There are several things that often cause worry and anxiety for children of different ages. New situations, challenging tasks, and even unfamiliar people can lead to fear and anxiety in children from time to time. 


  • Different types of anxiety may affect our children.
  • Separation Anxiety
  • Generalised Anxiety Disorder
  • Specific Phobias
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
  • Panic Attacks
  • Selective Mutism


For many of our children with specific learning needs anxiety can manifest in different ways or at a different timescale throughout their lives. Often as we know their brains are wired differently and this needs to be considered when they begin to show signs of anxiety.

Symptoms of anxiety can be observed as follows.


  • Anger or aggression
  • Avoiding certain situations
  • Bedwetting
  • Changes in appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Getting in trouble at school
  • Headaches
  • Irritability
  • Muscle tension
  • Nervous habits such as nail-biting
  • Nightmares
  • Refusing to go to school
  • Restlessness
  • Social withdrawal
  • Stomach aches
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Trouble sleeping (insomnia)


Children with learning needs are often in fight, flight or freeze mode far more frequently than neurotypical children. Please be aware that girls experience anxiety at about twice the rate as boys. Anxiety tends to grow worse if left untreated.

For most neurotypical brains, we sit in our neo cortex (prefrontal lobes) where we feel happy, calm and comfortable.

Here we may feel anxious, stressed and not so comfortable. We are, however, usually able to self-regulate and move back to our Neo cortex. 

For a child with a learning need when they wake in the morning they are usually sitting in the limbic brain. They are already nervous or anxious about their day and what it may bring. (Hence visuals are a key factor here).

 As soon as a situation occurs that causes stress or anxiety they have nowhere else to go but drop into the survival part of the brain. The brainstem is called the Reptilian Brain. As the name states they are now in survival mode. Their brain is telling them to survive, no matter what it takes. Hence the fight, flight or freeze mode comes into play and the sympathetic nervous system goes into overdrive. 

Hence the behaviours listed above may be observed. This can be due to many underlying factors. One of the causes we often find is that due to a child’s need you cannot force a brain to process faster than its wiring allows. 

Many children with learning needs have delayed sensory and informational processing. Regardless of how bright the child is, they may have difficulty processing multiple stimulation simultaneously. 

This tends to slow down the processing speed and overwhelm the brain if too much information is coming in or it is coming in too rapidly. Our world tends to move way too fast for most of our children and their brains are easily taxed or overwhelmed. Therefore, we cannot push, pressure, or force our children to do things. When we push too hard the brain becomes overwhelmed and panics. Once the brain is in full flight of fight, flight or freeze mode the children can often be seen as being defiant or oppositional or observed to have meltdowns.

When we observe the behaviours mentioned above, we need to make some changes to support our children. This may mean:


  • Modifying the environment your child is in.
  • Reducing sensory stimulation and task demands. 
  • Keeping the nervous system organised.
  • Ensure plenty of rest
  • Good nutrition
  • Exercise
  • Brain breaks. 
  • Checking in regularly on how they are feeling.
  • Communicating -understanding and acceptance
  • Identifying and respecting the child’s comfort zones.
  • Understanding and validating their struggles. 
  • Don’t avoid what your child fears, while this may offer short-term relief, using avoidance as a coping mechanism reinforces the anxiety and worsens it over time.
  • Offer comfort and model positive responses.
  • Listen to your child’s concerns but be careful not to reinforce these fears. Instead, help your child practice relaxation techniques while modelling appropriate, non-fearful responses to the source of your child’s anxiety. 
  • Help your child learn to tolerate their fear. Allowing your child to be gradually exposed to the source of their fear while using relaxation techniques to calm their fear response can help them learn to tolerate distress and eventually learn that there is nothing to fear.
  • Use the zones of regulation to allow your child to identify how they’re feeling. Teaching your child coping strategies. This may include using visuals as part of their everyday lives. 
  • Needing frequent rests from their day-to-day tasks and or being allowed to graze on food and have frequent drinks throughout their day. 


Additional to this, we always advise where possible to gain help, support and advice from a specialist in the field like a behavioural consultant or psychologist. 

Often working through a behaviour program following a cognitive behavioral approach (CBT) will enable your child to understand their anxieties. Once this happens, they are then able to manage their anxieties and become happier and more regulated little humans.

We recommend you contact your regional office for the Ministry of Education to check if any support can be put in place. 

This Document was created by Dawn Wilson who is a qualified behaviour specialist and specialises in cognitive behavior therapy , autism and children’s mental Healthfor the Dyslexia Evidenced based page.

The International Dyslexia Association  also has an excellent document-  Social and Emotional Problems Related to Dyslexia

This document was created by  Dawn Wilson December 2021