How to Reduce your Child’s Anxiety and Create a Positive Mindset for Learning

May 27, 2021

According to children’s mental health statistics compiled by the Centers for Disease Control, more than seven percent of children between the ages of three and 17 have been diagnosed with anxiety; this means that more than four million children struggle with this condition. While anxiety is most commonly diagnosed in the middle school and high school years (ages 12 through 17), younger children are affected, too.

For some children, school can be a place filled with anxiety. Children who have been diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) may have social anxiety that could be exacerbated in the highly social school setting. Dr. Jeffrey Wood explains that “Some researchers also suspect that outward, physical symptoms of anxiety may be especially prominent among those with ASD.”

Ameeta Jain, Founder and CEO of Readability, talked to Nicky Palmer, a licensed marital family therapist with more than two decades of experience working with individuals diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder, about how parents can help create a more positive environment for learning when a child is anxious and overwhelmed.

An Interview with Nicky Palmer

AJ: Hi everyone, my name’s Ameeta Jain. I’m the CEO of Readability. Today, we’re gonna talk about anxiety in our children and what happens when school starts, the learning experience starts, and what we can do to help reduce some of that anxiety. We’re going to learn some strategies that we can implement at home, to improve that learning experience for our children at school. And to help us guide us through all of this, I’ve invited Nicky Palmer to speak with us today. Hi, Nicky.

NP: Hi, thank you for having me.

AJ:  Nicky has been making a difference in the lives of people with ASD for over two decades. She’s got a complete understanding of all autism treatment methodologies. She has a BA, an MS, and is a licensed marital family therapist. She really focuses on helping reduce aggressive behaviors, increase positive communication, and help relieve that anxiety and depression that our children face. Welcome, Nicky.

NP: Thank you very much for having me.

AJ: Yeah, so let’s dive into this. You know, when we talked, we talked about school, and how school can sometimes create anxiety in our children, especially children with learning disabilities. So let’s talk about that.

NP: Yeah, what I see is that, unfortunately, anxiety can increase with the demands of school. And that can be for a variety of reasons such as social challenges and making friendships. It can be for sensory issues. But often, it can also be the academic challenges, the reading comprehension and understanding the material, and the demands placed on them. Trying to navigate all of those things can ramp up the anxiety for them and, at times, can make school a challenging place for them.

AJ: Yeah. So, it is hard for children. I think even if a child doesn’t have a learning disability, school can be really anxious. I know when my kids started, I took them up to campus. I showed them around, showed them where their classroom would be, introduced them to their teacher, before school started. So these are some of the things that I did to help reduce their anxiety. I know we talked about front loading, preparing. Can you explain front loading?

NP: Front loading is a great way to prepare a child for the material that they’re going to be facing, going forward. It’s a nice way to help them get used to what they’re gonna see, and to build competency for them, so they’re not overwhelmed by the material. A breakdown of, for example, reading or listening to the story. And one of the things about Readability I love, is that you can get exposed to hearing the story. So they’re really prepared and in a positive mindset for academia, and it doesn’t feel like it’s so big. So I think what front loading can do, is really build that sense of competency, as opposed to self doubt that can lead to anxieties and a whole host of other things. So, I think, front loading is a great way to help the child get in the right mindset for education.

AJ: Yes, I’m hearing so much about confidence, right? So when we can instill confidence in our children, we are setting them up for a really great zone to be in. And I know that we’ve talked about different zones, and we talked about the just right zone. Can you explain to our audience what the just right zone is?

NP: Yeah, I love the just right zone. Because I think that we all struggle and that we have to work on getting in the just right zone. And for children, especially after school, they need that time to sort of decompress. And, prior to homework, I need to be in the learning zone. I think the right zone is a zone where we are open. We are comfortable. We are ready to take on a new challenge, and be communicative, and just be ready to go with the expectations that come with homework. 

This is a really important thing for parents to gauge, like, where is my child at right now? And if their engines are running super high, and they’re kind of in the red zone, it’s time to work on regulation, and get them to a place that we can then present material for them. So this is a very, very important emotional regulation tool for children and families. Not just related to academia, but also their whole lives, and how they can feel much more comfortable in themselves.

AJ: Yeah, so what I’m hearing is the right zone, just to summarize, that is, they need to be calm, engaged, not really suffering from any type of meltdowns, talkative. They want to have a conversation. They’re relaxed, and they’re open. And that reminds me that when my kids were little and I picked them up from school, one of the first things we did was snack time. You know, we get to eat, we sit around, and we ask each other how our day was. And we just kind of decompressed from school, and I decompressed from work with them. And it was just a very kind of calming, you know, there was no pressure to get your homework done. It was just, this is the time for us to talk to each other. And I know there are strategies, other strategies, that we could be implementing at home to help reduce anxiety, and really just foster that learning experience. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

NP: Yeah. I think it’s really important to have that time when you get home. And so, it could be a quiet time, or a time listening to music. It could be a time to be playing and working through their experiences that they’ve had throughout the day that they may, or may not, be able to verbalize. And it could be going for a walk, a quiet walk out in nature to, sort of, ground themselves. It could be an engagement in special interests, like, something they love to do, to, kind of, get lost into that, and get themselves in a good place. And, I think, it is really important that we gauge and prepare for homework and that time. And so using some of that time, 30 minutes an hour after school, I think is very important for emotional regulation. That way we’ll have much more success when we approach homework.

AJ: Right. They’re ready. They’re in that right mindset.

NP: Yes, yes. The right mindset.

AJ: Speaking of mindset, Nicky, I know that we talked about something that you thought parents should absolutely know 100% about, which is called the flexible mindset. Let’s talk about that.

NP: Yeah. I think that it’s important to be in a place where we’re flexible, we’re open, to see where the child is at. And meeting them where they’re at, is really important. Are they ready for a challenge? Are they ready for homework? Or do we need to reduce expectations? And do we need to do something else, switch to experiential learning versus academic learning? Or do we need to go and do something family centered, instead? And being flexible to go with it, to make sure we have success.

I think this is really important to not be so hung up on that, we must do these five math problems, or we must read this whole chapter today. It might be that we will listen to a story. And we’ll discuss the story, and what we loved about it, and how we imagined it in our minds. And having that flexible mindset, I think, helps breed success. It helps breed happiness and fulfillment, and reduces the pressure that families feel to complete homework at all costs.

AJ: I think that’s really important. I know, you know, when both parents are working, and there’s so many demands on parents. There’s demands on children. It’s hard to remember to take a step back and say, okay, what is the most productive way for me to achieve this? Rather than going against the grain, you know, working with your child, and your child’s abilities and limitations.

NP: Yes, yes. I think that’s absolutely right. And if we don’t get to one piece of homework one day, that’s okay, you know, ’cause we might be able to get to it tomorrow.

AJ: Yeah.

NP: But what we can do, is we can go out, and have a lovely bike ride. We can still talk about the story or, you know, as a family. And there’s lots of ways to achieve it. So that flexible mindset, I think, breeds happiness and competency and success.

AJ: I think it also breeds creativity, you know, finding ways to learn, and not be so structured, maybe. I know that children need structure, but when it comes to learning, especially children who suffer from anxiety, I think it’s really important. Your message is so important.

NP: Thank you very much.

AJ: Thank you, Nicky. It’s been a pleasure talking to you, and I know our audience really appreciates everything you’ve shared with us today. Thank you for being here.

NP: Thank you. Lovely to be here.

About Nicky Palmer, B.A., M.S., LMFT

Nicky is a licensed marital family therapist. She has been making a difference in the lives of people with Autism Spectrum Disorder for more than two decades and has a complete understanding of all Autism treatment methodologies. She offers a broad range of services available from crisis management to school consultation and focuses on providing support to increase happiness and fulfillment, develop lasting friendships, maintain positive self-esteem, reduce aggressive behaviors, increase positive communication, and relieve anxiety and depression.