In this post you will learn common signs of anxiety in the classroom and useful strategies to reduce school anxiety.
Do you suspect some of your students may be struggling with anxiety?
Anxiety in the classroom is more common than we may assume.
80 percent of children with a diagnosable anxiety disorder are not receiving help, and the median age of onset for anxiety disorders is just six years old. (Child Mind Institute Children’s Mental Health Report., 2015)
Being familiar with the signs of student anxiety will enable educators to better support their students towards achieving their personal and academic success.
Does Student Anxiety Affect Learning?
Anxiety in the school environment can affect students in different ways. Avoidance behaviors may result in:
- less social interaction and lack of participation in activities in and outside the school
- missing out on school tests, presentations, and other academic activities, thus impacting academic performance
Signs of Anxiety in the Classroom
Anxiety disorders represent one of the major groups of disorders seen in mental health.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), anxiety disorders include those disorders that share features of excessive fear and anxiety and related behavioral disturbances:
- generalized anxiety disorder
- social anxiety disorder
- separation anxiety
- selective mutism
- specific phobia
- panic disorder
- substance/medication-induced anxiety disorder
- anxiety disorder due to another medical condition.
In the school environment, anxiety may manifest as:
- school refusal, a child-initiated refusal to attend school or difficulty remaining in class for the full day
- test anxiety, extreme stress, anxiety, and discomfort before and/or during taking a test
- social anxiety, an irrational anxiety, fear, self-consciousness and embarrassment, caused by everyday social interactions
The first two are not classified as disorders in the DSM, but they are an undeniable cause of emotional distress that also lead into school attendance difficulties.
Signs of student anxiety may be at times dismissed as behavioral issues or other health-related issues.
These are some of the warning signs that you may encounter in your classroom:
Physiological / Physical signs of anxiety
- nervousness or tension
- digestive or gastrointestinal problems
- rapid breathing or hyperventilation
- lethargy (anxiety may affect their sleep which would result in a tired student in the classroom)
Students may feel:
- Uneasy or easily irritated
- Difficulty concentrating
- Worry around routine activities
- Worry all the time
Social Interaction /Social Anxiety Signs
Your student may:
- Stop hanging out with their friends
- Make excuses about why they can’t make plans or participate in activities
- Want to spend most of their time by themselves
School Performance / Attendance
Students with anxiety may:
- Miss assignments
- Show declining grades
- Be unable to cope with school work
- Have difficulty focusing
Externalizing symptoms may include:
- Tantrums at drop-off time
- Clinging to a parent, refusing to move, and/or running away
Other school anxiety warning signs present in some students struggling with anxiety
A student obsessed with perfection may be struggling with performance anxiety.
- Tendency to catastrophize
Some students may assume that the worst is always likely to happen.
- Panic attacks
Strategies to Reduce School Anxiety
What can you do to help a student with school anxiety?
There are a good number of strategies and activities that will help kids with anxiety.
The following strategies can be divided into:
- General tips to help with anxiety that can also be applied at school
- Classroom accommodations for kids with anxiety
General tips to help kids with anxiety
- Teach your students about anxiety
- Explain how we are “wired” to deal with threats in one of these three ways: flight, fight or freeze.
- Teach your student to identify the worry signs, so that they can ask for help
Feeling tense, heart racing, sweating, stomach ache or headaches are some common signs are body sends us when we are feeling anxious.
- Explain how being a little worried is good and useful, like the worry they you feel before you sit for a test that motivates them to stop watching tv and start studying.
- Build trust so that your students feel comfortable seeking your help.
- Explain the risks of avoidance behaviors that will lead to declining school performance and missing out on very rewarding social interactions
- Teach problem-solving abilities in your classroom
- Practice deep breathing exercises in your classroom
- Take the class out for a walk or lead the class in an exercise, if you have the opportunity. Ask them to observe their environment and think about something tangible, such as how many different birds they hear, or how many different colors they notice on a walk in the hallway.
You can find more ideas (e.g. journaling, worry box) in my post 40+ Tips and trategies to help an anxious kid.
Classroom accommodations for students with anxiety
- Consider what the best seating configuration will be for your anxious student
Class participation may be hindered by: worry, embarrassment about producing the wrong answers or being the center of attention:
- Allow students to be exempt from anxiety-triggering situations (like answering questions in front of the class or reading aloud)
- Start with easier questions to build confidence, let them know in advance their turn will come, let them prepare in advance
- Classroom presentations may be challenging for kids with performance anxiety, consider the possibility of your student presenting to you alone.
- Organize specific support for your anxious student (counselor, teacher) that the student can check in with in case anxiety is kicking in
- If your school has a counselor, have them come and read a book about managing anxiety to the whole class. They don’t feel singled out, and they all learn some techniques that may be helpful.
- Have an anxiety sign/code that allows your student to take a break and go to a safe/calm place, and that will not draw attention to your student.
- Provide opportunities for socialization. Assign your anxious student to small groups with peers that may help /support them.
- Help your anxious student organize and prioritize their homework
- Break projects down into small chunks with clear instructions and models.
- Create assignments and tests that reduce anxiety. For example, make sure your tests are exactly like the homework and classwork practice you’ve been doing