Making school less of a struggle for an introverted, anxious kid
November 16, 2009 2:34 PM   Subscribe

What can help for a quirky kid struggling with the school environment?

A friend of mine has a son who is 9, a 4th grader. N. is smart, a strong reader, and an all-around nice kid; he gets along well with others and makes friends, and his teachers like him. At school, he seems to be doing fine--his teachers don't see any problems.

However, he is highly introverted, and very sensitive, and does have some problems attending to social cues (telling long, off-topic stories at inappropriate times, one-up-man-ship, not listening well). He has been evaluated for Asperger's/autism and is not diagnosable, but he has some qualities in common with Asperger's kids. His mom, after reading some about Sensory Processing Disorder, is wondering if that is a piece of his problem, and is considering having him evaluated for that. He definitely has anxiety.

He sees a therapist, and that has helped.

The problem is that the school environment simply overwhelms him. While he does well there, he comes home exhausted, and can rarely make it through five full days of school in a row; he will end up so over-taxed that he has stomach-aches, diarrhea, near panic attacks at the thought of going back for another day.

Because school is so taxing, he can't take part in extra-curriculars, like Hebrew school, 4-H, or sports. Because he's so drained by school, life with him at home is very challenging. Two days off on the weekend is barely enough for him to recharge to go back on Monday.

My friend and her partner have talked to his teachers, and to a teaching consultant at the school, and after some initial sympathy, and some slight modifications to, for instance, his homework load, are beginning to hear messages more like, "well, since we don't see a problem at school, the problem must be a discipline problem at home."

My friend is considering homeschooling him, but both for practical reasons and because of her particular temperament, it would be a big stretch for her. She asked me to see if I could get more information about what kind of modifications might be possible for him as a school student.

I would like to hear from people with similar kids about what helped your child find school easier to deal with, if anything. My friend is also curious about whether an IEP that specified part-time schooling, or access to private quiet time during the day, is ever possible. At this point, she doesn't know what she can or should ask for from the school. Can a child like this be effectively accommodated by a public school, or is this a losing battle?

I'm happy to answer questions if there's anything I could add that could help. I know the family, and this particular boy, very well.
posted by not that girl to Education (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
Excellent question and you're an excellent friend to ask. I'm a special education teacher, and I know for sure that a kid can be placed on an IEP for something as simple as anxiety. I've written many IEPs with accommodations like being allowed to take a break and to regroup when feeling overwhelmed and in fact work with kids to recognize those feelings so they can develop their arsenal of strategies.

Your friend should write her concerns to the school principal and ask for an evaluation. The school then has 45 days to conduct testing and give her the findings, then the team convenes to discuss an IEP.

It's all workable.

The school may decide, though, that he is able to successfully access the curriculum and doesn't need an IEP; at that point they will have "no finding" and your friend can disagree and it will go to the state's department of education for mediation. If he's already in treatment for anxiety, the school will probably lose (and they know it), so they will want to protect themselves (and usually give the all the help he needs).

I'm wondering: why was he considered non-diagnosable? I've only seen that occurs when a kids' emotional state was so "off" that test results were considered non-reliable.

But the school should do academic testing as well as a full neuro-psychiatric workup (and she can request an OT eval to look at SI Disorder).

If you have more questions, shoot me an email here; I do this all day long and good luck.
posted by dzaz at 2:53 PM on November 16, 2009


Part-time schooling...I've never seen a school put this in for a kid; too many accountability problems.
posted by dzaz at 2:55 PM on November 16, 2009


By "non-diagnosable" I think I mis-used a technical term--I simply meant that his symptoms didn't rise to the level of a diagnosis.
posted by not that girl at 2:58 PM on November 16, 2009


Also, your friend may want to consider social skills groups. Private therapists do this as do public schools (we run these programs with Speech and Language specialists who work on pragmatcs, sped teachers also run these groups).
posted by dzaz at 3:18 PM on November 16, 2009


First question. Do the parents have any history of anxiety, similar or otherwise, or [to be frank] what cues, if any, does the kid take from his parents in terms of this behavior?

I say this because it is actually paramount in concerning how you approach the problem, and I do have a bit of a background in dealing with this problem and hope I can help.
posted by Lacking Subtlety at 3:55 PM on November 16, 2009


My youngest has a processing disorder and his symptoms are not at all in line with the child you are describing; social anxiety and introspection really don't play into it.

What your friend needs, as touched on above, is an IEP, and unfortunately the first step is some kind of diagnosis. A child needs to be seen as "special needs" in order to have a plan set forth for accommodating him. I second the advice to have him evaluated, the sooner the better. It is a long process within the school system to go from problem = diagnosis = plan of action = execution.

If your friend's son finds himself hyper-stimulated by school, I would also recommend researching calming techniques, like meditation, and self-soothing behaviors like night-time rituals and the like to "bring him down".

He sounds as if he *might* benefit from medication, too. The therapist would of course be the best judge of this. My children have never taken any meds because, as I say, they don't have these same issues. But I do know of a child with similar problems, very bright and high-functioning, who would burst into tears, throw tantrums, and just become exhausted and overwhelmed from the long school hours. He responded very well after his parents started him on Ritalin. He was able to partake in sports (soccer) and his academics improved. Again, that might not be indicated for your friend's son.
posted by misha at 4:04 PM on November 16, 2009


One part of the puzzle might be simply teaching him how to process social cues. I think this is something that all kids have to be taught, but some learn it by observing, others might need more concrete instruction. I suspect, if he has a problem with this, learning this new skill will reduce anxiety.
posted by gjc at 4:30 PM on November 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


There is a family history of anxiety, certainly. And of some social awkwardness as well.

There are some things that might suggest sensory issues; his problems with handwriting is one I know his mom has mentioned to me.

I am really appreciating the answers; thanks.
posted by not that girl at 4:40 PM on November 16, 2009


Also, Social Stories can be used to prepare child for activities, expectations, and what to do when it starts getting stressful. Discovering how to talk about school/social issues using Comic Book Conversations was useful for me. Gentle exposure to his sensitivities with these supports might be helpful.
posted by maloon at 5:46 PM on November 16, 2009


My son has been diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder and ADHD, with slight autistic tendencies. With medication, his disruptive behaviors at school stopped. And that's when we ran into trouble. The school, not seeing any problems in the learning environment, refused an IEP or a 504 or even a basic written intervention. Thank heavens we had really good teachers for his last three years at that school who were willing to cut back on his homework, make accommodations in the classroom (like giving him room to spread out while working on in-class projects, or lying on the floor to read), and who just understood what we were going through. Because at home? After the medication wore off? Nightmare. We would sometimes spend HOURS doing homework, with tears and raging.

My point is that even if your friend gets a diagnosis, if the school doesn't see a problem in their evaluations, your friend's kid might not get that IEP. I wish them all the luck in the world.
posted by cooker girl at 6:12 PM on November 16, 2009


Okay, thanks for the info. Here's my two cents and it comes from a combination and personal history, my own teaching (non-official, tons of summer programs, peer tutoring, counseling, dealing with special needs kids, teaching urban students, teaching MIT computer genius kids). I'm fascinated by how kids learn and integrate and think it is the most important issue for a societies development (It sounds silly but it's completely true). While I have never been an official "This is my regular day-job" teacher, I come from an entire family of educators. Literally everybody in my family nucleus and extended family is a public school teacher. The point is this, I've spent an inordinate amount of time in my discussing and thinking about these kind of issues. In answering these questions I even talked to both of my parents for input.

1. First off, the kid is 95% likely to be just fine. The kid is 9 years old and bright. He is having a tough time with school. This is what one calls "a known quantity." This is not a statement meant to take away anything from his struggle or anxiety whatsoever, just that his very real struggle is very much a common one that a lot of kids can relate to. Middle school will be even more difficult and by the time high school comes around he will find his outlet, and social group and whatever it may be. If his parents love him, chances are he will be just fine. As obtuse and banal as this sounds it is something I try to repeat to parents just so they know. Chances are it will be more than a-okay. It's when the parents don't give a shit that you get the real problems. Now, being more specific and actually answering the question....

2. If the kids parents have similar behaviors, then the chances of him overcoming these basic behaviors is more problematic. The good news is that it's probably not a major chemical problem and medication is probably no necessary. The bad news is that their direct and persistent intervention may lower the chances of actual success. Why? because their anxiety fuels his own. Some of it is genetic, but I assure more of it has come from growing up in that environment. The parents fretting over the issue and if the issue itself is fretting, than it is not necessarily helping. Of course they're concerned and just wanting to help, but the best thing they can do is help create a relaxed environment for him to grow up in and more importantly to grow into. He can sense their worry, he can sense their anxiety over his own anxiety. He really can and that only fuels his own set of worries. So should the parents give up cause it's hopeless to interfere? Of course not. It creates a bit of catch 22 like situation because many kids deal with the opposite situation where their parents really don't care, but like most things it's about balance. They have to learn to care the appropriate amount for the situation. And frankly I don't see that happening because...

3. I see a big red flag here: "However, he is highly introverted, and very sensitive, and does have some problems attending to social cues (telling long, off-topic stories at inappropriate times, one-up-man-ship, not listening well)." The red flag is that there isn't one. That completely normal behavior for a bright 9 year old. That's how I'd describe most bright 9 year olds. They have not developed a mature filter yet. They won't get their filter til middle school, and then it's a question of how they mature from there. The percentage of kids who then act like this as adults is very, very small. Trust me, there's a HUGE difference between an adult with those traits and a 9 year old.

4. In fact, if my assumption i just made is correct and those 9 year old behaviors are common, then I'm deeply worried that he's already seeing a therapist. Anybody who can be described with the following "smart, a strong reader, and an all-around nice kid; he gets along well with others and makes friends, and his teachers like him. At school, he seems to be doing fine--his teachers don't see any problems." should not be seeing a therapist at this age. Either that or the description there is wholly inaccurate. Not because seeing a therapist can't be good for him (most are excellent and helpful) but because it becomes a learned behavior and a coping crutch. If a therapist becomes his coping partner he will always need one, or someone who fulfills that role. And that is a terrible predicatment for a person. The goal of casual therapy is to not need them anymore. Everyone forgets that. Mostly therapists (This is not meaning to take away from the amazing work they do and the work they need to do constantly for lifelong troubled individuals). It can literally set a kid behind in his ability to mature individually and socially.

5. Putting the kid into a special needs curriculum and focus is a horrible idea. In order to fix his social situation at school he needs to view HIMSELF as a regular student at a school. And believe me, no kid likes have a special curriculum, under any circumstances. I'm telling you. The changes are going to have to happen to his personal character and much of that will be taking extracurricular and home maturation INTO the school environment.

6A. A question, that has to be asked. If the main problem seems to be that school overwhelms him then one has to ask the obvious health questions. Is he sleeping? Is he overweight? His his anxiety chemical? Does he stay up late watching TV? Is he getting regular exercise?

6B. I cannot overstate how important constant exercise is to kids and their daily functioning.

7. Somebody had the great suggestion of calming activities, like meditation (it doesn't need to be something that new-agey, but something) and I think the parents should take a new tact and lead by example. They should take up meditation, they should lower the anxiety and worry. I'm telling you, parents do more in leading my example rather than all the curriculum and attention than you can imagine. Leading by example IS parenting.

8. He needs to find a functioning outlet. What does he love to do the most? painting? skateboarding? video games? What is it? He needs to find a way to focus something into not just an activity but an interactivity.

8. Hebrew school was mentioned. I bring this up because it could help shed more light on the situation. NOTE: the last thing I want to do is to get into stereotypes, and that is sooooooooooo incredibly far from my intention, so please, that nonsense is not what I'm talking about here. There is known and well-documented history and cultural proclivity to anxiety in Jewish American families. Is the kid in a predominantly christian neighborhood/school? A predominantly Jewish neighborhood/school? It does have an effect on how the kid grows up and behaves. A lot of my good friends grew up in either situation and were deeply effected by either scenario. My significant other was the only Jewish person in her entire county and it had a dramatic effect on her. My other great friend grew up in a very concentrated Jewish environment and didn't know any christian people til high school and this also had a dramatic effect on her. The point is that these sort of extraneous circumstances can have a similar effect on a kid, and just something that can affect them beyond the normal school dynamic.

9. Never worry about handwriting. It's the great myth of schooling. Kids with shitty handwriting go on to be just fine.


In summary. I think the parents might be doing more harm than good and I don't know how much they are going to be able to curb their affect on him. He will most likely be fine and so much of this seems like a kind of conditional, self-propagating interference. The best thing for kids is a steady, supportive, open, yet relaxed environment at home. The kid needs to be encouraged, but not pushed. Helped, but not coddled.

My worry (and the problem with anxiety to boot) is that the parents will now worry about trying to be too careful and thus fuel the anxiety some more. Catch 22 indeed.

Which is why parenting by example is everything.
posted by Lacking Subtlety at 7:06 PM on November 16, 2009 [5 favorites]


It just occurred to me that people may find my solution as being simplistic or trivializing of kids who have serious panic disorders and social anxiety. I standby my position as a sort of analytic approach to common sense instincts. We often try to be so specialized in analyzing how standard conformity schooling methods affect kids negatively that we never try to appropriate how our specialized methods of helping kids can also have a dramatic effect on them. So to help illustrate my point I'm going to go to a personal experience.

I taught a video game creation and film/video editing course during summers at MIT (all day classes. like camp). This was for kids between the ages of 7-14. I ran the gammut of kids, but believe me I had the most socially awkward kids of hyper-anxious kids in the world. Most of the kids were brilliant, one kid picked up flash in day. Lots were the children of professors or grad students, most were just computer interested loners with parents who were either super worried about them and or had no idea what to do with them. I had to carry THREE backpacks full of medications. It was a huge challenge those summers to deal with the kids. And keep in mind this was coming off school years where I worked with inner city kids in after-school programs where "my son is in a gang and killed another student" or "my son is 14 years old and becoming a male prostitute" is a actual problem you face.

So what did I do with these kids? I simulated the summer camp mentality. I got them to play outside (something they never did) and to play games against each other. I fostered a social environment. I found ways to get them to talk to each other without being obvious. The second you tried to give them special treatment you could see them recede into their own insecurity. I talked to them about stuff they were interested in. I told them that I thought their work was cool. I told them about great music (all language appropriate of course). I told them about my favorite movies. I gave them leeway. I let them make their own decisions (they were shocked when this would happen. It was like they had been told their whole life how to do things).

All sounds simple and general, but it startlingly effective. Every single parent couldn't believe how happy their kid seemed. They said there was an amazing change in their demeanor and these classes were only over a few weeks at a time. At this point I certainly sound like I'm tooting my own horn, and I'm sorry. That's not the intention. There's a point to this: Since their kids responded so well to the classes, half the parents came to me and grilled me for every single detail. it was a formula to them and they wanted to replicate the experience so I would then watch these parents literally try to do the things that I had said and it was like nails on a chalkboard. Overbearing and insincere. The parents were sincere, but the meaning of what they were saying wasn't sincere. They didn't know how to behave that way themselves and the kids would roll their eyes or get angry or become introverted again. It's the complete antithesis of an organic social context. Meanwhile the other 1/2 of parents were just happy their kid was happy and didn't know what to do so they enrolled them in the same classes over again.

Now why did the kids listen to me? Because I wasn't a teacher. I wasn't a parent. I'm not a good instructor and they will all be 5 times I as bright as I am. They listened to me because I was a college kid who liked them and listened to them. It's not rocket science. I helped them feel like a part of a social context and provided a model of behavior. That's all I did. I provided a model of behavior.

And that's what many of these kids desperately need. They need a social situation with older peers who can create an environment where they feel they can grow socially. And that only happens in after school or summer activities like that.

Kids need to find the outlet in their lives. They need models for behavior. And yes parents need to be a part of that model of behavior, not by replicating sequence, but replicating the attitude and understanding. Like I said before, "parenting by example."
posted by Lacking Subtlety at 7:47 PM on November 16, 2009 [6 favorites]


I agree with giving him an outlet other than school. I had no interest in school as a kid. Zero. And that extended to the other kids there, the social life the whole bit. What I did have was a couple of very absorbing and time intensive extra curricular hobbies/ sports that I spent all of my non school time doing. There was a big mix of other kids my age, teenagers and younger adults doing most of the instruction and supervision. I had a huge social life, lots of interaction, lots of physical activity, the opportunity to do well at something I liked and to realize that there's a big world out there beyond the typical. If all I'd done was go to school I would have grown up to become a crazy cat lady or something.
posted by fshgrl at 8:56 PM on November 16, 2009


If he is having physical ailments and panic attacks regarding school, then I hope the therapist would be identifying and helping him with this issue.

Second, if home-schooling is on the table, then charter schools and such should also be considered, if they are available. Personally I view public school as a voluntary experience for my kids.
posted by psycho-alchemy at 1:23 AM on November 17, 2009


It sounds like his anxiety would be severe enough to be positively diagnosed by a professional, and it would count towards receiving special education services such as an IEP.
posted by autoclavicle at 2:26 AM on November 17, 2009


And that's what many of these kids desperately need. They need a social situation with older peers who can create an environment where they feel they can grow socially. And that only happens in after school or summer activities like that.

So true, and this is the atmosphere I try to create in a special education Resource Room. It's the ONE place in the school where the kids can make their own decisions, feel supported and positive, and know that they have their own personal cheerleaders in me and my staff. We play social skills games, we sew quilts, we make snacks, we hang out, have fun and have a part of the day that we look forward to attending. My job is to make them feel successful.

But this hardly ever happens in the regular gen ed classroom. Sorry, gen ed teachers, but it's true. I have small groups and 1:1 time; I let the kids take the reins and figure things out for themselves.

So in fact, I would encourage the family to remain open to special education. We're trained to show kids how to feel successful at school.
posted by dzaz at 2:45 AM on November 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


And that's what many of these kids desperately need. They need a social situation with older peers who can create an environment where they feel they can grow socially. And that only happens in after school or summer activities like that.

So true, and this is the atmosphere I try to create in a special education Resource Room. It's the ONE place in the school where the kids can make their own decisions, feel supported and positive, and know that they have their own personal cheerleaders in me and my staff. We play social skills games, we sew quilts, we make snacks, we hang out, have fun and have a part of the day that we look forward to attending. My job is to make them feel successful.

But this hardly ever happens in the regular gen ed classroom. Sorry, gen ed teachers, but it's true. I have small groups and 1:1 time; I let the kids take the reins and figure things out for themselves.

So in fact, I would encourage the family to remain open to special education. We're trained to show kids how to feel successful at school.
posted by dzaz at 2:45 AM on November 17 [1 favorite has favorites -] Favorite added! [!]


You're completely right that it doesn't happen in Gen Ed classes, but to add a wrinkle to that... I'm not necessarily sure how much it should. Don't get me wrong teachers should definitely come across as actual human beings and prepare students for emotional complexity and nuance (in a non-instructional way), but the needs of a gen ed are simply different. There's a sort of inherent need for the traditional kind of distance. Most of the kids don't need life skills, but need intellectual skills and in some ways the skills to deal with "authoritarian" minds (this is not authortarian in the traditional bad sense, this is just a way of saying "this person knows more than me and I should probably listen and absorb what they have to say", because one of the growing problems with teachers is that their kids (and their parents, UGH) just decide they don't have to listen to a teacher for whatever reason. This happens far more than you think.

Crap I got off topic, gotta run, but the idea is that a teacher getting too close to students in a Gen Ed and creating an environment similar to a SE resource room could actually have a significant amount of problems, specifically with the set of kids who would take advantage of it (And they would. I see this far, far, far too often).
posted by Lacking Subtlety at 10:13 AM on November 17, 2009


dzaz, I think what you had to say was exactly what my friends were hoping to hear; they weren't sure there was help within the school system for their son.

Lacking Subtlety, thanks for taking the time to write so coherently and thoughtfully. I don't know how much of what you wrote will apply to this family, but I know it will be thought-provoking.

I think this thread is going to be helpful for them. I know they've been feeling really stuck. Thanks, everyone.
posted by not that girl at 11:09 AM on November 17, 2009


Just as a data point, I was a bright, introverted, overly sensitive child who was a strong reader, got along great with teachers, had very good grades, and had friends. I was also constantly and cruelly teased throughout pretty much all of elementary and middle school. Fifth grade was the worst year, an absolutely hellish year (even though my fifth grade teacher was one of my favorites). I would come home and cry and cry. My teachers used to call my parents and be concerned that I wasn't developing socially well enough because I always wanted to sit by myself and read a book at recess instead of playing.

I'm not saying that this kid doesn't need special accommodations or therapy or whatever, because it does sound like he's having a hard time right now. BUT I had nearly all the same "symptoms" you describe him having, albeit somewhat less severe, and I didn't have, like, a medical condition. I was just a bright, introverted, sensitive kid- and school is actually really not set up to be kind to bright, introverted, sensitive kids.

That said, I know a lot of people who WERE bright, introverted, sensitive kids, and they are all bright, introverted, moderately-less-sensitive adults who turned out JUST FINE once their emotional and social maturity and coping skills caught up with their brains and they had the ability to find their own most favored social group (this generally happens in college.)

I have a lot of sympathy for this kid- I'm in my early 30s and my introvert self STILL needs a good dose of quiet time to recharge from crowded situations. Would it be possible for his parents to give him, like, "quiet hours" after school where he doesn't have to talk to them or tell them how his day went or discuss anything or do homework for like an hour or two? He can just hang out in his room with the door shut and read a book or play a game or something. And then it's expected that after supper or whatever they'll talk or do homework or be social. I'm an introvert with an extroverted mom and I grew up HATING all the conversations where my mom would try to make me TALK TO HER ABOUT MY FEELINGS, or my day, or whatever. She thought I was repressed, when the truth was I just dealt with stress differently than she did. Contrary to popular belief, talking about it does not ALWAYS make it better.

One last point because this is crazy long: sometimes introvert kids can absorb the societal message that "outgoing" is virtuous and if you aren't "outgoing" there's something wrong with you. They also may not understand WHY they get so stressed out sometimes. When I was able to say to myself, "OK, I am stressed out because I've been with people all day, I need some quiet time and I'll feel better," it helped a lot more than when I just thought, "School makes me feel bad so I hate it but I have to go so I'm trapped and it won't ever improve I am dooooooomed."

Anyway, good luck to the whole family.
posted by oblique red at 1:20 PM on November 17, 2009


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