By James J. Crist, Ph.D., author of What to Do When You’re Scared and Worried: A Guide for Kids
Feeling anxious is common for kids and teens. Everybody feels nervous at some point or worries about things such as grades, friends, and the future. Some kids are especially prone to anxiety and may have a harder time functioning as a result. Being anxious at school can make it harder to concentrate in class, affect performance on quizzes and tests, make it harder to ask for help, and interfere with the ability to make and keep friends. By knowing the signs of anxiety and ways to intervene, educators can help anxious students thrive in school.
How Common Is Anxiety?
Anxiety is among the most common mental health issues. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 7.1 percent of children ages three to seventeen (approximately 4.4 million) suffer from anxiety disorders. The pandemic has exacerbated students’ anxiety over the last two years, as fears of getting sick, lack of contact with peers, and stress of online school have taken their toll. School shootings, while still statistically rare, add to many students’ anxiety, because they may no longer feel safe at school.
Common worries and fears of students include being away from parents, making good grades, taking tests, being liked by peers, dealing with bullying, being picked for teams, and being rejected. In addition to these worries, older students may feel anxious about dating, their future, and whether they will be successful in life.
Symptoms of anxiety in children include trouble concentrating, trouble relaxing, having difficulty falling or staying asleep, feeling fatigued, experiencing headaches and stomachaches, needing to use the bathroom often, feeling irritable, and having frequent worried thoughts. Some kids may seek excessive reassurance from adults, may have lots of questions about assignments or tests, and may avoid turning assignments in if they aren’t perfect. Others may be afraid of being called on in class. Often, this stems from a fear that they will get an answer wrong and classmates will laugh at them, causing embarrassment.
Not all anxious kids give obvious signs about how they are feeling. They are often quiet and well-behaved, since they may be afraid to get in trouble. This can make it hard to tell how much anxiety they are experiencing. Teachers may see evidence of anxiety in students who take longer bathroom breaks, are frequently absent from school, repeatedly ask to see the nurse, don’t turn in assignments, or avoid interacting with peers.
Some kids react with anger when they are feeling anxious, particularly if they are placed in situations where they feel unsafe. Their anger is caused by a triggering of the fight, flight, or freeze response. This is commonly seen when parents try to make their anxious kids go to school or when kids ask for parents to pick them up once they are at school. Some kids may become clingy and refuse to separate from adults they see as safe.
Sadness and depression are also more likely to occur in anxious kids. Being too afraid to try new things, meet new people, or try out for sports or a school play can leave kids feeling sad and lonely. It’s hard to feel good about yourself when you are too afraid to do so many things.
How to Tell When Anxiety Becomes a Disorder
Common anxiety disorders include generalized anxiety disorder, separation anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, and phobias. Kids with generalized anxiety worry about a variety of things and have trouble concentrating and relaxing. Separation anxiety involves being afraid to separate from parents out of fear that something bad will happen to them. Kids with social anxiety are intensely fearful of social situations or performing in front of others. They fear embarrassing themselves and are often too afraid to approach other kids. Specific phobias, such as bad weather, insects, or animals, can make it harder for kids to stay in school and focus on their work. Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) also results in anxiety for students. Kids with OCD may engage in excessive handwashing, be overly concerned with germs or contamination, and have trouble turning in assignments if they are not done perfectly.
Generally speaking, anxiety can become a mental health disorder when the symptoms are excessive for a child’s age, persist over a period of weeks or months, and interfere with the child’s ability to function. Children who show symptoms of an anxiety disorder should be evaluated by a mental health professional to see if treatment is indicated.
How Educators Can Help
Since most anxious kids have a hard time speaking up, educators can help by checking in with students periodically to see how they are feeling and if they need help. This is best done privately, so as not to embarrass students. Let them know what you have noticed (e.g., missing school, not socializing with peers, being afraid to speak up in class) and ask them how they have been feeling and if everything is okay. You can ask if there is anything about school that makes them feel nervous or worried. Validate their feelings by letting them know that other kids also have worries and fears. Thank them for sharing their concerns and let them know you are available when they need help. Establishing a positive relationship with a student can go a long way toward lowering their anxiety.
Pairing up a socially anxious student with another student for lunchtime and recess can help socially anxious kids feel less isolated and alone. Teaching students how to introduce themselves, make friends, and seek out those who are less popular and keep to themselves can make for a great classroom lesson. Group exercises are another way of facilitating positive peer relationships.
For kids who miss class or school due to anxiety, developing a plan for making up missed work helps ensure kids don’t fall behind, since needing to catch up can increase anxiety. Emailing assignments or reaching out to absent students can help. Many schools post assignments online, which makes it easier for absent students to keep up.
Providing students with a pass that allows them to leave class and meet with the school counselor or social worker when needed makes it easier for them to take a break and calm down when anxiety strikes.
Since many anxious kids worry about being called on in class, be sure to give them a heads up or a signal before asking a question. This gives them time to think about their answer. Some students benefit from an accommodation to give presentations or book reports to only the teacher instead of the entire class. Letting anxious students know ahead of time if there is a change in routine, which can be a trigger for anxiety, can help.
You can teach your entire class ways to handle stress and lower anxiety as part of your curriculum. Techniques such as mindfulness, deep breathing, and writing down fears and more positive responses can help everyone, not just anxious students. Self-calming items such as stuffed animals or even a fidget (a quiet one!) can be useful too. Consider having some of these items in your classroom that anyone can use. Many teachers have a quiet corner that kids can go to when they need a break.
When More Help Is Needed
If you have students whose anxiety is interfering with their ability to be successful at school, academically and/or socially, suggest that they talk with their school counselor. A referral for outside counseling can be made if needed. For more severe cases of anxiety, medication can be very helpful.
For those diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, school accommodations can be helpful, often as part of a 504 plan. These might include having extended time on tests and being allowed to give class presentations privately to a teacher or submit a recorded presentation. Extra time to complete tests and projects can be helpful for perfectionistic kids who take longer because they have to make sure their work is completed perfectly. Being excused from large assemblies can be helpful for kids who find them overwhelming. For some kids, being able to check in with a parent at some point during the school day can ease separation anxiety.
While anxiety disorders are common in children, effective treatments are available, especially if started early. Learning coping strategies for dealing with anxiety works well for most kids, can improve their academic performance, and can help prevent later problems in life.
For More Information
The Anxiety Disorders Association of America website contains a free booklet (in PDF format) on anxiety disorders in children.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America is another resource.
The site Worry Wise Kids provides a list of possible school accommodations for anxious students.
Dr. James J. Crist is the clinical director and a staff psychologist at the Child and Family Counseling Center (CFCC) in Woodbridge, Virginia, and a substance abuse counselor, working with addictive disorders in teens and adults. At CFCC, he provides psychological testing and individual, couples, and family psychotherapy for children, adolescents, and adults, specializing in children with ADHD, depression, and anxiety disorders. Visit his website at jamesjcrist.com.
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