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!

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

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