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Anxiety Problems in the Classroom

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 that’s happening
  • it is causing distress
  • it impacts on daily functioning

You can help students learn to recognize and manage anxiety, and can connect them with more support if necessary.

How to help students

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.

Here are some everyday strategies to try in your mentally healthy classroom:

  • Have predictable classroom routines and tell students about changes in advance
  • Normalize the experience of anxiety, and work to reduce potential sources of stress at school
  • Appreciate that students may experience or express anxiety differently, depending on their cultural background and/or personal circumstances,
  • Teach/reinforce time management and study skills, so that students feel more prepared and confident for tests and assignments
  • Help students to break down large tasks into manageable pieces
  • Take time to practice stress reduction techniques in the classroom, and model effective strategies (e.g., pausing and taking a deep breath)
  • Reinforce social-emotional skills, like problem-solving, decision-making, and conflict resolution
  • Encourage healthy risk-taking, and reinforce students for solid effort, maintaining a growth mindset
  • When students are struggling with a new skill, remind them to be gentle with themselves and to take the time they need to learn and practice
  • Set up ways for all students to comfortably participate in class (e.g., talking in small groups for students who may be shy or new language learners).

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:

  • attendance concerns
  • difficulty speaking in groups or class
  • exaggerated need to be perfect
  • excessive worry
  • fears
  • 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.

Difficulty separating from caregivers

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

What to do if you’re concerned

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.

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