Helping Students with Learning Disabilities Manage Back-to-School Anxiety

By Myles L. Cooley, Ph.D., author of A Practical Guide to Mental Health & Learning Disorders for Every Educator: How to Recognize, Understand, and Help Challenged (and Challenging) Students Succeed

Helping Students with Learning Disabilities Manage Back-to-School AnxietyTeachers, imagine this scenario: Over the summer, you’ve noticed several changes in your ability to read, write, and compute math problems. You stumble over words you used to read. Your written sentences are run-ons, and you neglect punctuation and capitalization rules. You can’t remember how to do double-digit long division.

How would you feel on the first day of school? My guess is you’d feel pretty insecure and nervous.

This is often the way students with learning disabilities feel. They probably feel even worse than you might because they may have had these difficulties for years.

Summer provides a respite for all students, but students with learning disabilities enjoy summers even more. During the summer, they can feel the same as other kids. They are successful at activities they enjoy. They don’t have to compare themselves to other students who read, write, or do math better than them. They don’t have to spend arduous hours doing homework. They aren’t corrected for most behaviors in the summer.

Students with learning disabilities dread the first day of school. Anticipation of failure replaces positive feedback from the summer. Anxiety replaces confidence. Depression may replace happiness. Research shows that students with learning disabilities experience more frustration, anger, sadness, and shame than other students do. These feelings may lead to more anxiety, loneliness, depression, and low self-esteem in students with learning disabilities compared to other students. In fact, one authority believes that these problems can be worse than the academic challenges these students face. Making matters worse is that these kids are less accepted and more rejected by peers. As compassionate as you may be, some teachers also have negative views of children with learning disabilities.

Students with learning disabilities may express their frustration in indirect ways. Robert Brooks, Ph.D., a Harvard psychologist, lists several coping strategies these students utilize. It is important that teachers not misinterpret these behaviors as defiance or laziness. Behaviors may be:

  • Quitting on tasks that are difficult or frustrating
  • Avoiding tasks because it’s safer than trying and failing
  • Rushing work to get it done as quickly as possible
  • Misbehaving to divert attention from academic work
  • Being aggressive to compensate for a sense of weakness

Here are some ideas about what to do for students with learning challenges in the first days of school:

  • Consult with other staff regarding students’ disabilities and what has and hasn’t worked for students in the past.
  • Be your “compassionate best.” These kids are not excited about resuming school. Soften their reentry with kindness.
  • Pay more positive attention and praise more often. These kids are used to getting much more negative feedback than their peers.
  • Be proactive with academic help. Rather than waiting until students fail at some task, monitor students when they begin their work to observe possible challenges. You can then offer assistance before they fail or before they engage in one of the above coping strategies.
  • Reassure parents. Parents are frequently as anxious as their children when a school year begins. Communicate early with parents to let them know you’re very aware of their child’s challenges and are prepared to help him or her.

When all is said and done, how children feel about themselves is more important for life success than academic proficiency is. It’s not from lack of academic achievement that a disproportionate number of students with learning disabilities become substance abusers and are incarcerated. These outcomes are a function of low self-esteem and hopelessness. Make patience, encouragement, and praise your new slogan for these students!

GreatSchools Staff. “Learning Disabilities and Psychological Problems: An Overview.” March 18, 2016.

Myles CooleyMyles L. Cooley, Ph.D., has been practicing psychology for over 30 years. He evaluates and treats children, adolescents, and adults for a variety of problems. Dr. Cooley serves as a consultant to schools and has presented educational programs to educators, mental health professionals, physicians, and parents.


Practical Guide to MHLD for Every EducatorMyles is the author of A Practical Guide to Mental Health & Learning Disorders for Every Educator.


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Enter to Win Resources That Support a Growth Mindset!

Growth Mindset GiveawayThis month we’re thrilled to give away resources for students and educators that support and foster the development of a growth mindset. One lucky reader will win:

To Enter: Leave a comment below telling us how you foster a growth mindset in students.

For additional entries, leave a separate comment below for each of the following tasks you complete:

Each comment counts as a separate entry—that’s four chances to win! Entries must be received by midnight, August 24, 2018.

The winner will be contacted via email on or around August 27, 2018, and will need to respond within 72 hours to claim his or her prize or another winner will be chosen. This giveaway is in no way affiliated with, administered, or endorsed by Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest. Winner must be a US resident, 18 years of age or older.

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

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Life Is a Flower Among Thorns: An Excerpt from Real Kids, Real Stories, Real Challenges by Garth Sundem

Life Is a Flower Among Thorns: An Excerpt from Real Kids, Real Stories, Real Challenges by Garth SundemThe book Real Kids, Real Stories, Real Challenges profiles kids who have overcome challenges. You might recognize Malala Yousafzai, who chose to risk death to attend school. There’s also Soosan Firooz, who broke barriers to become Afghanistan’s first female rapper and speak out about the oppression and hardship women in her country face. You’ll learn about Kelvin Doe in Sierra Leone who built his own radio station despite a lack of resources, and Kevin Breel, who speaks out about his own depression to help save lives.

To celebrate the recent release of Real Kids, Real Stories, Real Challenges, we’re sharing Jhamak Ghimire’s story here on the Free Spirit blog. After the story, you’ll find the accompanying discussion prompt from the Teacher’s Guide to the series, which you can download for free from our website and use with your students.

Life Is a Flower Among Thorns
Jhamak Ghimire

When Jhamak Ghimire was a baby, her parents brought her to local healers to try to cure her useless limbs. Her parents paid with chickens and eggs. Eventually, her parents traveled from their small village in Nepal’s rural eastern foothills to a larger town where Jhamak could be seen by medical doctors at a hospital.

Unfortunately, Jhamak’s physical challenge was not something that could be fixed by any type of medicine. Before Jhamak was born, her brain hadn’t gotten the oxygen it needed and part of her brain died. She had a condition called cerebral palsy. Cerebral palsy affects people differently. For Jhamak, it meant that the only limb she could control was her left leg.

As she grew older, it became clear that Jhamak also wasn’t able to speak. Her family assumed that meant she was unable to think as well. Many people in Nepal believe in the idea of reincarnation—that when you die, your soul or spirit is reborn into another body. Jhamak’s family saw her disability as a punishment for evil deeds she had done in a past life. To them, it was Jhamak’s destiny—her karma—to suffer. Her family thought that the best Jhamak could hope for was to die soon so that she could be reborn into an able body. They called her “the serpent” because she could only move by pulling herself across the floor with her left leg. When she did, sometimes Jhamak’s parents beat her for getting her clothes dirty.

Jhamak’s parents eventually had more children, including another daughter they named Mina. When Jhamak and Mina were young, Jhamak would pull herself close to Mina. Even though Jhamak couldn’t communicate in the traditional sense, the sisters became close.

Jhamak liked to imitate Mina. When Mina was learning how to write, Jhamak copied her movements, using her left toe to make marks in the mud of their yard. Jhamak was beaten for this too—her parents believed a superstition that writing on the ground would cause bad luck. Her family thought Jhamak’s pretend writing was nothing more than senseless scratches by a senseless girl. What was the point?

But Jhamak didn’t stop scribbling. She would use dew from the garden or rainwater that had collected in a bucket to make marks on stones—marks that would evaporate before she could be punished. One day, when Jhamak was making marks in the yard again, she realized that the marks were more than just marks. In the dust of their yard, she had written the letter “ka,” the first letter of the Nepali alphabet.

“I rejoiced by blowing dust all around with a hope that someone would see the letter and realize that a useless disabled girl like me could write. But no one did. Instead, I was beaten again for blowing dust,” she said.

With Mina’s help, Jhamak learned to make more letters and eventually to write the alphabet. She learned to combine letters into words. Mina saved her money and bought Jhamak a notebook.

In the notebook, Jhamak wrote about her life and hopes—even her dream that one day she would fall in love—and about the challenges she had faced. With Mina’s help, she started sending poems and essays to a local newspaper. Like her life, some of her writing was not happy, but it was always honest.

When she was 19 years old, Jhamak published an autobiography titled A Flower Amidst the Thorns. In the book, she described her family’s cruelty and wrote about the roles of women in Nepal. She wrote about how construction workers made a game of throwing balls of mud at her, trying to hit exposed patches of skin where her clothing had worn away. Yet despite all the bad luck, poverty, discrimination, and cruelty she had faced, Jhamak also wrote about kindness and hope. To Jhamak Ghimire, even though she had experienced terrible challenges, life remained more like a flower than a thorn.

From Real Kids, Real Stories, Real Challenges: Overcoming Adversity Around the World by Garth Sundem, copyright © 2018. Free Spirit Publishing Inc., Minneapolis, MN; 800-735-7323; All rights reserved.

For discussion, ask your students to consider the following: In this story, Jhamak Ghimire is a voice for people with disabilities. Do you think that in order to be a “voice” for a group of people, you need to be included in that group? For example, could you be a voice for people with disabilities if you don’t have a disability yourself? If you were going to be a voice for a group of people, who would it be and why?

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

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How to Prepare Your Child for Kindergarten

By Celeste C. Delaney, author of ABC Ready for School: An Alphabet of Social Skills

How to Prepare Your Child for KindergartenIn many ways, kindergarten is the most important year in a child’s education. It sets the stage for how children view themselves as students and how they view learning in general. If children start school well below the skill level of most of their classmates, they may feel bad about not knowing what everyone else seems to know, and they might conclude that they are not as smart as others. Without encouragement, they may begin to misbehave in class, avoid participating in difficult work, and give up on learning. Here are some ways to help a little one you know get ready for this big transition:

  1. Print out this skill list and check off anything your child already does consistently and well.
  2. Pick one or two skills your child does not do well yet and practice the skill or skills for a few minutes each day.
  3. While the academic skills—like knowing the alphabet, numbers, and colors—are important, children can catch up on these skills if they are prepared to learn. The social skills—like sitting quietly while the teacher is talking, following verbal instructions, and working independently for short periods—are essential to learning well. Being able to use the bathroom, get your shoes on and off, and eat independently are important in the classroom setting because the teacher may have 20 to 30 children to work with and cannot help every child with each of these skills every time.
  4. Have your child participate in a group setting, such as a play group, a tumbling class, swimming lessons, camp, or a music class for a few hours each week, if possible. This helps children get used to working in a group and following instructions from another adult.
  5. Read books together that talk about what kindergarten will be like and emphasize how much fun it will be to learn new things and make new friends.
  6. How to Prepare Your Child for KindergartenPlay games with friends or siblings that require following rules and taking turns. These games can also incorporate learning counting, colors, or shapes.
  7. Do tabletop activities every day that require the child to sit still at the table for at least 10 minutes. Examples include crafts, coloring, building with blocks, puzzles, and board games.

Learning to cooperate in a group setting can be very difficult for children. Here are some ways to help them learn this important skill:

  • Avoid using a question when there really isn’t an option. For example, “Can you put your shoes on now, please?” If the child says “no,” you’re now in a battle of wills because you gave an option. It’s better to say, “Put your shoes on now, please.”
  • Offering choices at the right time is a good way to build children’s abilities to make decisions and helps them feel they have some control. This is especially helpful with strong-willed children, but use this strategy sparingly and when it works for you. For example, “Do you want to wear the blue shirt or the red one today?”
  • Prepare children to succeed before a situation occurs. For example, maybe you’re heading to the store and know that this has been a difficult place for your child to behave appropriately in the past. Before you walk into the building, stop and say, “When we’re in the store, I want you to hold my hand and not touch anything on the shelves. If you can do this, we will get you a little treat at the end of our time here. If you don’t do this, you will not get to play that game when we get home.” The expectations are clear, and it’s now up to the child to make the decision about his or her behavior and accept the consequences. Be very specific about what behavior you expect rather than simply saying, “I want you to behave,” because that may mean very little to a young child.

Celeste DelaneyCeleste C. Delaney grew up in New Zealand, where much of life is lived outdoors. As a child, she loved playing at the beach, reading, playing piano, writing stories, and drawing. She left New Zealand after earning a degree in occupational therapy and has since lived and worked in many countries including the United States, India, Malaysia, China, and Mexico. Celeste enjoys traveling, teaching, art projects, and writing. She works as an occupational therapist with children, which challenges her to be patient and flexible and rewards her with smiles, hugs, and the joy of seeing children grow and learn. Celeste lives near Portland, Oregon, with her husband Chris.

ABC Ready for SchoolCeleste is the author of  ABC Ready for School: An Alphabet of Social Skills.

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Mindful Movement with Children

By Amanda C. Symmes, LICSW

Mindful Movement with Children When I think back to some of my favorite memories as a young child at school, I realize how many of them included “outside the box” approaches. Outside the box is a funny expression when you really think about it. And when it is applied to educational experiences for kids, I think we can imagine that the “box” is the student’s desk area. Often, learning happens in this box, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. However, many of the things that leave lasting impressions on children involve movement or other unusual activities away from that box. Let us not be afraid to venture there!

Mindful Memories
I can recall, from my elementary school years, one particularly memorable experience during music class. Our teacher had us all lie down in separate areas of the room, and she turned down the lights. Next, she ran through a short script to relax us, and she guided us to become more aware of our bodies and to begin to engage mindfully in the exercise. After this, she played an instrumental piece that had something to do with spring (as I remember it, anyway). It was at this point that the music truly came to life in my mind! I could actually visualize fields of flowers in a vibrant palette of colors and new life forming in all four corners of the earth. There were bees following behind butterflies with a radiant sun shining down on all of it. It was so cool.

The bigger impact this had on me was that the teacher encouraged us to be fully present. She wanted us to be still in our bodies and really hear and connect with the music. She facilitated a process where we each were able to do this independently, and it left a powerful imprint on me. I am so glad to have been outside the box that day.

What Does It Mean to Be Mindful?
Mindfulness is not a complicated concept, yet it can be a powerful tool. I consider mindfulness to be a conscious state of awareness. While mindfulness has garnered much attention in the last several years (likely due to its multiple benefits), it can often be misunderstood. Many folks I talk with about mindfulness think that my sunny, positive nature is mindfulness.

And yes, mindfulness plays a part in my ability to maintain this outlook. However, mindfulness is not just this. There are many times when I am, in fact, quite frustrated, and mindfulness is there to guide me through it. It helps me consciously consider what direction my thoughts have taken and why.

Mindfulness includes acknowledging whatever emotion I am feeling and allows me to honor the emotion appropriately. This involves taking stock of how my body feels in that very moment. Where am I carrying tension? Is my jaw feeling tight or is my stomach becoming upset with nerves? Mindfulness connects the mind and the body, and it does all this without judgment. Mindfulness just notices. And in the noticing, it allows us to make choices as to how we will respond.

Should We Be Teaching Mindfulness to Young Kids?
The short answer to this is YES! A more complex response is that young children are already fairly adept at using a mindful lens and often do so quite naturally. They fully lean into experiences, for better or worse. They feel their feelings genuinely and with a wide range of intensities.

However, we can and should make this tendency more intentional. We can take advantage of the fact that children are already quite mindful beings and name these habits for them. We can also validate mindfulness as an important tool for staying whole and connected with what is happening around us and more than that—being okay with what is happening.

Mindful Movement Matters
Doing mindful movement activities with children can help build up their mindfulness muscles. Plus, mindful movement can be really fun. When students are able to sit with their experiences, recognize feelings and sensations, and understand the choices available for responding, they are developing important thinking strategies and coping tools.

One of my favorite mindfulness experiences is quite simple. I ask kids to scan through their five senses and then tell me five things they see, four things they hear, three things they can feel through touch, two things they smell, and one thing they taste. I sometimes use this as an initial check-in activity to make sure kids are present in their bodies and focused in the space. I also use this activity when a student is struggling with dysregulation of some type, such as anxiety or frustration. It can be used anywhere and is a very effective tool.

To add movement to this simple scanning activity, pair it with a walk through the building or outside, encouraging students to notice these things out loud with you or a classmate. Or you can ask kids to collect this information in their minds and then later offer them a chance to share what they observed.

Mindfulness Resources
Here are some resources that can help you introduce more mindful movement into your work with children:

  • Listening to My Body by Gabi Garcia is a wonderful resource for helping kids understand the connection between physical sensations and emotions. It includes a few fun and simple mindful movement exercises to use and talk about with young kids. I particularly like gently tracing the palm with a finger and then noticing the sensation (it tickles!) and also rubbing hands together quickly for one minute and observing that sensation (it tingles!).
  • Master of Mindfulness by Laurie Grossman is another book that explores mindfulness through the eyes of kids, with a group of fifth graders helping author the book. It has plenty of interesting insights and is child-led in its approach.
  • Sitting Still Like a Frog by Eline Snel is a fantastic book for young children that teaches skills to enhance mindful awareness. It also comes with an audio CD to help guide mindful movement activities for kids and parents.
  • Mindful Games by Susan Kaiser Greenland has many practical activities to encourage mindful movement and thoughtful discussion around how mindfulness skills can be fun and helpful.
  • I cannot say enough about Yoga 4 Classrooms! Our school received training in this evidence-based curriculum, and teachers are now able to conduct yoga and mindfulness activities daily with their students. In addition, the Yoga 4 Classrooms Activity Card Deck provides lots of easy-to-use activities. It includes movement ideas to increase activity and awareness levels, as well as exercises designed to settle, soothe, and focus. I particularly enjoy the “Washing Machine” card: Students stand and let their arms “fly around them” in a rhythmic yet purposeful way, releasing anger and frustration and connecting their minds and bodies.

Mini Mindful Movement
While the resources listed above are excellent, user friendly, and well thought out, mindful movement does not have to be limited to books and structured activities. In fact, when adults are operating out of a truly mindful and present state, we are more inclined to find opportunities for mindful movement for kiddos around every corner!

Some “mini” mindful movement ideas include:

  • While walking, suggest that kids take notice of how their feet feel inside their shoes. Or observe how the surface of the terrain feels beneath their feet with each step.
  • Encourage moving around a like specific kind of animal—for example, a penguin—and notice how the body feels and how the muscles move differently than they normally might.
  • Have kids move around the classroom, find 10 things they never really noticed before, and write down some details they observed.
  • Have the class notice their heartbeats in their chests before a transition, during the transition, and then after it.

The more we can stay connected to our bodies and feelings, the more equipped we will be to tolerate and manage challenging experiences. Staying aware through mindful movement can be invaluable to our children. So while we should continue to take good care of the learning that takes place inside the box, we must also not be afraid to step out!

Amanda SymmesAmanda C. Symmes, LICSW, is a social worker currently serving as a school adjustment counselor in Haverhill, Massachusetts. She adores her work with children and is continually amazed by the talented and caring staff she is surrounded by each day. Aside from her work family, Amanda lives with her supportive husband and three kids (ages 16, 13, and 6), and enjoys spending time with them taking in all the beauty and joy in the world. She enjoys writing, knitting, laughing, walking, and using mindfulness. Connect with Amanda on Twitter @LicswAmanda and on her blog

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

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