Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Effective Back-to-School Strategies

Who has more fear about heading back to school, you or your child? If we’re honest with this question, we find that as parents we become overwhelmed at many different levels. “Will my child’s teacher(s) understand him or simply react to him?” “How can I get the school to see my child as a traumatized child, not a defiant child?” “How am I going to maintain my work if the school keeps calling me like they did last year?” “What are the afternoons going to be like once homework starts up again…Oh, goodness!”

And the list goes on and on. Past experiences with schools have been negative for many parents and just the thought of going back to school can give them and their child a magnified stress-response. 

This article presents five effective strategies discussed that you can use when working to help your child have the best educational experience possible. These include the following:

1) Be an advocate for your child.

It takes courage to advocate for your child. Fears of being an “overbearing” or “overly-sensitive” parent can be part of the equation. Coming up against a panel of teachers and administrators who stand strong in what they believe can be intimidating. We also fear getting involved and exposing our child’s sensitivities for fear of having our child labeled from the start.

While these fears are valid, the act of advocating for your child is preventive, proactive and can save your child having a negative educational experience. The reality is that your child does have some special needs and he has a right to be understood. Your responsibility as a parent allows you to then approach the school system, staying confident and positive to say, “My child needs to be understood. My child has certain areas where he gets stressed-out and overwhelmed. He needs us, as a team, to do what we can to prevent a negative experience for him and as we do this, it will allow him to be a success in school. The more positive experiences my child has in the learning environment, the more equipped he will become to handle stress in the future. I’m asking for your help in doing this.”

Offer to educate and give the teacher and/or principal materials to look at and read. Many times you will find teachers are willing to read articles and newsletters. Keep educating the schools. It can be an uphill battle, there’s no doubt. If you let your fear overcome you, your child is then not only powerless in the school, but with you as well. It sends an amazingly powerful message to our children when we go to bat for them. For many of our children, adults in their life have never done this. Advocating for your child can be a valuable healing experience as they see you in action, just for them. You are the one that knows your child best and you are the one who can advocate the best for him or her.

2) Understand the difficulty of transitions. 

Parents and professionals have a tendency to underestimate the difficulty children with trauma histories have when it comes to transitioning. Transitioning means change and it can mean unpredictability—two items that create tremendous fear in children (and many adults for that matter). Foster children and adopted children, by the nature of this characteristic, have transitional trauma. At one point in their lives (if not many more), they were removed from an environment to which they never returned. Many children have memories of going to school and never coming back home. This can easily explain a child’s resistance to getting up in the morning and leaving the home for school. No amount of reassurance from the parent at the cognitive level can overpower this trauma.

If parents can recognize this fear, even the night before school, they have the opportunity to address this fear when there is less stress in the home. The parent can acknowledge the fear by saying,

“It can be really scary and difficult leaving the house in the morning. I never realized that last year and I want to be able to help you this year. If I had been taken away at school when I was six years old like you and taken to a new home, I’d be so scared, too. It may actually still feel like you’re not coming home even now that you’re in middle school. I’m here this year to help you through this and to support you, son.”

Bringing these fears up to the conscious level, honoring them, and validating them, can help a child process through these previous traumatic events. As these memories are processed and understood with the parent, they no longer have the ability to drive the child into a state of complete defiance and resistance.

Other transitions to be mindful of include the transition from summertime to school time, switching from classroom to classroom for middle and high students, and moving from the classroom to the cafeteria (or specials) for elementary students. Even transitioning from school to home can be difficult for children because they know they are going to be faced with doing homework when they are simply too stressed out to do anymore work.

Here’s an example of how to help a child transition. The teacher says to student, “It’s going to be time for the bell to ring and for us to change classes. I want you to take a few deep breaths and then we’ll change classes.” This may seem so simple, but it gives the child a chance to process the transition prior to being required to make the transition. Having this extra couple of minutes gives the child space to determine that the request to transition is safe and not a threat.

3) Respond instead of react to your child’s behaviors. 

Love is a conscious and intentional response; fear is a confused and distorted reaction. It becomes difficult when dealing with school issues to stay mindful enough when our child brings home a low grade to stay in this place of love and responsiveness.

There is an enormous amount of emphasis in our culture surrounding education. The common belief is that if our child doesn’t succeed in school, then he won’t succeed in life. We often have the perception that the level of our education is directly proportionate to our level of income. However, it is quite interesting to note that in many cases, those with less education earn more than those with master or doctoral degrees. Bill Gates, worth an estimated $56 billion, left college after only a couple of years and finally earned an honorary degree some 30 years later. Extreme case? Perhaps. Yet, we need to be flexible to understand that when Johnny doesn’t do his homework, it doesn’t mean that he is doomed in his career…he’s only five!

For the Beyond Consequences parent, the interpretation of a negative report from school simply means that the child was outside of her window of tolerance. For example, the child comes home and says, “Mom, I got three ‘infractions’ today at school.” Instead of the traditional response of, “What? You know how to behave in that classroom,” mom can take a deep breath, stop the negativity, and decide to respond from a state of understanding. Mom says, “Wow. You must have been really stressed out today. What was so hard today?” As she opens the space for understanding and reflective thought, her daughter reveals that there was a substitute today (and we all know how dysregulated an entire classroom can become on days with substitutes).

Being able to respond to a child in the classroom can shift a potentially chaotic experience into one that is calm and regulated. Responsive techniques include “Time-In,” using non-verbal communication, using gentle and friendly touch, using indirect eye contact when direct eye contact is too stimulating, not demanding an explanation of a negative behavior in the moment, providing understanding, and working to regulate as the adult in the classroom.

Instead of putting a child in a corner or outside of the classroom (which happens all too often), have the child sit with the teacher. “Johnny, I see you are having a hard time sitting. Why don’t you come sit with me and see if you can focus and get back on track?” It takes understanding that we regulate through relationship. The reaction I often hear from educators is, “I can’t do that with every student.” The reality is that not every student needs that; yet there are times when one or two students in the classroom are going to need that. In fact, the time that you invest in helping a couple of students regulate through the student/teacher relationship will produce gains that will be evident for the rest of the day.

Non-verbal communication and gentle/friendly touch can be as simple as a teacher looking over and seeing that Johnny is getting a little frustrated. The teacher, while still teaching, can simply walk by Johnny and put her hand on his shoulder. She does not even have to say a word. Just her presence, her physical connection that is gentle and soft, can help to interrupt the negativity and stress that is starting to build in him.

4) Help your child find resources – empower your child.

If efforts to work with your child’s school prove minimal, it is still our responsibility to continue moving forward in our family’s healing process. This may mean working with our child to help him become more equipped while at school, showing him how to develop his own internal resources and for us to be a calm and regulated resource before and after school for him.

One of the best resources is you in the morning. Make a commitment to send your child off to school as regulated as possible each morning. When we keep in touch with our level of stress in getting out the door, we realize that much of how the morning unfolds is in our court. If you work outside of the home, it would be wise to avoid scheduling meetings in the morning, just in case your child is having a difficult morning. It would also be helpful to let your boss know that there may be times that you are going to be late with the reassurance that you’ll make up the hours as needed. Ironically, just in doing this, your stress level will be less which will almost ensure that you really are not late for work.

Help your child develop internal resources so he can begin to empower himself. Children want to do well; we need to give them the tools in order to develop their internal regulatory skills in order to do so. And when you observe a child who appears as though she doesn’t want to do well and she says, “I don’t care,” this is only an indication that she is in a state of survival. When you’re in survival, you literally do not have the space to care. This is a child who is beyond her window of stress tolerance, so equipping children, especially children who operate in survival most of their days, can be a liberating experience for them.

Teach your children how to breathe when they begin to feel stressed and overwhelmed. This can work for a child entering Kindergarten or a child entering high school. Help them to get in touch with their bodies and feel the sensation of stress as it originates, perhaps in the stomach or in their chest. As they become aware of the feeling physically, they then have the capacity to identify it instead of acting out on it. This takes practice at home, but it equips them to maintain some sense of regulation in an environment that challenges their regulatory system.

Teachers and parents can also help children develop external resources when they begin to feel dysregulated, or “uneven” as one child described it to me. Help them to identify people within the school with whom they can connect. Identify mentors in the school. It can be a school counselor, a teacher’s aide, the receptionist, the janitor—someone with whom they can call upon when feeling stressed. Reflect on what you do when you’re feeling stressed at work or at home. Don’t you usually call someone to connect? This is using relationships to regulate.

Request that your child be given permission to call the parent when she needs to from school. This can be a simple two-minute call that can have lasting effects for a child’s sense of safety and security. Fear says they’ll want to call too much so it will disrupt the class or that they’ll manipulate this “privilege” and abuse it. When we truly understand that this is a tool children can use to align and empower themselves, we’ll see that it isn’t a privilege but a necessary tool in a child’s ability to maintain regulation in the school environment. If the teacher shifts from a place of stress and fear to a place of understanding, she can then truly see that it is a useful tool that can help her to help this child.

Set up a system to help the child break a negative feedback loop that may develop in the classroom. Instead of threatening the child, “Johnny, I’ve asked you three times already to settle down. If you don’t sit down this last time, you’ll find yourself sitting inside completing this assignment by yourself during recess,” we have to consider more positive options. Realizing that Johnny is having a hard time settling down by the fourth request, perhaps he needs to take a break from the environment in order to break the negative feedback loop. At this point, it is clear that he doesn’t have the regulatory ability to interrupt this negativity on his own. “Johnny, I can see that it is difficult to settle down. I think this would be a good time to take a break and go down the hall for a sip of water.” This is teaching Johnny how to break this cycle instead of punishing him by taking recess away (which is probably exactly what he needs—the opportunity to run around and release some energy).

5) Reduce stress at school. 

In addition to the four tips listed above, there are several other very simple strategies that can help children who become easily overwhelmed at school. These strategies take just a small amount of extra time for teachers; it just takes understanding and staying mindful. The investment in implementing these strategies can be profound for the overall experience not only for the child, but for the entire class. Here they are listed below:

  • Assign a teacher who is calm, regulated, and who is willing to stay attuned to child’s needs.
  • Have the child sit next to the teacher or in the front of the classroom.
  • Remove distracting objects from the child’s desk.
  • Stay focused on the process when giving the child a directive, not the outcome. This requires staying relationship focused.
  • Keep the child close to an adult when transitioning from one activity to another.
  • Provide a “Safe Place” within the classroom such as a reading corner where the child can go when he feels overwhelmed.
  • Avoid singling the child out in front of peers; be mindful not to create an experience of rejection (a deep issue for children with trauma histories).
  • Allow the child to wear a locket or carry a picture (or another familiar reminder of his family) that he can use to ground himself when feeling scared or alone.
  • If recess time becomes too stimulating and overwhelming, it may be more beneficial for the child to have quiet time in the library or with the teacher in order to calm his nervous system.
  • Allow the child to have the option of calling the parents if he needs help regulating. Instead of saying, “I’m going to call your mom if you don’t behave right now, Johnny,” the mindful teacher can say, “I think a call to your mom will help you feel better and will help you know you’re okay, Johnny.”
  • Maintain an awareness that children do not willfully disobey teachers or refuse to complete assignments from a conscious place. It is an over abundance of stress and overwhelm that drives a child’s negative responses in the classroom.
  • Reduce the amount of stimulation in the classroom by decreasing wall posters, hanging mobiles, and other items used for decoration. 
  • Decorate the room by using colors that are warm and soothing.
  • Change the lighting in the classroom by turning off some of the fluorescent lights and using lamps with incandescent bulbs. Fluorescent lights produce a “cold” light, while incandescent bulbs produce a “warm” light.
  • If lunchtime is difficult, have the child eat next to an adult or in the classroom. The school cafeteria can be over stimulating and can also be a social challenge for many children (and adults for that matter!).
  • When possible, avoid having the child in large groups such as before school programs where all the children sit in the auditorium or in the courtyard. Large groups can dysregulate even a well- regulated child.
  • Have the teacher (or parent) breakdown assignments into smaller parts. Instead of an entire project due in one month, perhaps intermediate deadlines can be established to break the project into smaller parts. You wouldn’t eat an entire pizza in one bite! So, break it down into manageable slices.
While these tips address many aspects of the academic environment, it is also important to acknowledge that perhaps a traditional school setting is not the best for some children, despite all the proactive measures that can be implemented. It takes expanding our options to explore school alternatives such as charter schools, specialized schools, and home schooling. Fear can keep us restricted, focused on the negative, and saturated in the problem. Love keeps us open to new ideas and focused on solutions; so be open to exploring all your options.

Keep pressing on. Your children are worth it. And keep trusting that as you stay focused on your relationship with your children, being flexible and supportive with their school work, they will be more equipped to learn, more motivated to accomplish, and most importantly, happier in their well-being!

Press on,

Heather T. Forbes, LCSW
Parent and Author of Beyond Consequences, Logic & Control: Volume 1 & Volume 2Dare to Love, and Help for Billy.