IDD and Anxiety: Preparing for the New School Year

Cardinal Innovations Healthcare — July 31, 2019 — 3 min read
For any child, heading back to school can be an exciting time, but it also can trigger anxiety about doing well, fitting in or being liked. For children diagnosed with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD), the transition and change in routines itself can cause discomfort and anxiety.

Anxiety can include physical symptoms like stomachaches or headaches, and can impact sleep and cause moodiness. A child may also express a sense of fear of going to school the next day.

Transitioning to a new level of school – such as from elementary to middle school or from middle to high school – can add to the anxiety. For some children, the feelings of anxiety can become so intense that they may ask to stay home or ask repeatedly to go to the nurse’s office once they’re at school.

Approximately 2 to 5% of school-aged children experience anxiety-based school refusal, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA).

Children take cues from their parents, so if you’re overly anxious then your child might be, too. It is a good idea to have open discussion and for parents to say they are nervous but excited about school.

Here are some tips for reducing anxiety when school starts again especially for a child also diagnosed with an IDD:
  • Create a written/picture schedule and go over it verbally multiple times weeks before school
  • Introduce yourself and your child to the counselors and special education teachers
  • Visit the school cafeteria and discuss noise/sound issues ahead of time so that the administration is aware of potential concerns
  • Early on in the school year, request or update your child’s 504 or Individualized Education Program (IEP) (504s and IEPs are both intended to protect a student with a disability to ensure they are learning in the least restrictive environment)
  • Attend back to school nights
  • Keep a homework notebook and establish a preference for communication with the teacher (does the teacher prefer notes sent to school or emails)
  • Parents have to be flexible
  • Ensure your child is getting good sleep
  • Spend one-on-one time with the kids following school as your child may need time to let down from a potentially stressful time at school
  • Set-up regular times to process the day toward the end of the night when you as a parent can learn about the classwork, what the classroom looks like, bullies, fears, etc.
  • Consider having lunch/reading in the class weekly with the child and let the child know this would occur so it is something to look forward to
  • Schedule frequent conferences (learning how often established teacher-parent conferences happen already)
  • Help the child advocate for any nicknames vs. full names that he/she wants to be called
Above all, be patient. Keep in mind that teachers are often overwhelmed, underappreciated and doing their best with limited resources. Be patient and recognize that your child is one of many, but in time the teacher will learn the individual needs and preferences of each child. 
Anxiety can be something that is easily overcome with open communication, breathing techniques, and role playing. If things aren’t getting easier with the transition, then seek professional help.

Cardinal Innovations Healthcare Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist Dr. Qionna Tinney contributed to this article.
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