Teachers–if you have a student who is suffering from Separation Anxiety Disorder, you may struggle with predicting and managing his or her anxiety attacks. Below are some situations that may inspire fear or panic in students with Separation Anxiety Disorder, plus suggestions for helping students cope with each situation.
If your student relies on your presence to help manage her anxiety, a substitute teacher may trigger feelings of abandonment and vulnerability. Whenever possible, warn students in advance about your upcoming absences. Since most of your absences are likely to be unexpected, talk to students early in the year about procedure for substitute teachers. Consider having another trusted teacher (or the school nurse, perhaps) check in on your anxious student during your absence.
Most children find field trips exciting, but students with any type of anxiety disorder can have difficulty in new situations. Students with separation anxiety may worry that their parents won’t be able to find them during the trip or will take too long to arrive if there’s an emergency. Provide ample information about the field trip in advance, and casually but clearly explain that, if a student becomes ill or upset, you can easily contact his parents. Consider inviting parents on the field trip or allowing them to drive their own children.
A student with separation anxiety is likely to panic when her parent is late for pick-up. She may worry that she has been abandoned, or she may suspect that her parent has been injured or killed. A panicking child may cry or hyperventilate, but she may also become very quiet, pace by herself, or begin speaking loudly. She may complain of stomach pain, nausea, or a headache. If you suspect that your student is panicking about her parent’s tardiness, offer gentle reassurance and distraction. Privately remind your student that her fear is a symptom, not a premonition, and that releasing her fear will not increase the likelihood of catastrophe.
When students have difficulty separating from their parent at morning drop-off, offer immersive distractions and persistent reassurance. Do NOT encourage parents to sneak away. Instead, suggest one brief but satisfying “goodbye” before enthusiastically calling the child’s attention to something else. If a student continues to cry or panic, offer nurturing reassurances that he is safe and that you will be looking out for him.
Many anxious students use close friends as parent-substitutes. In Kindergarten, I made Sara D. come with me every time I went to the bathroom. Thanks, Sara! If you notice a student with separation anxiety becoming dependent on one friend, occasionally push her to bond with other students. When your anxious student’s best friend is absent, take extra care to help her integrate into other groups, and subtly check on her at lunch and recess.
Children typically dislike being perceived as different or weird, so be subtle when helping your anxious students. Also, please remember that these tips are meant to mitigate separation anxiety during minor crises and are not long-term solutions or treatment plans. Parents, if you suspect that your child has an anxiety disorder, please contact your pediatrician.
Fearless Learning offers information, advice, and support for students with anxiety. Contact me for more information.
Separation Anxiety, Part 1
Separation Anxiety, Part 2