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Supporting Students With Anxiety Disorders

Geoff Nixon

By Geoff Nixon

Anxiety Can Magnify

School is hard. Day to day interactions and experiences can inspire and compound a learner’s anxiety. Students have to ascertain how to navigate the different personalities they encounter among teachers and students on a daily basis. They need to adapt to different behaviors, abilities, and communication styles in order to best receive and respond to the constant onslaught of information. They often become more self-aware as challenges and strengths are magnified by feedback, observations, and perceptions of others. The same differences that make individuals unique, wonderful, and the source of celebration in the outside world can lead to self-conscious isolation in some. Furthermore, academic pressures can take a toll, and learning issues may feel like they’ve been amplified.

Then there are the circumstances and experiences from the outside world that students carry with them each day. Concern over an ill family member, unsafe environment, or insufficient resources to meet basic needs can weigh heavily.

Anxiety Explained

Anxiety is a type of stress defined as worry or unease about something where the end result may be unknown. We become introduced to this feeling at an early age. We may experience it when left with a new caregiver, encountering a strange environment, or lying awake in the dark. In the classroom, meeting new people, presenting or responding to questions in front of the class, or tackling a difficult assignment or test may elicit the same feelings. While all anxiety can impact the learning environment, challenges increase when the emotion is more frequent and disproportionate to the potential outcomes, affecting the student’s everyday well-being.

Types of anxiety disorders in children include:

  • Generalized or worry about a number of different things. Perfectionism is common among these students.
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or constant preoccupation caused by unwanted thoughts and feelings.
  • Social or excessive self-consciousness, making class participation and interactions with peers challenging.
  • Separation or fear of being separated from a caregiver. This is characterized by prolonged upset, difficulty calming down, and concern that something may happen to the loved one or care giver while apart.
  • Selective mutism or difficulty speaking in certain environments or around specific individuals like a teacher or peers. These children are often very talkative in other situations, but remain silent, whisper, or communicate nonverbally.
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can result after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic or upsetting event. Nightmares, flashbacks, avoidance of certain activities or situations, or agitation, and/or sleep deprivation may occur frequently.
  • Phobias or extreme irrational fear of a particular thing or situation. Fear of animals, heights, and the dark are examples.

Symptoms of Anxiety

Like many learning challenges, the symptoms of anxiety disorders can resemble other concerns Childmind.org identifies the following indicators for students with excessive anxiety:

  • Refusal to go to school or difficulty with morning drop-off
  • Inattention and restlessness
  • Frequent trips to the nurse for repeated headaches, stomachaches, or unexplained nausea
  • Disruptive behavior
  • Not turning in assignments
  • Avoiding group or social situations

Support for Students

While cognitive behavior therapy and/or medication are accepted treatments, there are also a number of things that can be done at home and in the classroom to support children with anxiety disorders. Helping these students manage their apprehension is key. Let your child know that you understand their feelings and are there to help. Also try and anticipate potential challenges in advance and discuss practical steps for dealing with them.

A child presenting in front of the class, for example, might be encouraged to focus on smiles from two close friends in the audience, instead of other faces in a crowd. In addition, the same individual could establish a signal with the teacher beforehand for when a break, positive comment, or prompting question is needed to prevent feeling overwhelmed. Talk about how long an auditorium may be dark before a school presentation, plan for the child to hold a staff member or buddy’s hand or close their eyes until the familiar sound of clapping signals that the lights are on and activity has begun. Develop a drop-off or good-bye routine and practice and build up to lengthier separations when possible. Giving a child a song or saying they can think of to feel close to you may also be effective at times when holding a familiar object would be disruptive.

Children’s literature is also a great resource.  The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn is one such story that may help younger students adapt to missing loved ones while at school. Librarians and school counselors can provide other age appropriate titles for understanding and navigating challenges.

Approaching the Unknown

Avoidance may lead to increased fears over time. Consequently, experts recommend a­­pproaching the unknown with caution and compassion instead. Set reasonable expectations and a plan for worst case scenarios. The sooner a concern is identified and acknowledged, the sooner you can begin to work with your child, school staff, and clinician to provide the support needed to help your child thrive.





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