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
Educators and other school staff can help students learn to recognize and manage anxiety, and can connect them with more support if necessary.
As a leader, you guide and support staff who work directly with students. You’ll also help coordinate additional supports as necessary.
Watch our tutorial: How to recognize and respond to anxiety in the classroom
Our 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.
Educators aren’t mental health professionals and cannot diagnose problematic anxiety. They are, however, caring adults 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 an educator notices a student showing concerns in this area that are causing distress or getting in the way of their learning, it’s important to keep an eye on them and consider some targeted classroom strategies.
The strategies can help to prevent the onset of an anxiety disorder, minimize its impact, and/or assist with recovery.
Difficulty separating from caregivers
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 expectation
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 the role of educators to diagnose a mental health disorder. But they can observe, document and work collaboratively as part of a team to provide caring support at school. As the school or system leader ensure that staff have a clear understanding of the process to use when they are concerned.
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
Remind school staff of your school board or school’s protocol for accessing mental health support. This may include
discussions with you or a member of your school’s mental health leadership team
discussing 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
Educators are a critical part of the support process because they help with early identification. They will remain part of the student’s circle of support as they move to, through, and from professional mental health services, but they will need your support.
Depending on the student’s needs, some or all of the practices listed above may be helpful. Working closely with the student, their family, and mental health professionals within the circle of support is the best way to ensure that classroom support meets the student’s mental health needs.
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 staff and 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.