Back to School - Setting Up For a Good Year

Tags: Back to School, School, Anxiety

Written by: Dr. Cathy Moser

               Some children seem to breeze through school - and it doesn't really matter who their teachers are or what the curriculum is - they just learn what they need to, and love going to school.  These children are what we call resilient - they survive and thrive no matter what the conditions.  For example, some children will know how to read by the time they enter grade one - and it doesn't really matter how they are taught to read.  It could be a phonics approach.. it could be a whole word approach.... it could be any approach, and they still will learn how to read - with very little coaching.  Other children are not as resilient, and the conditions have to be just right.  They learn best when the teacher has the style that fits best with their own personality, and the method of teaching fits their learning style.

                There are many reasons why the conditions must be right for these children to maximally absorb the information that is being taught in the classroom.  If your child is anxious, they will likely not fare well with a loud and abrasive teacher.  These are the type of children that complain that you are 'yelling' at them - when in fact, you are not yelling, you are just speaking loudly or emphatically.  Even if the teacher is kind hearted, it is possible that they are sensory sensitive, and loud voices are physically aversive for them.  Alternatively, they might have a conditioned reaction to loud voices.  When I say 'conditioned reaction' I mean that they have had a negative experience in the past, and that negative experience occurred when someone was speaking or yelling in a loud voice . Some children readily form conditioned associations, and these children will later experience anxiety when they hear loud voices.  In some cases, one of their parents or caretakers (e.g., daycare worker) yells, is threatening, or even hits them.  In other cases, it simply be that one of their parents is tall and gruff.   Even if it makes no sense to be afraid in the situation, their body remembers that something scary or harmful happened when there were loud voices present.  This memory evokes a defensive response - and the body's response to perceived threat is the release of adrenaline , a hormone that facilitates the flight or fight reaction.   Humans experience the adrenaline response as fear, and if fighting or running away is not possible, anxiety rises through the roof.   Now, back to school.  For these vulnerable children (vulnerable because they are easily conditioned), a teacher with a loud voice or a gruff manner will regularly elicit anxiety.  Even if the loud voice is directed to some other student, the vulnerable child experiences a surge of adrenaline.  While a small dose of adrenaline can facilitate learning (e.g., the child thinks 'I better listen and behave well because I could be next), a large dose simply floods the system and precludes absorption of  information other than information that is related to the danger at hand.  Learning is impeded and the child begins to fear or even hate going to school.

                Another potential reason why learning could be impeded is that the style of your child's learning does not fit with the style of teaching.  Some children are visual learners, while their teachers are verbal learners (don't forget - teachers are human too!!!).  Some teachers draw out lessons on the board, and this method SINGS to the child who is a visual learner.  Other teachers verbally list the information that is being taught, with few visual depictions.  This method SINGS to the child who is an auditory learner.  If the match is not a good one, it means that your child will have to translate a visual image to a verbal message (or vice versa), and this process will make it difficult for your child to keep up in class.

                Other sources of difficulty relate to specific learning disabilities or attentional deficits.  If individualized instruction is not available (through Resource or after-school tutoring), and your child falls behind the class - school will be a scary place for your child.  They are expected to know things that they are not either not capable of learning in the given circumstance, or they are not confident in their skill.  At that point, openness to learning begins to close.  And, even though with some extra effort and frustration tolerance, they could do the job - the fact that they might look stupid or have to do a whole lot of work to achieve very little is daunting.  School then becomes a place of dread, a mine field - with the mines being situations where they are called upon to do something that seems  impossible to do.     So what can you,  as a parent,  do to help your child?  What do you do with the knowledge that your child learns best from one type of teacher (either soft-mannered or firm) or classroom (either structured and predictable or unstructured and creative)? If the classroom style is not a fit, but the teacher is a great personality fit for your child, it is wholly possible that your child will work extra hard, and learn the important life skill of adapting to a situation that is outside their comfort level.  If that happens - you hit the jackpot!  If the teacher's style and personality fits your child's and they are not cognitively capable of learning with a particular type of teaching style - you might have to advocate for more individualized learning opportunities.  This will involve requesting a meeting with the teacher and discussing your concerns, and asking for input from the Resource Teacher.  If that is not done, continue up the line and meet with the Vice Principal (or Principal) to express your concerns.  If that does not work (and even if it does), try to access outside tutoring in whatever way that you can.  The more a child is able to learn the concepts that they must master, the more confident they will be, and the more they will be able to profit from classroom instruction.

                What if your child's personality style is such that having one type of teacher will likely lead to heightened anxiety and what you think will surely lead to a difficult year.  In some cases, you might even have direct evidence of the disaster, because the class is multi-age and your child has the same teacher for the upcoming year.  Optimally, you should be discussing your concerns with the Teacher and/or Resource Teacher in the spring.  That is when most classroom placements are made.  If you do not have a chance to discuss your concerns with the administration in the spring, make an appointment to do so in August.  If you are sure about your facts, and have evidence to back it up - be very firm and insistent on change.  It is very difficult for the administration to switch classes once the school year has begun.  If one child is switched, it sets a precedent, and it might be impossible to accommodate all of the parents who ask for change.

                As with many of my articles, the topics of discussion evolve around my own need to work out childhood or parenting issues.  For the reader, the experience is sometimes a 'Where's Waldo' challenge (i.e., where is Dr. Moser's issue coming from - is it yet another one of her 'issues'?).  Well, I'll enlighten you on where Waldo is on this one.  I was a very shy and sensitive child.  My Grade One teacher was the polar opposite - she was tall, scary, firm, and a yeller.  I remember one day when a child couldn't find their book, and she picked up the child's desk and shook out the contents.  I used to walk home at the end of the day (yes, it was the proverbial 'in my day, I walked home even when it was 40 below outside').  I vividly remember walking home at the end of the day with tears streaming down my face, and walking to school in the morning with heaviness  in my heart.  I am not sure how much I told my parents about my experience - in those days, children were not partners with parents, and we tended to just take whatever adults dished out.  In any event, school was a torturous experience for me (as I am sure it was for others).  After a few weeks (it seemed like months), I hit the jackpot.  My friend was the daughter of one of the principals.  Apparently, I wasn't the only child who feared this teacher.  I guess that in an effort to make the switch not obvious, a couple of us were moved to a different class.  It is more than 40 years later (i won't say how many more), and I still feel the relief and gratitude for the switch.  I know that it immediately changed my happiness, my learning experience, and it probably changed my life in ways that I cannot enumerate.   Of course, there were other years when the match wasn't right.  But Mrs. Paritsky, my Grade Two teacher (who was later my Grade Four teacher), counteracted whatever negative effects other teachers may have had.  I still remember her kindness and the self-confidence that she helped me build.  In fact, on those few occasions when I have seen her at the store or at an event, I go up to her and give her a big hug and a thank-you.  I hope your children have many Mrs. Paritskys (of course, there were others in my life as well , Mrs. P. was just the one that stood out the most because she was there when I was most vulnerable).  So, that's my story -  thanks for my therapy session - you can bill me anytime!


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