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Pediatric Therapy Corner: Don’t Forget the Bricks for Back to School

By: Cat Lichtenbelt
Copyright 2011. Reprinted with the express permission of Sensory Flow as it appeared on their website August 11, 2011

Editor’s Note:  This article was written for parents, but we are including it on our blog because we thought it might be something worth sharing with the parents/guardians of your kiddos.

The year is starting again, a new school year around the country. School supply lists and back to school bargains are in every corner of our lives, even if you homeschool! Back to school means back to stress!

Many children who deal with developmental issues are stressed out. They will be even more stressed once school starts, even before. School creates demands that many children are not able to meet. They know this. They know this as you shop for pencils and backpacks. As they try on those backpacks, they are already loaded down with pressure, as if they come loaded with bricks. Bricks of worry and frustration, they weigh them down. It is invisible, unless you know what to look for.

The invisible issues at school are the constant bombardment of stress on a child. The saying goes to put on your sensory glasses, you also need to put on that backpack as well. The happy talk that goes with preparing to go back to school is also forewarning your child that they are about to go back to an environment that is overwhelming. They can’t escape it.

What are your child’s challenges? Is a classroom and school a place of calm and peace, or is it a place of confusion and frustration? Even after you’ve gone to the IEP and 504 meetings, your child has had experiences where they were overwhelmed, and they remember that!

Those bricks in his backpack are all the times she has failed to meet the demands of school. The social expectations, keeping up with the work, concentrating on the task at hand, all are part of her stress she is starting to feel as you go down that school supply list

  • Pencils (handwriting issues)-check.
  • Notebooks (organizational skills problems)-check.
  • Glue (sticky messy projects that gross me out)-check.
  • Wide Ruled paper (visual spatial problems)-check.
  • Erasers (making too many mistakes)-check.
  • Tissues (all the crying and allergies)- check.
  • Dry Erase Markers (vision problems . . oh the vision problems!)-check.
  • Binders (homework I don’t understand, and losing it or forgetting it!)-check.

The list goes on and on. Each of these items will weigh twice as much for a child who struggles to maneuver through school. They see back to school as back to struggles. This is stress for your child. They are building it up as each day passes, getting closer and closer, losing more and more tolerance. They can’t escape it, those bricks weighing them down.

Siblings fighting, bed times getting harder, simple household demands becoming dramatic explosions at your house. They are crying out that they are stressed and all this back to school talk is too much to handle. Just know this. Help them feel that they can come to you and express when they are overwhelmed. They will not come and say, “mom, I’m overwhelmed”. Their behavior will tell you. I can’t get to sleep, or won’t, because they are afraid of tomorrow. They will fight with a sibling, they feel out of control. Lack of stress tolerance comes in a package of rage. How does your child look in Fight, Flight or Flee mode? What are they really fearing?

Your child is trying to behave as you demand, as school will demand. Yet a part of their brain takes over from fear, brought on by stress. They cannot control it, the Adrenalin is already pumping out. This part of their brain is disconnected from the logical part. Their behaviors will surprise and frustrate you. This is how they express what they cannot control. They are stressed, they can’t escape it.

Those behaviors are not under their powers. They try to suppress the urges coming from their need to protect themselves. At some point the stress will override what little behavior control they have, and we see the symptoms in their behaviors. You know your child can and will behave. You see them at home and in situations that you are with them. These times, these situations, these environments are compatible with their stress tolerance and ability to handle things. They are not stressed, not fearing the unpredictable. They behave as you expect. They are calm, their behaviors are under their control, they can behave because their brains are operating in the right mode. When they are stressed, they cannot control their behavior and then behavior becomes a symptom of their fear and worrying. This is stress, they can’t escape it.

School will see these symptoms, when they are thrust into a world a fear and frustration. They can’t escape it, but they try. This is what got you to those IEP and 504 meetings in the first place. Yet, as caring adults, we miss the point. We are missing the problem. The problem is stress, not just a diagnosis. Your child might be covering his ears because of too much noise in music class. He may also have been unable to concentrate an hour before because he was worrying about music class coming up in an hour. How was his lack of focused handled? did the teacher tell him to stay on task? She missed the point. What are the symptoms of your child’s development issues, and what are the symptoms of stress? They might look similar, but they are not the same.

A good majority of the behaviors seen at school are more about stress. The teachers are so kind to help a child who has transition problems by going over the schedule. Is this transition a problem because as we end one session we get closer to another, problem session? They are more aware then we give them credit for. They can’t escape it, the bricks are on their back and building pressure as the hours pass.

The awareness your child has about situations they want to avoid is very complex. The schedule dictates what comes after each session, each activity. Each day a child is at school this schedule is more routine than not. Once the routine is established, a symptom of worrying can appear earlier in the day (even the night before = bed time problems). They may have had a bad experience at the library. Each day that is library day, that child will lose control of his behavior as he worries about library time. He may want to extend an activity because he enjoys it and it prolongs the time before he gets to the stressful situation, library time. Typically the solution is to give that child many warnings that the activity will end soon. Sometimes this is helpful. Sometimes it is just telling him over and over that impending doom is around the corner! How do you avoid a stressful situation? What about when that schedule is disturbed, will the activity I struggle with come sooner? Will there be something else worse? They can’t win either way, they can’t escape.

Of course they are going to act out; they want to avoid library time! This is a symptom, a symptom of stress. They do not have control over their behavior at this point, their tolerance is none and they will try to escape the situation.

It is best to treat the fear of what the worry is about. This means finding what creates the stress that is seen as behavior. It seems most teachers concentrate on the behavior at hand. Trying to teach a child to control their behavior is the same has trying to open a locked door; you don’t have a key you won’t get in!

Finding the cause of the stress, what is this child worried about, is hard work. It takes time and patience. Teachers are not allotted much of this in the day. It will take a team, a behavior guideline that includes dealing with symptoms as symptoms, not bad choices. A child is not in control of his choices when they fear something. They also are unable to communicate what they fear, they might not know it on a logical level, but their defensive brain will.

Fear is worry, worry is stress, stress intolerance is (bad) behavior.

Encourage your child’s teacher to learn this too. To know that when they see a symptom of bad behavior, there is a bigger picture, more to the story of that problem. When they choose to punish a child for symptoms, they are sending that child a negative message. The message is just stating what the child already knows, they can’t handle themselves. If a child misbehaves it is because they are unable to handle the stress/situation/demand that is placed on them. The demands are incompatible with their skills. They do not know how to deal with the stress that is before them, they go into fear mode. Their brain’s fear center takes over and thus the behavior is seen.

For children who have Sensory issues, or Autism Spectrum Disorders (who also have Sensory issues) for example, They are dealing with every minute frustrations. Everything can be a struggle, communication, body awareness, social maturity, spatial awareness, hypersensitivities. . . Now put them in a classroom. POOF! A cocktail for stress. Not all your child’s behaviors will be a symptom of his diagnoses, but his diagnoses will be part of the stress that creates many of the behaviors that he displays.

At home a parent is a great resource to helping your child develop skills. When your child comes home from a difficult day, it would be great to say, “wow that sounds like a hard day, I wonder what you were worried about at school”. This could open the doors, or at least get them to question the incident. When your child is having a hard time falling asleep, ask her about her worries, encourage her to strengthen neurological bonds between her logical brain and her protective brain. She will need practice in a safe environment to do this. Helping your child realize that worry is a hard thing to keep to themselves can increase their stress tolerance by learning to communicate her feelings and understand her emotions. She can learn to override her protective instincts, it will take time. When they can learn to talk about things that worry them, even if you cannot change the outcome, expressing the worry gives them support to deal with it. Helping them gain control over verbal communication will decrease their stress. Help them learn that they can escape it, through communication. It is also important that in a state of fear, they may perceive a situation as a threat when it is not (Forbes, Heather T.). What might not look stressful to you might be very scary to them.

It is important to find a staff member that will be available for your child to communicate with. Sometimes they just need to see that staff member and know that if they need them, that staff member is available. A child who knows they have a safe place will need it less as they learn what causes them worry and fear. Help your school create stress buddies, friends who can take a walk with or sit and read with when times are overwhelming.

Teach your child what overwhelming is, give them vocabulary and encourage them to express stress as levels. A great resource is the CAT Kit. A great kit for schools to help kids express slight changes in their stress levels. Visualizing that 0-10 scale can be a powerful tool for both the child and those learning to ‘teach’ the child how to deal with stress.

Help your child and the staff at school know that bad behavior is a symptom of a bigger problem. Encourage them to adopt different behavior programs that look at the psychology of stress rather than demand incompatible results with children’s emotional maturity. Just like children learn to read at different levels, so do they learn to deal with stress differently. Some kids come to school stressed out, loaded down with bricks, little things will be too much.

Help remove bricks from the backpacks and the days will be more productive for all.

Our Featured Author / Organization:Cat Lichtenbelt and

About the Author: Cat’s background is in Biological Science and Nursing. Her areas of medical interest are concentrated in ER and Hematology. As a homeschooling Mom of 2 unique learners, Cat has recently spent her energy learning all she can about Sensory issues. With the help of a very passionate OT she strives to promote and advocate information about Sensory Processing Disorder worldwide. She and her family reside in Colorado where they enjoy exploring near home and also abroad.

About Sensory Flow:  Sensory Flow is dedicated to promoting and advocating credible information about Sensory issues. It is now a resource for parents, teachers and health care professionals. Many resources from around the country have been highlighted on SensoryFlow. Through articles, Podcasts and videos information can be shared in a form fitting any reader. has had the pleasure of being a resource around the world, always looking to connect the professionals with those who care and work with Sensory issues.

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