Leading IEP Champions: How to Beat Anxiety

March 6, 2015

Anxiety Disorder + Prader-Willi Syndrome + “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” = A recipe for DISASTER if you have a child with Prader-Willi Syndrome. I’m sure you can relate.

If you have a child who experiences anxiety, keep reading and find out how anxiety tips and strategies can help. Find out how our family solved this equation which ends in…. “A recipe for fun and positive experiences.”

Learning or experiencing something new can be a very stressful time for anyone and more so with someone who has high anxiety. They don’t know what to expect and they don’t usually like surprises. Increased anxiety can often lead to less desirable behaviours that will impede learning.

My son, Dante, was recently diagnosed with Severe Anxiety Disorder which can make life and school stressful and challenging.   So naturally, I was concerned about taking him to a European family wedding where the focus would be on food, new experiences, loud music and meeting new people. I was concerned that all of these changes would lead to melt-downs, uncertainty and frustration. And I was aware that his anxiety disorder would be the root cause. So I had to figure out a way to reduce his anxiety so that he could enjoy the wedding.

Over the years, we have tried various techniques and strategies to keep his anxiety at a manageable level. For Dante and for many people who experience severe anxiety one of the best strategies is pre-instruction. When we prepare him ahead of time (or pre-instruct) by verbally taking him through the series of events over and over again, he feels more confident and secure. Therefore, our preparation included daily chats for one week about what a wedding looks like, what he can expect to eat, when we will dance, what the bride and groom are going to do (i.e. kiss at the end of the ceremony), how people will be dressed etc. He not only found it fascinating and learned about tradition but the more he talked about it before the event, the better he understood it and the less anxious he was becoming each day leading up. We even had some fun practising our Greek dancing moves at home.

The wedding day came and every transition from home to church to dinner reception went smoothly. Dante enjoyed the day instead of worrying about what was coming next. He asked thoughtful questions (not repetitive questions), shook hands with new people he met and danced happily all night long. His attention was not on the food all night as you would expect from someone who has Prader-Willi Syndrome. I firmly believe that the pre-instruction and preparation was the main reason why Dante had a wonderful experience attending his first family wedding.

You can prepare your child in different ways depending on their ages and intellectual abilities through the use of social stories, post-it notes, visual schedules, communication technology apps and more. Students with anxiety require more time, patience and empathy in order to become successful. As a teacher, sometimes it’s easy to give up on them and it’s hard not to take it personally. Their behaviours are usually a result of their anxiety. Anxiety can get in the way of academic success and social relationships therefore making it difficult for the teacher to evaluate and discover their true potential. Therefore, we must aim to solve the root of the problem and make every effort to keep their anxiety low thereby, finding ways to increase their confidence and learning capacity.

Classroom tips/interventions to address and minimize anxiety:

  1. Create a “safe” place for the student to go when anxiety symptoms are high or during stressful times. This place may be the Child Youth Care Worker or Special Education Resource teacher’s office. Establish rules for the use of the “safe” place. These rules should include items such as; the student must inform the teacher they need a few minutes to calm down, set a time limit, go for a movement break, run an errand for a teacher etc.


  1. Teach the student relaxation techniques they can do at school, such as deep breathing exercises. Talk with parents and/or SERT about successful techniques used at home or listed in student’s file/record and incorporate them into the classroom.



  1. Reward effort by a student with anxiety. When a child shows effort and is in control of their anxiety symptoms through interventions, tell them you are proud of their efforts. Positive reinforcement goes a long way, especially to students who are often unsuccessful academically.


  1. Decrease situations that induce stress. Teachers can restructure assignments to decrease the amount of stress for a student. For example, instead of having a student stand in front of the class to read a report, find creative ways to complete reports. Allow students to make posters, flyer or use technology to present their findings.



  1. Discuss anxiety symptoms privately with the student. Never single out a student or call attention to their anxiety in front of the class. This can cause humiliation or embarrassment, increase anxiety symptoms and widen the social gap between peers.


  1. Discuss alternative ways of handling situations. Talk to the student after an anxiety attack about how the situation could have been different. Discuss what strategies could have been used (by both the student and the teacher) to make the situation better.



  1. Post the daily agenda in the classroom and let students know in advance any changes in the schedule. Letting students know exactly what is expected will help lessen anxiety. For a student with anxiety, a sudden change can cause a panic attack. Knowing in advance what the period will be like will help in transitions significantly.


  1. Help students break assignments down into smaller segments. This can help to decrease feeling overwhelmed by large assignments and help a student work on each section. A common accommodation on a IEP is referred to as: chunking.



  1. Encourage use of Assistive technology and increase extended time for processing and assessments. Allow students time to work on their own rather than in a large group. Use of assistive technology, like the iPAD, laptop, premiere and dragon, can reduce stress and anxiety.


  1. Prevent anxiety in the first place. Getting to know what causes anxiety for the student before it happens will be very helpful for everyone in the classroom. Identify the trigger of anxiety breakdown or behavioral issues and stop them in their tracks.

Develop strategies of your own or try the ones above which will address and reduce anxiety which will therefore, decrease behaviours and improve communications between teachers and peers. It may take several tries of one strategy or a combination of a few to become successful and to meet each student’s unique needs. However, whenever you attack the root of any problem, you are more likely to be successful and stay on top. And when all else fails…dance like nobody’s watching!

Sincerely Yours,

Tanya Johnson


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