In my last post I described the rocky start we’ve been having as my daughter transitions to a “real” high school. It was her idea, and it is part of the larger goals she has set for herself, but her anxiety has been worse than expected. She’d had a good week previously, and I thought we were over the worst of it, but then this past week her anxiety resurfaced. It was terribly discouraging and she was beginning to doubt that she could get through this. I was worried for her: worried that if she quit she would never forgive herself, that she would lose confidence, and that it would take years for her to try again. I knew in my heart that she was ready for this step, I just had to figure out where the anxiety was coming from. So I thought about what had transpired over the last couple of weeks.
The week before had been great, but it was also rather unique. It marked the start of a new semester, a week where the school comes together for team-building exercises and lectures on basic skills (e.g., inquiry, logic, rhetoric); there are no formal classes. Each day began with a morning ritual that included a drumming circle (which she enjoyed) followed by a series of games and exercises that she found easy and fun. Importantly, the week had a predictable routine and required little from her in terms of knowing where to be next or what she should be doing because the whole school participated in the exercises together. The rules and expectations were new to everyone and clearly laid out to the group for each activity. And although she came home pleasantly exhausted, she made it through each 4-hour half-day without any trouble.
The following week, classes began. She had Mondays off, and on Tuesday she left after the first class, but she seemed mostly okay, just a bit confused (see below) and tired. On Wednesday she asked me to come get her after the first class, and she broke down as soon as she got in the car. She was terribly upset, and she refused to go back the next day. The next night she told me she didn’t want to go Friday either. I’m afraid I tried pushing her (gah! I know better than that – it never works!!) as my own feelings of worry and anxiety overcame me, which of course was the wrong move (pro tip: increasing anxiety in someone who is already anxious does NOT help!). She broke down and started saying maybe she had made a mistake, maybe she was not ready for this. That got me really worried so (after I apologized) I went to bed and thought long and hard about the situation. By the next morning my thoughts began to settle on a coherent explanation for what was going on.
I know from years of dealing with my son (who has more severe autism than his sister) that one of the most effective ways to reduce anxiety is through routine and predictability. When faced with a new situation, we engage in a process our therapist calls “front-loading”. We let our son know exactly what he can expect, which helps ease the transition to the new activity or environment. I realized that my daughter was not getting any front-loading. It’s tricky because the things you explain in the front-loading process are usually so “obvious” to neurotypical people that it can be difficult to even identify them. I thought about her first week, and how front-loading might have helped.
Her first class on Tuesday was Math. She came home not even knowing if she had been in the right classroom (and was too embarrassed to ask). She told me later she felt “stupid” because she was certain that she was far behind everybody else, which she based on the fact that everybody else seemed to “know what they were doing”. She felt utterly lost, but nobody knew it because she is so good at hiding her feelings in front of strangers (a typical trait of Aspie girls).
The next day was science class, which she was so looking forward to, but which turned out to be a review of lab safety procedures followed by a pantomime exercise which she didn’t understand. To make it so much worse, she became convinced that she had embarrassed herself in front of everybody. After that was lunch, which she had been excited about because she and her new friend were going to walk to the nearby convenience store. But she got so worked up about “making a fool of herself in class” (which I am quite certain she did not do) that she was “too terrified” to enjoy the outing (interpretation: she was a wreck thinking about how she had embarrassed herself in front of everyone).
After lunch was teacher-supported study block, but when one of the kids told her that it was a time to work on projects, she got anxious because she didn’t have a project, and the idea of sitting through an hour of not-knowing-what-to-do was just too much for her. By then she had reached the breaking point and needed to come home.
In reviewing all this (most of which I didn’t know until she told me Thursday night) I could see the perfect storm that led to her anxiety overload. My suspicions were confirmed when I met with the math teacher the next morning. I learned that because math class involves kids at different grade levels and abilities, each child works on their own curriculum. The teacher goes around to the kids helping them with their workbooks and sometimes gives talks about new concepts if a group of them are working on that. I can see why my daughter was confused about whether she was in the right place, because she was expecting a teacher standing up in front of the class lecturing. Also, the teacher had given her a workbook but she didn’t understand what to do with it, and she felt too “stupid” to ask.
No wonder she felt so lost, confused, and insecure. Had all of this been explained to her ahead of time she would have known what to expect and what to do, and that would have greatly eased her anxiety. For the science class, if she had known ahead of time she could have thought about the pantomime, I could have helped her understand what the purpose was (they were supposed to act out what not to do in the lab; it was supposed to be funny), she could have rehearsed her bit, or practiced how to politely decline.
I began to mentally berate myself: how could I forget how important it is for my kids to be front-loaded? It’s the curse of her being so high-functioning, and so capable of masking her true feelings when out socially. But I was now certain that the key to reducing her anxiety was for her to know what to expect ahead of time to a much greater level of detail than was being provided up to this point. She had to feel competent and capable, and that meant knowing what to expect and knowing how to prepare for it.
The plan I came up with was to work with her at home before each class in order to ensure she was prepared for the day. And we would also review the materials after each class so she understood what was required of her.
To pitch the idea to her, I framed it in the context of University (which she is excited about attending one day). I explained how at University (particularly in the early years of huge class sizes) you don’t really go to class to learn the material. You go to class to get the material. Then you take home your notes and handouts and you review it (i.e., you study the material). If you have questions, you book an appointment with the professor. And the really successful kids find out what the next lecture will be about, and they study the subject beforehand. So I suggested to her that we create those same habits at home. It would help ease her anxiety, and as a bonus it would help her develop good study habits.
When I told her my idea, she responded positively. Although the night before she had told me she didn’t want to go to school, she agreed to come that day for French class while I met with her math teacher to begin our new plan.
She had a great time! None of the kids have had much French (the school has been doing German as their second language for the last few years) and so she is not behind at all. The format was simple: the class reviewed words and phrases together, repeated them following an audio prompt, and they got a list of all the words and definitions. She told me that she was glad she’d gone to school, that she really liked the class, and she was invited to a get-together by her new friend and another girl! The class has a pretty straightforward format, she was able to follow along without any trouble, and she is not feeling anxious about going to the next French class on Monday (yay!). We are going to review her homework tomorrow (making flash cards using the words they learned that day – she is excited about illustrating her cards!), so that she comes prepared and confident.
For science, I’ve emailed her teacher to find out what subject will be covered next class. She and I will review the topic at home so that she has a basic understanding of the context when she arrives at class. This will help her feel less anxious and insecure. After class, she and I will review the material that was covered, research anything she doesn’t understand, and prepare for the next class.
As for Math, I brought home her workbook and explained what I’d learned at my meeting with her teacher. I could see how relieved she was when I explained the format of the class, and she was rather excited by the fact that she had her own workbook. She has the choice to work on it at home with me, or go to class and work on it there. Right now she wants to work at home, which is fine. We will go through it together until she feels more confident, and then she can attend math class at school. If she wants help with something, she can go to a math class or to the teacher-supported study block.
We are both feeling optimistic about this plan. This week she will attend for French and Science and work on her math at home. It’s only one (2-hour) class a day, four days a week, but after her big setback this past week it’s important to proceed slowly. I’m feeling confident that this new plan will go a long way to easing her anxiety levels. I promise I will keep you posted (thanks for all the lovely messages of support!), but for now both her and I are feeling very hopeful!