Dr Pooky Knightsmith

Keynote Speaker, Author & Advisor

September 22, 2022

PODCAST: School Anxiety – 5 Ideas to Help Your Child

The latest episode of my podcast is now available:

In this episode, I’m talking through five practical ideas for supporting your child if they’re anxious about going to school.


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(this transcript is auto-generated so apologies for any errors) 

Pooky Knightsmith: Well, hello, and thank you to everyone who sent me lovely comments after I did my little I’m coming back podcast the other day. Um, I am really excited to get podcasting again. So I just thought I’d kind of crack on and we’ll find our way with how this content should be. You tell me what you want. I’m really keen to get people in, get people on and to be answering some of these big questions that help us when we’re trying to help our children.

In the meantime, um, there’s a topic that has had loads and loads of shares and asks and comments and likes and stuff. Since I shared a guide on it, which was about supporting children who were anxious about the return to. Now, this is a topic that is massively close to my own heart because my two daughters Lira and Ellie both face their own challenges when it comes to school.

Um, they’ve got two different schools now they’re no longer together. Um, and both schools are in their own way doing some really brilliant things. So. We’re having a touch wood grabbing onto my desk here, a relatively smooth, uh, return to school this September. Um, it’s not been without challenge and I don’t want to assume it’s going to continue to go.

Okay. But some things are going okay. But I guess the point there is that anything I’m sharing with you here, I’m sharing. Not just as a professional who teaches about this stuff, but as someone who is desperately trying to make it work in my own house, too. To shout out to you. If you are a parent or carer listening to this, trying desperately to support your child to go to school and to maybe even like it a bit.

Well, I’m sending my love your way. It’s exhausting. We are broken in this house, but we’re getting there and there are some really great benefits to our kids making it in, and we are hearing some positives. So what I’m gonna do in this podcast, it’s just me. Uh, just me sharing five of 10 ideas that were in a guide that I published recently.

I’ll do the other five in another one if you like it, but I don’t wanna go on too long and bore you too much if it’s not a helpful thing. So I’m gonna share five. Really simple ideas, um, that can help you to help your child. So the first idea is called if then planning. This is one I share a lot and it’s one that you use loads and things like cognitive behavioral therapy.

You can use it with adults as well as with children. And the really basic idea here is that instead of when our child tells us all the worries that they might have about anything, but in this instance, Going to school. We talk to them about those worries. We hear their concerns, and then we just explore.

Well, what if that thing actually does happen? What if things do go wrong in that way, then? What could you do? So for example, a really, really common one with the return to school, um, was children getting worried that they’d get lost? So maybe they’ve gone from a little primary school that they’ve been at for years and suddenly they’re going to big school and they think they’re never gonna find their way around.

It’s really, really, really common worry. Even amongst children who are very, very confident about going to school. And so then we might say, okay, well, you know what? You might get lost. That is possible. So. If you do get lost, then what could you do? And the key thing here is when having these discussions with your child where possible be led by your child, empower them to come up with ideas for themselves about what they could do.

So you might prompt them and help them. If they’re coming back at you with a blank, but at times of calm and creativity and curiosity, then your child may well be in a position. To brainstorm this out with you and they might come up with ideas. Like I could ask a teacher or maybe I’ll be given a map and I could take a look at that.

Or I could ask another student, someone a bit older who might their way around, might know their way around, or maybe I can retrace my steps and see where I came from. Or I could go to the reception and ask people there they’ll have loads of different ideas and just prompt them and encourage them. And add your ideas if you need to.

But the key thing here is helping your child. If there’s something that’s worrying them and it’s something that might actually happen to go, okay, if that thing did happen, then what could you do now? What this does, is it empowers your child to realize that a. You are listening. You are hearing them, these worries are, are valid and real, and they will feel heard, which in itself is helpful.

But not just that, cuz that would just be like, oh yeah, these worries are big and scary and they might go wrong. Oh dear. What they want to know is, okay, these worries are real. I’m listening to you. What can we do to make that better? And having some suggestions that they’ve come up with about what to do next means that if those things do happen, then they don’t need to spiral into total panic, because they’ve got a bit of a cry sheet, a bit of a list, things they could do, things they could try.

If your’re particularly worried about some of these situations that your child might go into kind of fight flight freeze mode and not be able to remember the things that they’ve discussed with you, you could. Down. They could have a little list. They can carry it with them in order to prompt them. And if you need to go even a step further than that, perhaps your child’s got special or additional needs and you think they need that extra input.

Then we might be sharing some of those ideas with another trusted adult who might be supporting them. So if then planning, if this goes wrong, then I could, and you could do this for lots and lots of different scenarios. Second idea. Number two is one of my favorites. I seem to say this about everything.

Every idea was one of my favorites, but then if they weren’t, I wouldn’t share them. Um, and this one of my favorites is tiny steps. So one of the things that we hear about all the time when we’re thinking about supporting children, working with children is that we should aspire really high let’s aim really high for them and help them to achieve their very, very best that they can.

Our children will live up to our aspirations. Down to our aspirations. And whilst, you know, I’m all for all of this, when you’ve got a very frightened child, who’s very, very anxious about things. And perhaps they feel a bit hopeless and a bit Fey and like they can’t do anything. And the idea of aiming really high is just terrifying for them.

Terrifying for us all feels a bit unlikely. So rather than aiming really high, I’m a massive fan of Dini, Dini, tiny. Tiny aims steps. So small that your child is like, um, obviously I can do that. You fool, that’s kind of where we’re pitching this. So the child who has not been to school for ages, I use this example all the time.

So sorry if you had it before, but the child who hasn’t been to school for ages, who’s too anxious to go to school rather than saying, okay, let’s try and get you in for a full week. By the end of term, we would be saying something like, eh, I wonder if you could just like. Pop on your blazer for 10 minutes at home where you feel safe and then just take it off again.

And that’s that. Or I wonder if we could just go and sit in the car or stand outside the school at the weekend when it’s really quiet and there’s no kids around and there’s no. You know, chance that someone, you know, is, is kind of gonna be there. You’re not gonna have to go in, could you just be outside for a moment, like really tiny steps, steps that your child feels they can achieve and you can talk to them about what that step might be now.

That sounds hard because if you take a tiny step, you’re gonna have to take a lot of them. But what we find is that we kind of really empower our child when we do this and we create what I call I can cycles. So you’ve probably got a child here who feels, I can’t, they spend a lot of time living with failure, managing the things that they can’t do, feeling like they’re letting people and themselves down.

None of this is true, but this is often what they’re internalizing. And what we need to do is to remind them that. Can so we wanna create tiny, tiny steps, and each time they take a tiny step and they succeed in doing it, then they get this message, this internal message that I can. I did that. I managed it and it might be a tiny step, but once they’ve taken that tiny step, then they’re just that little bit further ahead.

And they’re able to think about taking the next. Tiny step and the next tiny step. And before we know it, lots of those teeny tiny steps can actually add up into like a giant leap, but the better thing about the tiny steps, adding up to the giant leap than somehow finding it a way to make the giant leap is that there’s a lot less ful because if one of.

Tiny steps. We go backwards or there’s a weekend or a holiday, or I don’t know, something kind of messes with things a little bit and they feel unable to do those most recent steps. They’re not gonna fall right back. They’re not gonna fall all the whole distance of that giant leap. They’re just gonna fall back a few steps and we’re gonna pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off and remind ourselves that we took those tiny steps before.

So we can probably do it again. So there’s never so far to fall and it’s much more possible to pick ourselves back up. So. Tiny steps are a really good and positive. Alongside our tiny steps and our I cans comes ID number three, which is an I did it jar. It doesn’t have to be a jar, but basically some way of noting, celebrating tangibly tangibly.

Is that a word? Physically showing a child, the things that they have done. So we’re gonna celebrate these successes. We’re gonna write them down or we’re gonna draw them, or we’re gonna put them in Sharpies on pebbles or whatever. We’re gonna physically have them present in our lives to show our child all the things.

They have succeeded in. So remembering this is a child who might have really low self-esteem, might feel much more I can’t than I can. Let’s show them the things that they have done that they can do now. Um, a jar can work really well. Um, you might write these things on kind of post-it notes or slips of paper and put them in the jar.

You might sharpen them on little pebbles and put them in the jar. You might have marbles that represent these things and pop them in the jar, but it’s something that the child. Can see, um, it is nice if you’re able to physically record what they’re doing so that they can, uh, revisit the things that they’ve done and remind themselves, this can help to boost confidence.

Particularly if there has been a little slip back or a break or a holiday or something, um, you don’t have to do it in a jar. You might make a poster. You might have a list. You might have an Excel spreadsheet. It’s okay. Whatever works for you and your child is the best. The best way is always whatever works for you and your child, but just think together about what might be a way of recording this, of keeping this.

Now, this is also selfishly kind of a good thing for us as the adult supporting two, because sometimes we can get a little bit lost in this and we can begin to lose hold of that hope and begin to think this is all a bit hard. So being able to look back and go, ah, wait a minute, our child did do this.

They can, they can. That’s super helpful. As well as for our child whose self-esteem, it will. Number four, we’re doing five today. So we’re, we’re getting there. We’re getting there. Number four today is to use your child’s motivations. Now this is really crucial when we are looking at overcoming big things with our children and they’re gonna have to work really hard because when you’re anxious and you’re having to do the things that scare you.

That’s hard. That’s really, really hard work for our child. And so we need to make sure that they’re motivated to do that hard work that they want to, that there’s something in it for them. And the way not to do that is to layer this over with a whole bunch of adult motivations. So to say to our child, you know, right.

Well, let’s try and get you into school because I’d really like you to achieve, you know, a string of GCSEs and to be successful in life or to, you know, these. Big aims that matter to us. And, and they do matter. Of course they matter. We want our child to succeed. We want them to make friends. We want them to be socially accepted and to be able to thrive and to engage with things that enthrall them.

And there’s so many, many really good motivations that we have about our child going to school. But what we’ve got to remember is they don’t care, but they might care about other things. They might care about the fact that. They’re in a class with Emily this year and they really like Emily and they quite like to hang out with Emily in first break under that tree in the corner of the playground, which is their favorite place to go, where they go.

And they talk about their favorite TV show that might motivate your child in school. Or perhaps they really, really like that particular learning support assistant who does the funny writing activity with them. And they get to use the wobble cushion and the funny pencil. And actually they quite like that and they feel a.

Succeeding in those sessions with that really, really nice member of staff, and maybe that’s, what’s gonna motivate them in, or maybe it is the slime making club that some innovative member of staff are set up on a Thursday, lunchtime, and they just can’t wait to get to slime making club. And that’s what it’s all about for them.

Or perhaps it’s the kick about with the football in the playground on a lunchtime and they wanna get out there doing that. It, it doesn’t matter what your child’s motivation is. It will often seem really small and really insignificant when you are going, I’m trying to improve your life chances, darling.

So that life will be good and successful. And yada, all that is great and well done. You well done us for wanting those things for our child, but do you know what if they just wanna go in so they can see the school dog, and that is what enables them to do the hard stuff and overcome the anxiety. Tap into that motivation.

Forget your own for a while. Both motivations, yours and theirs get the same outcome in the end. So tap into your child’s motivations. They’ll seem really small. They’ll seem really insignificant to you, perhaps, but if it was, if it’s what works for your child, use it to your advantage. Look at this through their lens, use that to get them into.

And then finally, number five, that I’m gonna share with you today, about things you can do to help if your child’s really anxious about school is three good things. Now the idea of three good things, and it doesn’t have to be three. This is just a habit I’ve gotten into, and there’s a hope. Bunch of evidence based that I could bore you about another time, about the benefits of positive, proactive journaling daily, yada yada.

But the key thing here is where we’ve got a child who’s really negative about school. What we wanna try and do is change that narrative. So if we are asking questions about, so how is school today? How did it go? The child who’s self-esteem is low who’s very NA uh, anxious or low will always. Almost always come back with the negatives first, because this probably feels like a largely negative experience for them.

Um, and that’s the kind of mental filter that will be applied even if 95% of the day was good. If your child of a certain mindset and. Things have been going a certain way for them generally, it’s really hard for them to find those positives. So we’ve gotta try and actually change that narrative and really help to change that mental filter by focusing in on the good bits.

So this is about specifically hunting. Every day, even if we gotta hunt really hard at first for the good. So we’re gonna hunt for the good, and we’ll be asking our child questions. Like, can you tell me about three little things that were really good today? And they don’t have to be big things. They don’t have to be things that are like specifically about school.

Maybe it was that their friend made them laugh at break time, or the teacher did something funny or there was something. Interesting that they learnt today, or they really liked how the, um, materials they were using in their art lesson felt in their hands. Like it could be anything, but what we’re doing is we’re trying to help our child to see the positives that we’re in this day, that this might have been a hard day.

It might be a day that’s left and very tired, but they’re worse. Some positives in this day when we do this regularly, like each day search for these little nuggets of joy. Then the lens through which our child, and we start to see the school day and the world in general actually genuinely begins to change.

If you try and get in a habit of it, you will see how it begins to change. Because if you do this every day and you have these kinds of conversations with your child and share your good things with them too, inspire them, let them know you are looking for the good in every day as well. When we start doing this every day, you’ll find that you and your child will start collecting these little good.

Um, and you’ll want to be talking about it at the end of the day. It’s just a really lovely kind of ritual to get into. And it really does help to change that negative narrative, which can be so hard to break the cycle of. So break it with routine, break it with ritual, break it through tiny, tiny, tiny steps each day.

So there you go. Your five things that we’re thinking about today in terms of supporting your child, who might be anxious about school, just to recap your, if then planning, if this happens, then I could, you’re gonna brainstorm it out with your child. Number two, tiny steps. We’re gonna break those goals down into really, really tiny aims that our child feels are so ridiculously.

Ops, they can do it. Tiny, tiny steps. Then number three, we’re gonna collect those things that they did do those tiny steps. And we’re gonna keep them in a jar or write them on a poster. We’re gonna have an, I did it jar or an I can poster and we’re gonna show them physically have a record of those successes to remind our child.

I can. Number four. We’re gonna think about things from our child’s point of view. And we’re gonna think about what motivates them to do the hard stuff. We are not gonna be led by our adult motivations. We’ll keep them in the back of our mind, but we’re gonna let our child dictate what happens here and tell us why they want to be going to school and why this is a good thing for them.

And finally, we’re gonna try and address that negative narrative by looking for three good things each day. We’re gonna focus in on the positives at the end of each day with our child, hopefully some helpful things to take away there. Um, as ever feedback, let me know what you want. Ask me your questions.

Tell me what you want more on. Tell me the things that you are struggling with and tell me what you want from me, both in terms of written guides, in terms of videos in. Podcasting. I’m always up for hearing your ideas and I’m super, super keen to help you in whatever way it feels most helpful. And if you’ve seen other good stuff out there and you wanted me to tap into those things, to share those ideas, to get those people on the podcast order, whatever.

Just tell me, tweet me at Pooky H jump onto Facebook. Chat with me on Patreon, chat with me wherever. Let me know what you want. Good luck. This is hard. If you’re listening to this because you have a child who’s struggling to attend school. You’re not alone, we’re in this together. And I think that’s important to remember.

It is really hard and you’re probably really, really tired. So as well as those five things, please try to do what you can to make just a little bit of space and time for yourself. It’s tiring and you cannot do this. Looking after yourself too. I will link in the show notes for this podcast, to the guide with 10 ideas about supporting your child’s, um, anxiety as their return to school.

And I’m also going to link to a guide, which is about self care ideas for busy parents and carers. And I would urge you to please think about her. And I look at that and seeing if there are some ideas there that might help you, because it’s great that you’re trying to support your child, but you must first support your.

Otherwise you’ll break. Okay. Until next time. Thank you for listening. I look forward to working with you further and good luck over and out.

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