"Come in from recess. It's time for math."
Simple requests can lead to refusal and perhaps behavior outbursts from students with anxiety. This doesn't mean these students are difficult or can't follow directions.
Transitions are among the most difficult times of the day for some students with anxiety. Transitions require flexibility and executive functioning skills. In school, students must transition frequently with little support; however, transition difficulties are at the root of many non-compliance incidents. When students "don't stop reading when asked," "never follow directions" or "have to be chased to come in from recess," their noncompliance is symptomatic of a fundamental problem transitioning. We may be asking students to do something they don't have the skills to execute. Teachers can help these students with anxiety handle transitions more successfully so they don't become uncooperative.
There are four components to a transition and it's equally important to support students whether they're having difficulty with one or all of them.
Here's the example: "Come in from recess. It's time for math!"
First: Stop the Initial Activity
Students need support finding a stopping place in activities such as recess. They may need explicit instruction about how to find a stopping place (e.g., stop playing after one more time down the slide) and how to pick an activity that's a good match for the time allotted (e.g., pick a short game when you only have five minutes).
Second: Cognitively Shifting to the Next Activity
Students must make a mental shift before they transition physically. They have to stop thinking about recess and start thinking about math. Help them visualize the new activity. Take a photograph of them "ready for the next activity" or use a visual schedule so they know what's coming and can be prepared.
Third: Starting the Next Activity
Anxiety significantly affects the ability to initiate an anxiety provoking activity, such as a math quiz. Any of us who have procrastinated a task we perceive as difficult can relate to this. Besides countdown transition warnings, many students need help beginning the new activity. Often, accommodations are necessary to support initiation.
Help Them start
Teachers typically give students work, then moments later offer help to a student who hasn't started. By the time you get to them at that point, the student is highly anxious and irreparably shut-down. For students with anxiety, I propose a more errorless approach. If the teacher has only 30 seconds for each student, make it the first 30 seconds for students with anxiety who require support to initiate a task. Help them get started.
Preview the Next Activity
We can't preview enough for students with anxiety. In the morning, most teachers review a visual schedule of the day. Preview alone doesn't necessarily mitigate a student's anxiety toward a particular subject -- and definitely doesn't help them initiate the activity when it comes time. If math triggers a student's anxiety, knowing math will be at 10:30am doesn't necessarily reduce anxiety. Anticipation may even increase his anxiety all morning. As a supplement to reviewing the schedule, preview the actual piece of work. "Here's the math sheet we'll be doing today. Let's do the first problem together." When math class comes, the child has an entry point and won't have an initial avoidance response.
Fourth Component: Downtime During a Transition
After years of analyzing behavior microscopically, I've found it's common for students to have difficulty with the downtime during the day (e.g., standing in line or waiting for materials to be passed out).
First we need to teach students to identify wait time or downtime. Through the use of social story, videos or role-play, we explicitly teach how to identify downtime when it's beginning. When the student knows he's being asked to wait, we can teach structured activities to keep him occupied and productive. Younger students can draw or perform a helpful task, like pushing in chairs. Older students can think of song lyrics or math facts.
Transitioning to a Non-Preferred Activity
One of the most difficult transitions is from a preferred activity to a non-preferred activity (e.g., "Recess is over. It's time to take your math quiz"). It's difficult for the student to stop a preferred activity, let alone initiate a dreaded one. It's like jumping into cold water. Stopping one pleasurable activity to do something difficult equals a set-up for resistance.
Instead, have the child transition more gradually from preferred to less-preferred to non-preferred activity. The student will require less shifting and flexibility. Instead of going directly from recess (preferred) to a math quiz (non-preferred), add an intermediate step: "Come in for recess and you can draw." Once the student is drawing at his desk, shift to the math quiz.
By supporting transitions, we can help students with anxiety cope with the disturbance by learning to become more flexible and less resistant.
Jessica Minahan, M.Ed, BCBA, is a board-certified behavior analyst and special educator and Director of Behavioral Services at NESCA-Newton (MA) (Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children and Adolescents), as well as a school consultant to client's nationwide. She is the co-author of 'he Behavior Code: A Practical Guide to Understanding and Teaching the Most Challenging Students,' written with Nancy Rappaport, M.D (Harvard Education Press, 2012).