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Preventing and Reducing Classroom Stressors

Caregiver Behaviour and Expectations

As caregivers, the things we say and do, our behaviour and our expectations can sometimes contribute to a child’s anxiety. Working to build and maintain safe, comfortable, predictable, positive relationships with each child can prevent and reduce anxiety.

Here are some things to consider in your daily interactions:

  • Have appropriate expectations for each individual child – When setting your expectations take into consideration each child’s age, developmental level and learning style. It is a good idea to keep at least one goal in mind for each individual child to focus on during curriculum planning and throughout the day. For example, Jimmy is learning to cut with scissors. He is easily frustrated trying to hold the paper and cut at the same time. You decide to give him narrow strips of heavier paper for cutting practice. He very quickly has success in cutting through the strips with one snip!
  • Follow the child’s lead – Plan activities that capture the child‘s interests and abilities. For example, plan activity circles about bugs after noticing the children showing an interest in bugs outside. For a child with a more narrow selection of interests, such as trains, try using that interest to build a program theme that will encourage greater participation in a variety of activities (e.g., “Let’s join the train for circle!”)
  • Provide opportunities for children to have individual attention from a responsive adult – Even a few minutes of individual attention each day will show a child that they are listened to, are special and that you are happy that they are there. Try to make use of times when the numbers are lower, such as early morning or late afternoon, or ask a child to help you with classroom tasks, such as setting the table or cleaning paintbrushes. This will give you an opportunity to talk and spend individual time with a child.
  • Create a welcoming environment – Greet and welcome each child as they enter the room. This will help to strengthen your relationship with each child and their family in a positive way. This will also help you to understand and respond to how the child may be feeling that day. For example, Megan is usually very happy to come to child care. This morning she clings to her father and cries. Her father tells you that Megan had a hard time waking up this morning. You get down at her level and say, “It seems like you’re feeling sad. Come sit with me in the book corner and we’ll read your favourite book.”
  • Keep consistent routines – The more consistent your daily routine, the easier it is for children to anticipate what will happen next and make sense of the day. This predictability may help children cope with stressors. One method of creating consistency is to follow a schedule where the daily events occur in the same order but the types of activities can change. Posting your schedule visually, at the children’s level, may help each child know what to expect and prepare for changes.
  • Give warnings for transitions – Inform the child when there will be transitions or changes in the daily schedule. For example, provide a visual cue like turning the lights off to indicate that a change is coming and say, “Two more minutes, then circle time”.

Organizing the Environment

How a room is organized can either increase or reduce a child’s anxiety. Planning the room set up, selection and organization of materials can work to reduce overall classroom anxiety.

The following are some suggestions to make the best use of space in your classroom.

  • Create well defined play areas – Classrooms that have all the shelves and tables against the walls and large open spaces may encourage an increase in activity level, such as running. This may lead to anxiety in other children who are engaged in more purposeful play. For example, Jimmy is building a large block tower and becomes anxious and upset every time Suzy runs past. Try to break up the room into designated play areas using shelves, tables and other furniture.
  • Consider the size and function of each play area – Make sure each area is large enough for children to play comfortably. Areas such as dramatic play or the block centre require more space than areas designed for quiet activities. Remember to provide quiet spaces for children who need a space to relax, rest, or think.
  • Consider the location of each play area – Put areas that compliment one another closer together. Try to keep quiet areas and louder, busier areas apart, giving children the opportunity to choose a calmer, quieter area when needed.
  • Use visuals to reinforce play area expectations – Post visual pictures in each area to help remind children what the area is used for and how many children can be in that area at once. For example, if the book centre is also used for calming and relaxation, post a picture that indicates that this is a quiet area, such as person with their finger to their lips.
  • Reduce clutter – Keeping the room tidy and clearing away unnecessary clutter may reduce visual stimulation and help children find what they need more easily. Using picture labels on bins and shelves can also help to organize the materials, thus providing more structure and consistency.

Keep Sensory Stimulation at Moderate Levels

Children who have sensory processing difficulties may experience anxiety when their environment is providing too much or too little sensory information. Keep in mind that what is tolerable to us may not be for a child with sensory processing difficulties. The following are some suggestions to ensure sensory stimulation is kept at moderate levels:

  • When possible, utilize natural lighting and avoid overly bright lights.
  • Keep noise levels to a moderate level, including background sounds such as a constantly playing radio or loud, ticking clock.
  • Maintain a regular speaking voice in both volume and tone.
  • Use unscented cleaning products.
  • Provide opportunities and space for both movement and stillness throughout out the day.
  • Reduce active play or anything that is too stimulating during times of high anxiety or when the children are overly boisterous and need help to calm down, such as at nap time.
  • Lower the lights and play quiet soothing music.
  • Create “escape” tasks for children who need to leave the room. Use them before the child experiences difficulties.

If you notice that a child seems to be trying to block out sensory stimulation or seeking sensory stimulation, consult a professional such as an Occupational Therapist for suggestions.

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