyper-sensitive child.

These are all used for either housing or observing the natural world that have the power to restore and relax, and they can easily be added to any classroom:

Fish tanks
Waterfall fountains
Sand trays
Electrical fireplaces
Live trees
Table fans (for air circulation)
Plants
Apps on laptops of burning candles
Music CDs
Picture books
Posters of the sky filled with stars
Class pets
Quiet spaces
Telescopes
Microscopes
Magnifying glasses
Hour glass timers filled with sand

Other techniques used in helping the anxious child include:

  1. Waking up the child earlier than usual. In her book Hope and Help for Your Nerves, Dr. Claire Weekes suggests that the longer the child stays in bed the longer the fear is able to fester.
  2. It's best to face those fears, too. Dr. Weekes states that, "You cannot increase your symptoms by facing them or even trying to intensify them. In fact, you may find that if you try to make them worse, they will actually improve. For the first time, you will look at them with interest, instead of fear."
  3. Don't minimize the child's fears. They are real and will only get worse if they are never discussed.
  4. Rating the anxiety. In the morning, ask the child how they feel on a scale of 1 - 10. Then gradually decrease the "10" to a lower number over a period of weeks. Surprisingly, the symptoms will decrease as the threshold decreases.
  5. Asking the parents to rearrange the child's bedroom furniture, particularly the position of the bed. Change in scenery creates a change in perception.
  6. Getting professional help. For chronic problems with anxiety, find a good therapist who practices CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy), which is successful for people who suffer from anxiety.

Children who suffer from anxiety disorders have mixed feelings about school. Most of them want to attend, but too often fear stops them from reaching their potential. The good news is, children are malleable, and fears can be conquered. There's plenty of room for everybody in that warm spot of the ocean.