I am a teacher of a 3 ½-year-old girl who is having a lot of trouble making routine classroom transitions. Even though it is still early in the year, she gets unusually upset when a stranger comes into the room or if there's a new assistant or graduate student. She seems to have so many fears. At my suggestion, the family recently took her to a clinician, who reported that the child suffers from an anxiety disorder. What can I do to minimize this child's discomfort and help her relax in school?

First, a cautionary word: We should be careful to avoid labeling children with the term anxiety disorder and instead simply recognize that some children have more anxiety than others. They tend to be very sensitive to sights, sounds, touch, or even movement or high places. Such a child is likely to experience anxiety when hearing a cat's meow, which to her may sound like a lion's roar, or when another child just accidentally brushes up against her. She may experience a teacher's slight look of annoyance as a major attack. So, this very sensitive child tends to intensify or magnify what for other children are routine experiences and therefore feels unusually anxious.

It's understandable that she will have a hard time changing activities, because leaving the familiar for the unfamiliar can also be a little scary. And anything that would be a little adventuresome may be overwhelming.

An anxious child faces many challenges at once, and sometimes other factors may intensify the anxiety. The child may be advanced verbally, but weaker in visual-spatial thinking, so managing big spaces like a classroom can be challenging. It's scary, too, if she doesn't quite see how all the sections of a classroom fit together to create a much-needed sense of security.

Stress can also intensify the anxiety. And it makes matters worse if the child has any problems with fine- or gross-motor skills or the ability to sequence and problem-solve.

What You Can Do

Here are a few things you can do in the classroom to help:

  • Make calming, supportive gestures. At the same time, don't fall into the trap of being overprotective, because this child needs to learn self-sufficiency and assertiveness. Remember, she is very scared of new things, so she has a hard time flexing her muscles and being assertive with others.
  • Provide soothing and nurturing care, while at the same time encouraging self-sufficiency and assertiveness. For example, if she is beginning to have a mild tantrum because she doesn't want to transition from one activity to the next, say in a very soothing tone, "Boy, I can tell you don't want to go from drawing to playing with blocks. What should we do? Everyone else is moving along. When do you think you'll be ready?" In a kind voice, negotiate with her while at the same time communicating that she needs to be ready in a minute or two and that you're going to help her move from one place to the other. The idea is to give her a little more time and prevent power struggles.
  • Look for opportunities for her to be a helper in order to encourage her independence and assertiveness. Be sure to do this when she's calm and collected and able to gain some self-esteem from being an independent leader.
  • Offer physical experiences that will gradually allow her to adapt to the sensory world around her. Allow her to adjust the volume of music in the classroom so that she can get used to the sound on her own terms. Similarly, introducing activities that require physical contact with other children can be a nice way of allowing her to adapt at her own pace; she should be in charge of the contact, becoming familiar with these sensations very gradually.
  • Engage her in games in which she has to find things, so that she can learn to negotiate her way around a large space. And if she has motor problems that cause clumsiness with sports or hinder her from drawing or making her letters, create games that allow her to practice those skills.

Finally, the most important thing the teacher can do for the anxious child is to create a very soothing, reassuring environment. This is done best through the tone of the relationship with the child. So keep your voice calm, but also warm and connected.