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3 Suggestions for Complex Learners

If your child is a Complex Learner, you have seen anxiety in action. It could look like a jittery body, a “deer in headlights” expression, crying, a full-blown tantrum, refusing to go to school, physical aches and pains, fear of crowds, procrastination, making excuses, asking the same question over and over, avoiding a task, or a complete shutdown.

Does this mean, that in addition to the other neurologically-based problems your child is struggling with, they also have an anxiety disorder?

Not necessarily. It only makes sense that children who face daily frustrations, failures, and embarrassments at school would be more likely to worry and react negatively to social and educational demands. The stress of managing complex learning differences can trigger feelings of anxiety and that often builds over time. Not all kids who are anxious develop a full-blown anxiety disorder, but research has shown that children with learning disabilities and attention issues like ADHD are at higher risk.

Understanding your child’s anxiety is not an easy matter. First, there are many kinds of anxiety disorders. The DSM-V, a manual used by psychiatrists, psychologists, and other providers to categorize mental health and learning diagnoses, allocates over 50 pages just to anxiety disorders. Secondly, it is hard to know if the behaviors you’re observing are a result of an anxiety disorder, or stem from another diagnosis your child has (ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, a learning disability, executive function difficulties, Sensory Integration Disorder, etc.).

And yet, on some level, anxiety is anxiety is anxiety. Unless strategies and supports are put in place, the behaviors it causes and the barriers it creates will continue. Here are 3 suggestions to address anxiety for Complex Learners:

  • Getting help for your child’s learning and attention issues is the first step. The right match of school and social environments go a long way. Putting movement in place, sensory supports, curriculum that addresses your child’s particular learning issues and style – all this will help alleviate stressors that can cause anxiety.
  • There are many resources available that offer strategies for managing anxiety. From mindfulness and breathing to workbooks and self-talk. Here are a few links to get started, but there’s many more. Search the web, peruse the bookstore, and try things out. Children will respond differently to different strategies and it may take time to find what works for your child.
  • Anxiety is part of the package when you have a Complex Learner, so getting a therapist involved if your child continues to struggle is important – not only for their current functioning but for life down the road. When left untreated, childhood anxiety has a significant chance of leading to anxiety in adulthood.

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Anna Johnson, Head of School at The Wolf School, is a devoted, passionate educator with more than 17 years of classroom and leadership experience. She holds a BA and MAT from Brown University and speaks locally and nationally on topics related to Complex Learners.

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