Anxiety happens to everyone and it is normal. However for children with learning differences and learning difficulties it happens more often for them, especially in certain circumstances such as at school, when having to read and write and some social situations.
Learning stress relates to anxiety and low self esteem.
In this section we consider anxiety and the impact it has on learning.
- Why the brain goes “offline”
- What we can do to get our brains back “online”
- How to look out for situations that make our brain go “offline”
Why the brain goes “offline”
Anxiety and worry about learning can have a big impact on how children are ready for learning. When a person becomes anxious a chemical, cortisol, is released into the brain and we go into fight, flight or freeze mode. When we are like this the brain effectively “goes offline” and doesn’t go back “on line” until the chemical, cortisol, has reduced. Everyone can feel anxious however children with learning difficulties have a lot of anxiety around their learning.
They can worry about:
- will I get the answer right if the teacher asks me?,
- how will I go with the paired reading?,
- can I write fast enough to keep up? or
- will I understand the instructions from the teacher?
What we can do to get our brains back “online”
Parents can show the children how to firstly get their brain back on line and then manage the situations that normally take their brain off-line.
When a brain goes “offline” a person can help get it back on line by tummy breathing. Practice this to get it right – it’s when we breathe in through the nose and at the same time our tummy pushes out with the air coming in. This means we are breathing deeply. Other techniques include squeezing play dough, or blowing bubbles. The tummy breathing and play dough can be used quietly by the children in the classroom so no one needs notice – blowing bubbles not so much!
How to look out for situations that make our brain go “offline”
When we become anxious or worried about something, like
- reading out loud,
- getting started writing a story, or
- giving a speech
we can do things to help reduce how much our brain goes offline.
When we get anxious usually there is a feeling in the body that helps us to know that our brain may go offline. These feelings are different for different people and can include:
- Sweaty hands
- Butterflies in the tummy
- Needing to go to the toilet
- Lump in the throat
- Wanting to cry
Helping your children to be aware of these feelings will start to help them know when their brain may go offline. To help feel better they can do the tummy breathing, squeeze play dough or blow bubbles. We can also normalize the feelings and talk about what is happening “That cortisol has made your brain go off line – what can you do to get back on line?”.
Key differences between anxious and calm learners
This table adapted from Turula (2002) illustrates some key differences between anxious learners and calm learners.
Written by Chris Cole, 9 May 2017
This information does not replace information from a qualified professional and if you are concerned about heightened anxiety in your child please see your doctor.