Early childhood educators and pre-service teachers may often witness parents or carers arriving at the school gate to drop off their child for the day only to see things going wobbly.

Just as the child is about to let go of their parent’s hand and walk away, they freeze, wrap little arms around their parents’ legs and won’t let go.

The child typically retreats behind the parent and becomes shy, withdrawn and clingy. And you could wonder if something he or she doesn’t like just caught their eye? Or whether a kid the tot finds too boisterous was heading their way? Or, if a bird swooping down to peck at a worm has startled the youngster?

Whatever the reason, it doesn’t seem to matter how much a parent cajoles and whispers to their child that everything is going to be okay because more often than not the anxious child will flatly refuse to let the parent go and join their little classmates.

While teachers don’t always know why some children behave this way, they will recognise that the situation is not unusual. Children all over Australia suffer from emotional issues, including the separation anxiety that commonly occurs at the school gate.

roughly a quarter of all the population will experience some form of anxiety in their lives, and this will typically start in childhoodAccording to much of the research into childhood anxiety, roughly a quarter of all the population will experience some form of anxiety in their lives, and this will typically start in childhood. Some children will grow out of it but others will develop more serious anxiety disorders, or depression as teenage or adults.

Doctor Lauren McLellan from the Faculty of Human Sciences and Macquarie University’s Centre for Emotional Health says being very shy or withdrawn as a child, or having a parent who has been overprotective or negative, can lead to entrenched worries, fears and phobias. “As this can progress to depression and even suicide, there is a need to prevent anxiety disorders developing in the first place, and a skills-based educational program can be the best solution for preventing longer term mental health problems,” she says.

The Cool Little Kids Online (CLKO) program for parents of children three to six was launched by the Centre for Emotional Health with the aim of teaching parents and carers how to help children reduce excessive anxiety, worry or shyness. Pre-service teachers and those studying through the Department of Educational Studies’ Academy of Continuing Professional Development in Education might find it a useful program to recommend to parents seeking help, especially as they can do it in their own home at their own pace.

This is an online program which shows parents how to deal with anxiety-provoking situations by teaching them how to develop skills in their child to encourage confident and resilient behaviour,” says Doctor McLellan. “It contains eight modules with easy-to-read information, practical skills, videos and stories from other parents.

Some of the tips the program gives parents include: how to parent an anxious child by demonstrating and building brave behaviours and not jumping in too soon when the child enters a feared situation.

The program’s success rate has also been verified through a collaboration with La Trobe University which evaluated the effectiveness of the program in a trial of 433 families. “Overall the program effectively reduced children’s anxiety and its impact on the family and gave parents a powerful tool to navigate through their child’s sensitivities and to positively influence their child’s behaviour,” says Dr Amy Morgan, who was the chief investigator of the research.

Dr Morgan says parent feedback was invaluable in establishing how well the whole-family and early intervention approach via an educational program worked: “One parent said how it really helped her understand her child’s anxiety, her own anxiety and empowered her with tools to manage both. Many other parents remarked that there was a substantial improvement in their child – even before they had completed the course.”

Another feature that Dr Morgan measured in the La Trobe evaluation was whether a child became less fearful when they had immediate access to the program: “We compared families who could access the program straightaway to those who were on a six-month wait-list,” she says.

We found that after six months, childhood anxiety disorders were less common in families who had received access to the program – 40 per cent versus 54 per cent in the wait-list families.

What’s clear in the La Trobe study is that families who sought to dispel fears and worries and build emotional resilience at a tender age through the CLKO program could immediately influence the emotional health and development of their children.

Ultimately you want to equip your child with skills so that they feel brave and in charge“, says Dr McLellan, “and the Cool Little Kids Online program has now been proven to increase that likelihood.

Access the Cool Little Kids Online (CLKO) program for parents of children three to six here >

Image credit: Sasiistock

Posted by Susan Redman

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