I am convinced that kids will let us know when stress at school is unmanageable. Like a canary placed in a mine to warn of toxic atmosphere, children who develop uncharacteristic tantrums, outbursts, defiance, and sleep problems can alert us to school anxiety. For students who are twice exceptional (gifted with a disability), high functioning autistic, and learning disabled, stress and anxiety at school are common emotional states. Anxiety is not benign. As Mariale Hardiman states in The Brain-Targeted Teaching Model for 21st-Century Schools, “although mild stress in specific contexts may enhance performance and recall, prolonged stress appears to reduce the ability to acquire, retain, and recall information.” Further, brain research tells us that prolonged stress sets the brain’s “stress thermometer” at a higher level (Eric Jensen). Students do not automatically return to a state of lowered anxiety when they get home. In fact, home may be the one place where kids feel free to demonstrate the cost of going to school.
Note: Sexually abused kids may also exhibit unusual behavior described above, so be alert.
The following are some warning signs that a child’s “oxygen” at school may be running low.
1. The child becomes unwilling to go to school. As anxiety increases over time, the child may become distraught and outright refuse to go to school, having tantrums or throwing up. It is especially worthy of attention if these problems do not occur on weekends or school holidays.
2. The child acts out after school. I remember one mom telling me that her son started throwing furniture when he got home. That was a clear signal to change some expectations in his school environment. Parents of stressed kids may report that their child is exhausted and irritable, refuses to complete homework, and cries frequently.
3. The child acts out in school. I have found that this is often the last resort for kids, regardless of their disability.
What should a teacher do?
1. Learn as much as you can about the impact of disabilities on life at school. Don’t assume that these kids are OK because they work so hard. Don’t assume that compliance is an automatic sign of well-being. Many dyslexic and autistic adults have shared their struggles publicly in order to help these kids who are going through similar battles.
2. Ask parents how their child is doing at home. Most likely, parents will have already mentioned “difficulty” with homework or getting ready for school. Avoid being judgmental. I’ve found that many parents feel embarrassed and wrongly internalize their kids’ problems.
3. Check the emotional climate of your classroom. What does your room feel like to kids with disabilities? Ask another teacher to observe. Watch videotapes. Use student community meetings to assess the climate.
To repeat what Mariale Hardiman has said: Setting the emotional climate for learning may be the most important task a teacher embarks on each day.