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Four Strategies for Helping Gifted Kids Transition Back to School

By Paula J. Hillmann, PhD, LPC

boyAll school-aged learners face some level of feeling as they prepare for another school year. For many with gifted and talented abilities, the emotional intensity of starting another school year can be very overwhelming.

If this is a topic you can relate to (whether you have a “gifted” kid or not!), read on……

For starters, many gifted kids have high energy and intense curiosity levels (think of the Energizer bunny). Sometimes this evolves into profound worry, too, if they can’t find healthy ways to cope with the upcoming changes. While the fictitious character, Sheldon, on the TV show The Big Bang Theory may seem manufactured to some, people who live and work with highly sensitive gifted kids know the Sheldon character is not so far from the truth sometimes!

Gifted children’s back-to-school excitement may be viewed by others as excessive, the behavior almost hyperactive. Their persistent questions may seem like nagging and their imagination of what will be, irrational. Their passion for learning may be disrupted and replaced by extreme fears and anxieties of going back to school. And so on, and so on… Back-to-school time may turn from one of happy excitement to one of worrisome distress and apprehension.

Yes- this is normal intensive reaction and behavior in many gifted kids. But parents ask me –Please, what can I do? How can I help my child cope?

In one of my earlier blogs Help! My Child is So Intense and Sensitive!, I referred to some tips on helping children cope with anxieties. Here are some more, this time focusing on transitioning back to school.

1. Forewarned is Forearmed

Begin having family conversations about back-to-school, using positive self-talk techniques.  In doing so, you can gradually prepare your child for the upcoming school experiences (“gradually” is underlined on purpose here!). Pay attention to what your child or teenager is saying and help him/her replace negative thoughts with more positive ones. [Some common fears: I read somewhere long ago that one of the biggest fears of kindergartners was “What do I do if I have to go to the bathroom?” For beginning middle schoolers one was “What if I can’t get my locker open?” and for girls, “What if I get my period at school?”  For incoming high schoolers, “What if I get lost in the school and can’t find my classroom?”]  Bottom line: find out what questions or anxieties your child may have, then deal with them calmly, rationally, and one slow step at a time.

2. Modeling, Imagery, and Stories

Let your child or teen know how it was for you (even if you’re given the “oh brother” look). For one, they need to know that parents are not omniscient beings who live in a world where only success exists and life is without worry. Believe me – most kids DO think life for most everyone else is a cakewalk. Perhaps some role-modeling will help – you play the kid, and he or she takes on the parent advisor role. Or have them close their eyes and imagine what the worst thing is that could go wrong. Follow this with some creative problem solving conversations. Big brothers and sisters, or trusted friends can help guide your child, too.

3. Relaxation Techniques

Three techniques that seem to work well for most kids are:

  • Deep Breathing.  (Most people ‘forget to breathe’ when they are excited – they tend to take short, shallow breaths.) Practice deep breathing with your child. Pick a quiet, private place to start. It may help your child to have one hand on his or her tummy and the other over the heart – that way a child can understand and self- monitor the importance of breathing. As a parent you can provide feedback such as “Do not push your back out” or “Do not push out your stomach” or “I like the way you are focusing on your deep breathing.” Encourage the child to practice breathing skills every day – and perhaps you can do this as a family, too?
  • Slow Breathing. Once deep breathing has been mastered, help the child or teen learn to slow down by counting and holding. For example, breath in slowly for a count of five, hold for a count of three, breath out slowly for a count of five. A variation for young children is to have the child practice blowing bubbles.
  • Progressive Muscle Relaxation. When we are stressed or anxious our muscles tighten. This can lead to physical complaints such as headaches, backaches, stomachaches, etc. The first step in progressive muscle relaxation is sitting comfortably with feet flat on the floor or reclining slightly. Begin with deep and slow breathing and gradually call attention to parts of the body, encouraging relaxation (Example: “Can you feel your feet touching the floor, at-rest on the floor?). Move on to other parts of the body. Contact me if you need help finding other ways to relax or for relaxation scripts.

4. Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety can occur at any age, so don’t think this is something only for young children. Young children may engage in behaviors such as clinginess, crying, and throwing tantrums. A teenager’s behavior usually masks the separation anxiety and may look more sullen, uncommunicative, disengaged or disinterested.  However, the fear can range from minor to extremely intense. Emotional meltdowns and/or emotionally charged refusals to go to school reflect the latter.

Tips to prevent separation anxiety include:

  • Make sure YOU are comfortable with your child’s school and communicate your satisfaction both verbally and nonverbally.
  • Have a routine or ritual planned out. Practice it and use it consistently. Example: “I will wave good-bye to you and the door, and will meet you at the door after school.” “I will text you at lunch time, and will respond for your text reply.”  By the way, I am NOT a proponent of kids carrying around cell phones so that constant communication can be maintained at all times by parents and kids. More on that another time….
  • Accompany your child to the school and stay a short period of time, indicating how short (such as “I will stay 2 minutes, wave good-bye, and leave.”) You MUST follow through on what you say!
  • After school, have a plan to communicate about happened during the day. Make sure it is a quiet relaxed time. Some children and teens prefer a private time with a parent to do this, so setting up a time and a routine to do this with your child, or with each of your children is a good idea.

Tips to deal with separation anxiety include:

  • Do not reinforce your child’s anxious behavior. This is extremely important. Do not allow your child to stay home from school unless she or he is truly sick. Do not give in to whining or crying.
  • Give your child a “transitional object,” something that fits his or her age.  A transitional object is an item given by a parent to remind the child of something loving and comfortable (examples: a small toy that fits in the backpack, a locket with a photo, a ‘lucky ring,’ or a note from a parent tucked indiscreetly into a lunch bag or pocket.
  • Forewarn the teacher or counselor or homeroom teacher of extreme anxiety, if needed.
  • If you think separation anxiety may be a challenge for your child, you may find gradual desensitization helpful.  Gradually expose your child to the feared experience while engaging in an activity that he or she enjoys and does not associate with fear. Example: Going out for ice cream and driving past the school building, chatting about the upcoming year.
  • Casual conversation (chatting) is encouraged. AVOID questioning, since asking questions tends to intensify fears and anxieties and makes things worse. 

Let your child’s or teen’s behavior guide you in providing the support they need. Parent Watch: Are they sleeping or eating well (or not)? Are they happy about school and engaged in getting ready (or not)? Behavior is kids’ unspoken language.

If you can find a SENG parent group in your area, join other parents. In these parent groups you may find the support and guidance you are seeking. See www.sengifted.org for local and regional parent group offerings.  I run small groups for gifted teens in my office; they find listening to each other’s stories comforting and affirming – look for something through your school counselor?

Image Credit: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Posted on August 29, 2012 by Paula J. Hillmann, PhD, LPC

Paula Hillmann is a professional counselor and educational psychologist who specializes in gifted education and talent development, working with children, adolescents, families, and schools in building strong and engaged partnerships. She is an advocacy coach for parents and teachers, and she guides children and adolescents in becoming mindful learners. Contact her at Advanced Learning Resources.

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Tags: *Parent Engagement at Home , Communicating, Learning environment, Parents as teachers, Social Skills

Posted August 29, 2012 by Marilyn Price-Mitchell
This article is filled with great advice! Thanks so much for sharing your expertise and experience! 


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