Most of us feel anxious from time to time. And while it can
be uncomfortable, anxiety is, in fact, a helpful emotion. Appropriate levels of
anxiety can help us with focus and performance.
However, anxiety may become problematic if
it persists over long periods
it’s exaggerated and doesn’t seem to match the situation
is causing distress
impacts on daily functioning
You can help students
learn to recognize and manage anxiety, and can connect them with more support
Watch our tutorial: How to recognize and respond to anxiety in the
30-minute tutorial introduces the concept of anxiety, explores signs and
symptoms, typical responses to stress, when to be concerned, and reviews
strategies to support students with anxiety problems in the classroom.
Download our info sheet for a printable copy of this information
At school, we can help students to regulate feelings of anxiety so they’re more available for learning. For most students, general strategies and supports will be enough to help them keep anxiety in check.
You are not a mental health professional and cannot diagnose problematic anxiety. You are, however, a caring adult who may notice signs that a student is struggling. There are many specific subtypes of anxiety disorders, but in general, the following are some common signs of problematic anxiety:
difficulty speaking in groups or class
exaggerated need to be perfect
performance on tests doesn’t match ability
recurring physical symptoms without medical explanation (stomach aches)
refusal and/or avoidance of tasks
separation issues (younger students)
social issues, like extreme shyness around peers
If you notice a student showing concerns in this area that are causing distress or getting in the way of their learning, keep an eye on them and consider some targeted classroom strategies.
The following strategies can help to prevent the onset of an anxiety disorder, minimize its impact, and/or assist with recovery.
provide consistent and predictable arrival routines
reinforce brave behaviour
refrain from commenting on fears
arrange for a buddy to greet the student and help with the transition
maintain regular communication with the parent/guardian
work with the parent/guardian to identify positive ways to reinforce non-anxious behaviour (e.g., allow the student to take home a special book or toy when they are brave at school)
An exaggerated need to be perfect
model that mistakes are a part of learning and can be seen as opportunities
encourage the use of brainstorming and rough drafts
use rubrics to outline realistic performance expectations
acknowledge the student for finishing tasks on time without continual revising
use self-talk that reinforces self-compassion (“Oops, I made a mistake. Oh well, I’ll get it better next time)
acknowledge that imperfection can feel disappointing or uncomfortable, without trying to “fix it”
Worries about tests and exams
provide instruction about effective test-taking strategies (e.g., writing down things you memorized before looking at the questions, doing easy questions first)
encourage the use of breathing exercises to keep calm
avoid ‘pop’ quizzes; some students need advance notice
provide a separate environment for test-taking
allow additional time, if needed
Anxiety about completing tasks in time
provide advance notice of tests, assignments and time-limited tasks
use checklists and visual reminders of tasks and upcoming events
help students to chunk tasks into manageable units, using a calendar or schedule
provide feedback and encouragement for each section of the task completed
allow additional time, if needed
Fear of social situations at school, including public speaking
work to develop a culture of acceptance and kindness throughout the classroom
reassure students that everyone feels nervous about speaking in front of a class
gradually work up to class presentations by having students practice in pairs/small groups
do not allow the student to avoid social interactions – it’s important that they are exposed to these situations and experience overcoming the fear
if a student is worried about responding to questions in class, consider having the student answer yes/no questions first (instead of open-ended), rehearse questions and answers before class, or develop a cue that tells you that the student is ready to respond
Remember, it’s not your role to diagnose a mental health disorder. But you can observe, document and work collaboratively as part of a team to provide caring support at school.
When to take action:
anxiety appears to be affecting the student’s day-to-day functioning
the signs of difficulty seem severe or prolonged
the student or their family has expressed concern
What to do:
Follow your school board’s protocol for accessing mental health support. This may include:
consulting with your principal, vice-principal or member of your school’s mental health leadership team
discussing your observations with the student and/or their parent/guardian
a referral for professional mental health support from school board personnel (e.g., school social worker or school psychologist)
a referral for professional mental health support within the community
You are a critical part of the support process because you help with early identification. You will remain part of the student’s circle of support as they move to, through, and from professional mental health services.
Take care of yourself
It’s essential that you take care of yourself too—for your well-being, and so you’re better able to support the students you serve. Pay attention to your thoughts and feelings and try basic self-care strategies . Learn to recognize when you need additional support. Help is available for you through your employee assistance program.
We will continue to expand our resources based on input. Please send us your ideas for topics to cover so we can meet your professional learning needs.
What can we help you find?
Need help now?
We don’t provide mental health advice, counselling or treatment. If you or someone you know is in crisis, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department. You can also reach out to Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868.