Just Needs Podcast: Episode 52

Back to school anxiety tips with Julie McIsaac

This week we’ve got back to school anxiety tips from Julie McIsaac, Learning and Mental Health Consultant.

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Christina Kozik: Hello and welcome to Just Needs, a podcast where we talk about parenting children with disabilities. I’m your host, Christina Kozik, and I’m so glad you’re here. This podcast is a project of Exceptional Lives, a nonprofit organization that supports families like yours. You can learn more about Exceptional Lives at our website, www.exceptionallives.org.

Hi, friends. This week I have another great interview for you. Today I’m talking to Julie McIsaac, PhD. Julie specializes in early childhood development, with a focus on development and learning disabilities and mental health. Listeners, you’ve definitely heard me share some of Julie’s work here on this podcast, so I’m so excited to have her live and in person with us today. Welcome, Julie.

Julie McIsaac: Thank you, Christina. I am so happy to be here, connecting again with Exceptional Lives.

Christina Kozik: Yes, yes. As I’ve said, you were a part of the Exceptional Lives team for a long while, and so we have a lot of your great work that we have been able to put out here on the podcast. 

I think one of my favorite pieces, is this piece that you did about introducing your child to their teacher. I really loved that framework. While you’re here with us today, I definitely wanted to talk about back to school, but before we do that, I have a question. 

What is a learning and mental health consultant and what do you do?

Julie McIsaac: Good question. I answer this question quite a bit. Learning and mental health consultant in my role, is taking those two pieces, which we all think about all the time as parents. We’re thinking about our child’s learning, we’re thinking about their mental health, and of course, there is an incredible amount of overlap.

I work with families and students and young children, to help connect those two pieces of a child’s world. What is going on with school? What is going on with home? How can we support both or one to contribute to the other? Because as we know, if a child is struggling at home, that seeps into school. They’re not separate.

Christina Kozik: Absolutely.

Julie McIsaac: In terms of a person cannot be separated between those things. That’s what I like to think about, is how do we support a child’s overall emotional health in the learning environment at school and at home?

Christina Kozik: No, that’s great. That reminds me of when my son was younger, and I’ve shared this before on the podcast, but we entered the special ed realm through something here in Louisiana called Child Find. He was already too old for early intervention, and we were having a lot of issues at daycares and preschools and things like that. We didn’t know where to go, where to turn.

He had gotten to the point where he didn’t want to go to school because he felt like he was a bad kid. While he was a super smart kid, he wasn’t learning. He was falling behind and behind and behind, and it’s because he had this negative connotation with school. Knowing that people like you are out there is great, because we could have really used someone like you a few years back.

Julie McIsaac: Yeah, yeah. That’s how this role evolved is because this is my interest professionally. My evolution of my career has brought me more toward parent work, but that’s heavily influenced by having my own children and their needs. That’s it, is if your child is in distress emotionally having any mental health concerns, challenges, extra stress, the learning is much harder, takes a back seat.

If you are in distress, if you’re in stress mode, your frontal lobe, your executive function, your capacity to take in information is incredibly hindered. I think that’s something that came out of the pandemic a bit, actually. As we shifted to acknowledge in a larger sense, if we don’t think about mental health, we’re not really thinking about learning in the big picture. We need to support one to support the other.

Christina Kozik: Right, right. Definitely. Well, that leads me into my next question, which is, so for some of us, we’ve already started back to school. For some others, we’ll be going back to school very soon and so I wanted to talk about back-to-school anxiety.

I wanted to see if you have some tips or tricks that could help parents and caregivers deal with that anxiety that kids may be having. 

What are some behaviors that parents and caregivers might be seeing that let us know their child is having anxiety?

Julie McIsaac: Okay, good question. What are the cues? What are you looking for that may indicate, “Okay, my child is struggling“? Whether your child has already started or is about to start, I think my advice is assume there is some anxiety. I think if we turn inward and look at our own selves, Christina, you and I were just chatting briefly before the podcast and logistics are a challenge.

Logistics about where is the school? How is he getting there? Are they with their friends? Is the support in place? What’s happening with the IEP? There are lots and lots of questions that as parents, we’re thinking about before school and the beginning of school because sometimes things change last minute. I think that assuming our child is feeling that stress in some way, helps us meet whatever behavior they’re bringing with some extra compassion.

The reason I think in this period of time, if we can anticipate this is going to be a time of higher stress, and in doing so, we’re assuming they’re feeling some anxiety. If we meet that with compassion, if we’re wrong, they get a little extra compassion. If we’re right, if we’re right, then they get that need met and so we’re setting them up for a bit more success. 

In terms of the behaviors that we can look for, I think that that’s where doing things like listening to this podcast or taking a minute and looking at, brainstorming, I’m a very visual person, so I like to have things written down.

Even just to think about what has worked in the past during moments of high stress, during moments of big transition, during different life events that have happened, what has helped your individual child? Let’s go back and think about that. You may need to amp up. 

A child I saw last week, had gone through a whole sensory program for occupational therapy, getting lots and lots of supports. The family had moved through, they graduated and felt like, “Okay, great. We did that and we’re moving on to this other thing now.” But there was some stress, a stressful situation that came up, and the child was starting to show some behaviors that indicated they were seeking that sensory. They needed that comfort. 

That’s what I want you to think about is what is comfort for your child? Is it extra cuddle time? Is it super structured things? Making sure that just amping up the structure at home.Is it simplifying things like stretching out bedtime? Making sure that meals are a little easier to take in. 

Whatever it is for your child, how do we amp the comfort, reduce the stress, and just assume this is a period of higher stress, which is anxiety, or which can lead to anxiety for our kids who may lean in that direction anyway.

Christina Kozik: Yeah. I know for us, so my son transitioned to a new school this year. He’s been at his previous school, he was there for four years. One of the things that we noticed, he kept asking is, “Can I drive by the new school again?”

Julie McIsaac: Absolutely.

Christina Kozik: “Can I drive by the new school? Can we see the school?” We would drive by, but of course, the schools are locked up, it’s summer. It’s not like we could even drive through the parking lot for this particular school. We would drive by and he could see the side of it and the playground area. That helped and it didn’t make any sense to me, but it was this thing that he kept asking to do. We were trying to respect that and we figured, “Okay. This is some way that he’s processing going to this new school, so let’s go ahead and help him with that.” 

Then the other thing that we noticed starting last year as he went into fourth grade, so last year there was more expectations from him as a student. We noticed in years past, he’d get off the bus and the first thing we’d ask him as he walked in the door is like, “How was your day? Tell me what you did.” We noticed last year, that would just create a huge meltdown. 

Now, we try to give him some space right as he comes in. We’ve noticed that he’ll tell us, he’ll just tell us, “Hey, I had a great day, or I had this kind of day.” Then we’re like, “Okay.” We talk about it and then we give him time to decompress really from the day. Because especially we’ve noticed the beginning of the school years, and when we go back to school after we’ve been out of school for a holiday break or things like that, he needs that time.

Julie McIsaac: Okay, those are such brilliant examples. I don’t know if you noticed, but you said, many times, “We noticed, we noticed this, we noticed this.” That’s it is carving the time out or taking a moment to think back and say, “Okay, what did we notice and how do we apply that to right now?” I talked to my kids last night, just to say, “Hey, I’m doing this podcast tomorrow. What are your ideas?”

I do a lot of back-to-school prep with students and parents each end of summer for us, so that’s a question that comes up in my family. I was thinking last night as we were having this conversation, it really is all comes down to the relationship. Who is my teacher? Are my friends with me? What does it look like? What is this picture? What will I be? Where am I going and am I going to feel safe in that situation?

I love how you said, “It didn’t make any sense to me that he wants to drive by this school. Why?” It would be very easy to say, “Buddy, we’re going to spend so much time going to school every day for this next year. You know the school, you’ll be fine. You saw it yesterday. Here’s a picture.” But especially if he’s expressing that desire, you interpreted that as he’s a bit anxious. He needs this for comfort. This is going to fill a need for him.

If our kids are expressing that they need things like that, think about maybe your child is able to beautifully express that and get that need met. Another child, it might come up as aggression or refusal or, “No, I don’t want anything. I don’t like that food anymore. I don’t want to do this. No, no, no, no, no.” That also could be anxiety. It’s harder to wrap that up in a hug, because we’re triggered by it.

As parents, we’re like, “Well.” You’re also, parents are also going through this stress. Noticing, assuming that behavior, whatever is showing up for your child, assuming it’s coming from a place of, “I’m anticipating, I’m anxious, I don’t know what to expect. The unknown is scary, even though I do know a lot of things.” 

That’s a time where you could remind them, “Let’s think about what do you know you know about what’s happening? What do you know about next year? What do you know about the school? What do you know about your class? What do you know about school in general?” Remind them of what they do know, and that can be their anchor when they’re getting lost in the unknown.

Christina Kozik: Yeah. No, that’s really good. Granted, his meet the teacher event was two days before school started, but I noticed he seemed a little bit more eager to go back to school, once he actually got to get back in the building.

They toured it once at the end of last school year, but once he got to get back into that building, see everything, and actually we figured out who his teachers would be, that was big.

Julie McIsaac: Absolutely.

Christina Kozik: My son had the same special ed team, so the same teacher, the same paras for three years. This was not just like, “He’s going to a new school.” It was a completely huge transition.

Again, more expectations as a student, more new teachers, new team, new everything, and so it was we wanted to make sure that he was as set up for success as possible.

Julie McIsaac: Absolutely, yeah. Yeah.

Christina Kozik: That leads into, which we’ve been talking about it, but that leads into my next question. 

Are there any other ways, like I said, we’ve talked about it, any other ways that parents or caregivers can really help ease that anxiety?

I know one thing that we’ve consistently done for school, is we make a big deal out of getting rid of his old school clothes. We let him buy new underwear, new socks. It seems a little silly, but it’s now become something that we just do right before school starts.

Julie McIsaac: Love that. It’s a ritual that becomes meaningful, and it helps differentiate, it’s a transition marker. Yeah, that’s great. Exactly. Whatever that is, maybe it’s a family meal that you have together or you get to choose where you’re going for ice cream, or whatever it is. Some kind of a family ritual can be really nice, because that can be a nice marker. 

I like also, you’re talking about the meet the teacher. Those are really important things to go to if you have the ability to do that and if the school is offering that. In cases where your student, your child is not able to meet the teacher prior to the first day, then you could try asking for a photo of the teacher or looking for a photo or something like that. And just a few things about the teacher that you could just look at with your child and just again, increasing that familiarity.

We talked about the letter or you had mentioned the letter to the child’s teacher. That one also, I think, the big picture with the letter, however the letter is done, the big picture is that you’re wanting to say, “Okay. As parents, as advocates, we have so many things to think about in terms of again, what we talked about at the beginning. Do we have the appointment for the IEP? Do we have the supports in place?”

All those high-level logistics stuff. The communication or the letter or however you communicate is important, because the focus is then on the person, the child and their joy. What is it about this kid? What does he love? When I notice and you’ve let me know that these are the things to cue me in to anxiety. When I notice there’s anxiety for this kid, what is it? How can I connect with him to make it meaningful to help co-regulate him and calm him down?

Sharing that information with the team is critical and important. I would say simple is best because the teachers also are inundated with so much information. Sometimes after they’ve met your child is when that information can actually be most helpful, because they can map it onto this child they’ve now met in the classroom. There are different ways you can do that in terms of that communication.

I think a big piece of that also is connect with your teacher, with your child’s teacher, and find out what is the best way for them to communicate. Is it through email? Is it phone? When do you have that touchpoint so that you can prioritize regular communication? That is a way of reducing our anxiety, which will in turn, reduce our child’s anxiety because all the pieces are connected. Then you were talking about your son’s team there.

Something that I think is another piece of this that is related to communication as well, is I do a lot of talking with my son, where I call it his name. It’s Sammy, Team Sammy, we have Team Sammy. Even though Team Sammy may change when he’s in a different school and somebody else shows up, the fact that he has a team that is there for him to make sure he’s okay and he has what he needs, that stays the same.

I think that message is important too, because our kids get a lot of messages for, “How did you behave? Are you doing this? Did you do this?” This team is not for that. This team is to say, “Hey, we know this is hard and we are all trying to figure out how we can support you. How can we make it easier?”

Christina Kozik: Yeah. We made it a point to meet. Our school system has, and I think this is pretty common nowadays across the board, but our school system has a mental health professional, on-site, at every school. We made sure when we went to meet the teacher, that we also met the mental health professional, because we knew from day one, it’s written to his IEP. We knew from the very first day, that she was going to be also on our team.

We wanted to make sure that he knew who he could go to, because the mental health professional in his previous school was somebody that if he was having a really rough time, he could say, “I need to go see Ms. So-and-so.” We wanted to make sure that he knew who that person was and what her name was. So that way if he needed to, he could voice that and say, “I need to go see this person.”

Julie McIsaac: Great, yeah.

Christina Kozik: All of this, the thing is we tend to think of things in silos. How can I, as a parent, prepare my kid for back to school? But really it’s a team and we’re working collaboratively with the school, with the professionals at the school, the teachers, the mental health professionals, the bus drivers, and the custodians.

Sometimes we’re even working collaboratively with our neighbors and our family members as our kids go back to school. 

My next question here for you is what is one thing that parents can do to help teachers know more about their child? 

I know we’ve touched on this, but it’s open communication, that I think seems to be the biggest thing.

Julie McIsaac: Absolutely. Open communication and regular communication. The other thing is as parents, we tend to communicate when something’s going wrong. I would recommend setting up that regular communication at the beginning of the year, so that it’s in place if something comes up that you need that outlet. The communication is key for that.

Then in terms of supporting the teachers, again, I’m going to mention the pandemic because it was just this shift I think in our education system. They’re, really doing a lot. They’re thinking about mental health. They cannot not think about mental health. They’re really thinking about this a lot. I think that if I would say let them know too, that you see that.

You see what they’re doing, you see the effort that they’re having to put into this. The parent, you don’t have to wait for the communication to start. You can initiate that. I think sometimes we go in and we think, “Well, I don’t want to bother them. I don’t want to bother them. They’re already working really hard. They’re doing all of this stuff that they have got enough on their plate.”

I think that from my conversations with teachers, there’s an appreciation for connect, parents that are connecting to say, “Just open that door. This door is open. I want to acknowledge we are on this team together, and I’m here also if you have any questions.” Again, I think it really is just about that communication and starting that dialogue.

Christina Kozik: That’s one of the things that we do and we’ve been doing every year is when we meet the teacher, I ask, “What is the best way for us to communicate?” Like you said, I do this for a couple of reasons. 

First of all, I want the teacher to know that I’m engaged. I want her to know that she can reach out at any time. She can reach out to tell me that Robert’s having a great day. She can reach out to tell me he’s having a bad day, but I want her to know that we’re a collaborative team at the end of the day. 

But then I also do this, and parents, this is just like a tip. I want to know where that communication is going to go. I have a very large email inbox, and so if I don’t know to expect emails there, they’re going to get lost. I’m not going to see things. I want to know if I go to a teacher and say, “What’s the best way to communicate?” She says, “Oh, I email.” Then now I know I’ve got to go to my email and either set up a filter or something so I don’t lose those emails, or I just know, “Hey, maybe I need to check this throughout the week.” 

That way parents, we’re not losing the communication. It could be as simple as there’s this event coming up. It may not be specific to our child, but you want to stay engaged with your school and with your teacher, and so just knowing where those communications are going to come from helps.

Julie McIsaac: Yeah, absolutely. That is having a shared expectation between both places. That’s the home and school and having a shared plan, shared expectation, and then you’ve taken it a step farther. You’re talking about, “Okay, now I have to problem solve that. Now I know this. Now where do I get stuck and how do I actually make this effective? How can this work?”

Yeah, voicemail for me is that. If there are voicemails, if I know I need to look for a phone call, I can look for that. But if I don’t know, that’ll be a challenge. Exactly. Now the communication helps create the shared expectation, the shared plan, and then you can problem solve how does this work for me, for our family?

Christina Kozik: Right, absolutely. Absolutely. Well, Julie, it’s been so great having you on today, and I’m sure we could talk for so much longer about anxiety and our kiddos.

Yeah. Not just around back to school, but just having to do with school. But I want to know where can our listeners find you?

Julie McIsaac: Okay. You can find me, the best place to find me is on Facebook. I’m a mom, and the Facebook page is Julie McIsaac, PhD.

Christina Kozik: Okay. We’ll link that in our show notes, for sure.

Julie McIsaac: Yeah. I’m still contributing to some blog posts to Exceptional Lives as they come up, but I’m up here in Canada, so I’m far from where I once was.

Christina Kozik: Yeah. No, we really love it and appreciate whenever we can collaborate with you, because you have a great perspective for us.

You have the professional perspective, but also as a parent, as a mom who is raising three, they’re all boys, if I remember correctly?

Julie McIsaac: They’re all boys.

Christina Kozik: They’re all boys.

Julie McIsaac: They’re all boys. Yes.

Christina Kozik: Raising three boys, so we love that. We love that perspective that you are able to bring to the work that we’re doing.

Julie McIsaac: Thank you. Well, thank you, Christina. Exceptional Lives is doing such amazing work, and so I’m happy to. I love these conversations.

Christina Kozik: Yes, thank you.

Julie McIsaac: Thank you.

Christina Kozik: This podcast was hosted by me, Christina Kozik, for Exceptional Lives. You can also subscribe and follow the podcast at our website, www.exceptionallives.org/justneedspodcast. Our website has blogs, guides, and upcoming events, as well as a disability services finder for Louisiana and Massachusetts.

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