On homeschooling an anxious child

Written by Shawna Wingert of Not the Former Things

When I was in the sixth grade, I ran for student council president.

One of the requirements was getting up on stage, in front of the entire school, and giving a speech about why you should be elected.

I bombed. For reals.

I couldn’t remember the lines I had prepared. I stuttered and started sweating. I ran off the stage as fast as I could and burst into tears.

It was pretty awful.

But what I remember most about that day is what happened next. I went back to class.

I remember trying to take a math test and the page seemingly swimming before me. I remember not being able to focus on verbal directions and wondering what was wrong with me. I remember my anxiety increasing, not decreasing as the day went on.

I didn’t learn a thing that day at school.

My eleven-year-old son struggles with anxiety more intense than I ever experienced at his age.

While my difficult afternoon in sixth grade ended, and school returned to normal by the next day, my son feels that same anxiety all the time. Moreover, he is struggling to learn with that same level of anxiety every day.

One of the reasons we homeschool is to accommodate his learning needs. But the truth is, I often struggle with my own worries when I consider how best to approach his education.

He can’t just do nothing.

He’s already behind. If I don’t make him do the reading lesson, he will never learn.

I know he has anxiety, but at some point, we have to just do school – right?

Because of my own fears, I often find myself recreating that same afternoon I experienced at eleven years old, for my son.

I know you feel anxious, but we need to get this done.

Try to focus. 

This is just how school works.

I find the outcome is always the same.

He struggles, gets frustrated, makes little to no progress and feels defeated.

I struggle, get frustrated, see little to no progress and feel defeated.

And he retains nothing.

Homeschooling an anxious learner

I am finding that the best way to help my son consistently learn, is to acknowledge his anxiety and build education plans around it.

Here’s what has helped us, as my son’s anxiety has become more chronic and intense:

Change to a favorite topic

If I notice that my son is becoming anxious, I quickly wrap up whatever we are working on and then switch to a topic and/or subject I know he loves.

For example, last week, no matter how hands-on and fun I tried to make his reading lesson, he was clearly becoming more and more anxious. Instead of pushing him to finish, I put the word lists away and instead turned on the latest from Around The World Stories.

He visibly relaxed and began to engage again in learning. He even read the resources associated with the story without me asking.

Being willing to shift to a topic he perceives as interesting and “easier” allows him to continue to learn, without increasing his anxiety.

Incorporate mindfulness exercises

This is relatively new for us but is making a difference.

As part of our school day, I walk my son through simple mindfulness exercises. For example, if I notice he seems to be a bit tense, I grab a couple of chairs and place them on our grass outside. We sit and talk about how good the grass feels on our bare feet, we listen to the sounds of the birds chirping and feel the breeze on our faces.

It’s not complicated, but it is effective.

Incorporating mindfulness exercises into our day has made an impact on my son’s overall ability to cope with the stresses of learning, even when he is feeling anxious.

Go outside

More than anything else, just getting outside makes a difference in my son’s level of anxiety. The exact same reading lesson that is causing stress can be taken to a picnic blanket outside, and suddenly it feels doable.

Some days, we leave the lesson entirely and instead focus on nature study.  Other days, a quick trip to the park relaxes my son and then he is able to come back home and complete his assigned learning.

I have found that fresh air, connecting with nature, movement and play are wonderful anxiety medicines.

Tomorrow’s another day

There are times that no matter what we try, the anxiety just feels too overwhelming for my son to really continue with any sort of structured learning. Rather than pushing my own, worry-fueled, “what if he never learns to read” agenda, I am learning to instead focus on my boy’s heart.

On days when the anxiety is just too much, I try to remember that one of the reasons why we homeschool is so that we can accommodate his learning differences in ways that build him up, rather than leaving him defeated.

We can always try again tomorrow.

We have good days. We have tough days. We have days that are a mess of emotions and anxiety. We have days that are light and easy.

No matter what the day or the circumstances, I want my son to feel support and encouragement as he learns – not only in traditional academics but in managing his own chronic worries and fears.

Homeschooling allows us to do just that.

Are you homeschooling an anxious child? How do you help your child learn?

About Shawna Wingert

Shawna Wingert is the creator of Not The Former Things, a blog dedicated to homeschooling children with learning differences and special needs. She loves finding out-of-the-box ways for out-of-the-box learners to thrive. She is the author of two books, Special Education at Home and Everyday Autism. You can follow Shawna and Not The Former Things on Pinterest, Facebook and Instagram.


  1. I like those ideas but would love to know how to be so adaptable with my one anxious child when I also have 5 others to care for and teach.

    • I have two other children and I also find this to be very difficult. I find it works okay with my oldest, who is independent, but my other child gets into more trouble when I have to work with my anxious child. I find that for me, sending my anxious child outside for even a short time in the biggest anxious moments often helps. But there are no easy answers.

      • I only have two children, but both require individualized attention for learning differences (that differ from one another). Like Nola, sending my youngest, more anxious child outside, or giving him a sensory activity (something fun but not too messy) to keep him busy frees me up to help my oldest child learn. But honestly, most days I just feel like a ping pong ball – going back and forth between all the needs. We do the best we can.
        Shawna Wingert’s latest post: Summer School That Isn’t School

  2. Terri Torrez says:

    My son, now 14, also suffers from anxiety. We read this book when he was around 4th Grade and we keep returning to it. The anxiety is still very much there but now we both have a set of coping tools that get us through. At this point he is determined not to let the anxiety control his life. Some days that’s harder than others but every win gives him more confidence and better coping mechanisms. I like the approach in this book because it’s very self-empowering.
    Anxiety-Free Kids: An Interactive Guide for Parents and Children (2nd ed.) https://www.amazon.com/dp/1618215612/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_api_nExhzbVSTB9AP

  3. Thank you so much for this!!!! I have an anxious child and I have been researching lately…trying to find resources to help us. Especially to find help for homeschooling with an anxious child. Sometimes I am so frustrated. It can be SO hard. Sometimes it feels like walking on eggshells, waiting for the next explosion of anxiety (that can often look like anger). Do you have any resource recommendations to share, or any other links for dealing with anxiety and homeschooling? I’d love to hear more. Thank you so much. We, too, find that outdoor time really, really helps, as does mindfullness. We do a simple 5-4-3-2 exercise…I know it has specific steps on which comes first but I can never remember…I think it goes name 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell. It really works when my child is willing to do it. We also work on trying to calm down the anxiety before it turns into a huge meltdown. That is one of the hardest parts.

  4. Yes – I have more than one child who struggles with this. It is SO hard to balance each day. Music is something that helps us enormously, just stopping what we are doing and listening to songs. I have reached out to you before, but Shawna I always find your posts so encouraging! Thank you SO much for sharing your ideas – I want to try the mindfulness exercise, that sounds like a great idea. Oh, I almost forgot one thing we have done as well; I took a binder clip and index cards and made a little flip notebook of ideas they can try when I am engaged with someone else and cannot stop and help in that moment. It doesn’t always work because sometimes the anxiety is a tsunami – not just a storm, but on the days where it isn’t as severe, having a tool they can pull out and use helps a lot.

    • The binder clip with index cards is a wonderful idea! We have a jar with slips of paper that have ideas on them, as well as a “special basket” filled with little fidgets and sensory toys that we use the same way.
      It’s good to hear from you, Sunshine! I hope y’all are doing well. 🙂
      Shawna Wingert’s latest post: Summer School That Isn’t School

  5. Lovely post. I liked the contrast to your own experience in school and the incorporation of Nature as a calming force. I often find my own expectations are the source of anxiety in my kids, and i have to pull on the break and slow down. Sometimes it helps to remember this is not a race but a journey.

  6. Jessica says:

    My 11 yo son has OCD and general anxiety. He was almost completely non-functional at age 7 when he was diagnosed. Cognitive Behavioral/Exposure Therapy with a gifted and compassionate therapist has completely changed our lives. We still struggle, but we have tools for coping and we both better understand his anxiety thanks to the therapy. I highly recommend the series of books “What to Do When You Worry to Much” and others in that series. They give a great introduction to CBT in a very child friendly (but not condescending or babyish) way.

    • Jessica, thank-you for sharing. I am going to look up that book series. How did you find your therapist? I am finding it almost impossible to get the right therapist and I know that’s what we need.

      • We LOVE those books too, Jessica. I am glad you mentioned them. Erica – we have had to go through a couple of therapists to get to the right one for my son. Our current referral (and we adore her!) came from another mom in the area. It’s tough, but it’s worth it to keep searching for the right help.
        Shawna Wingert’s latest post: Summer School That Isn’t School

        • Thanks Shawna. I just ordered two books from our library because of the replies here. Good thoughts about therapists! I will persevere. 🙂

  7. I came back to read the other comments and wanted to add that music helps my child as well. Particularly nature sounds. That and audio books were a huge help before she learned how to read. Every child is different.

  8. Your thoughts and words were a blessing to me – thank you for sharing them. Though not as intense, we share some similar traits in this house, and these words were a powerful reminder about why we do what we do. Thank you.

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