August 14, 2008


Overcoming School Anxiety: How to Help Your Child Deal with Separation, Tests, Homework, Bullies, Math Phobia, and Other Worries. By Diane Peters Mayer. AMACOM. $16.

Helen Keller: The World in Her Heart. By Lesa Cline-Ransome. Illustrated by James Ransome. HarperCollins. $16.99.

      School has already started in some parts of the United States, and will start soon in others – which means an upsurge in anxiety for many children and not a few parents. A book that can talk families through the different forms of anxiety, showing how to handle all of them, would therefore be most welcome. Overcoming School Anxiety wants to be that book, and even though it isn’t quite as comprehensive or universally applicable as psychotherapist Diane Peters Mayer believes, it can certainly be a valuable starting point for many worried children and parents. Mayer begins by discussing anxiety and the reasons for it, ranging from hereditary and biological factors to childhood experiences and parenting techniques. This material provides a useful foundation for families that are unfamiliar with anxiety (if there are any); but Mayer’s discussions of specific school-related issues are more useful. These range from “school refusal,” which is an outright unwillingness (or psychological inability) to go to school and which may be indicative of separation anxiety disorder, to in-school issues such as test anxiety and bullying. After describing each type of difficulty, Mayer offers a “clinic” with suggestions on what to do. Most of these start with listening carefully to your child describe what he or she is feeling, empathizing and providing comfort – and then move on to looking for ways to ameliorate the situation. The value of these solutions varies. For school refusal, they range from talking to your child about reasons he or she must attend school, and asking for his or her input on the problem (solid, pragmatic ideas), to modeling good stress management and life-coping skills (an excellent concept that may be difficult or impossible to implement). For homework anxiety, Mayer suggests setting up a comfortable, special area in which to do homework, creating a flexible homework schedule, limiting TV and computer time, and making “reading and learning an important family pursuit that is fun and exciting” (that last one, although a very worthwhile idea, may be a big challenge in time-pressed, two-working-parent families). The point is that Mayer’s solutions are not one-size-fits-all – they may or may not work in your particular family arrangement. But they are all, at least in the abstract, good ideas that will surely work in some situations – and useful as jumping-off points even for parents who may not find them helpful in the form in which Mayer presents them.

      One thing that may help some children overcome their anxieties is reading about children whose circumstances were far more difficult – and that can be one way to use Lesa Cline-Ransome’s book on Helen Keller, which is intended for ages 5-9 (a common age range for school anxieties). Certainly few children have as much to overcome as Keller, who was left deaf and blind after an illness (possibly scarlet fever or meningitis) before she was two. The story of how she was taught to observe the world, understand it and communicate about it has inspired many generations, and Cline-Ransome’s focus on Keller’s teacher, Annie Sullivan, makes this book particularly useful for children worried about their own relationships with teachers. But no form of anxiety is necessary to appreciate Cline-Ransome’s telling of the story, or the lovely, warm paintings that James Ransome (Lesa’s husband) provides to illustrate scenes of Keller’s life and learning. This is a heartwarming and uplifting tale, however and whenever it is told, and this new picture book is sure to touch many people in both their hearts and their minds.

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