With the dramatic rise of students experiencing debilitating anxiety, every teacher is now dealing with this issue. And the reality is that most teachers have no training on how to best manage student anxiety in the classroom, whether it’s a physical classroom or a virtual one.
As a result, struggling students fail to get the support they need to succeed. The rest of the class can get shortchanged when teachers are forced to spend too much time and attention on students with anxiety. And, teachers are becoming overwhelmed and burned out.
In this article, we’ll provide some information to help teachers understand what anxiety is, how to recognize it, and the most effective strategies for supporting students with anxiety. And, we’ll touch on the supports and training that districts should be providing to properly prepare teachers to handle student anxiety.
How does anxiety impact the student’s ability to learn and work?
Feeling anxious distracts a student from everything else; the student has completely shut down. All of their attention is focused on their anxiety, and their reaction is similar to a fight-or-flight response. Their defense mechanisms kick in, and the student has no ability to process what you’re trying to teach them. Trying to force the child to follow instructions will never work, because the student simply can’t do what you ask.
That is why it’s essential to discover and manage the underlying issue when it comes to anxiety.
What does student anxiety look like in the classroom?
Here’s what is difficult about this problem for teachers: anxiety manifests in many different ways. So it can be tricky for an untrained teacher to tell the difference between a student with a simple behavior issue and one suffering from anxiety.
Here are some tell-tale signs that can indicate a possible issue with anxiety.
A student suffering from anxiety is trying anything in his or her power to avoid the cause of the anxiety. In the classroom, that might be the work itself, interacting with or being around peers, or speaking out loud. One anxious student might withdraw completely and fail to engage or participate in class. In a virtual situation, the student may frequently not show up for class. Another might use every excuse to leave the room (going to the nurse or the bathroom whenever they are asked to complete work). Another might zone out in class, playing games on their Chromebook.
In addition to avoidance behavior, you may also observe outward signs of anxiety such as hair pulling, nail biting, rocking, or shaking their legs. You might even see self-injury behaviors. Students might dig nails, a pen cap, or a pushpin into their skin. The sensory input is soothing to the anxious student because it distracts them from their feelings of anxiety.
Untrained teachers often mistake oppositional behavior for defiance, when the cause is really debilitating anxiety. Students often repeat in the classroom whatever behavior works for them at home to avoid the causes of their anxiety. So if acting out creates a diversion and gets the student out of having to do work, that becomes their go-to tactic in class.
Managing student anxiety: intervention strategies for teachers
Connecting with the child
Triage is the place to start, and that means taking the time to get to know the child. You need to understand what’s behind the behavior before you can intervene effectively.
Especially with an anxious student who is withdrawing, that is often easier said than done. One helpful strategy is something I call “2/20.” It involves spending just 2 minutes per day focusing on a student who is disengaged or acting out, for a period of 20 days.
The idea is to break the ice by talking about anything other than school. Compliment their new hairstyle or talk sports: anything to begin making a connection. As the student becomes more comfortable talking to you, they may feel more comfortable opening up to you about their issues.
Helping them become self aware
Half the battle with anxiety is recognizing what’s going on… not only for the teacher, but for the student as well. When he or she can recognize the signs of anxiety coming on, they can take steps to prevent or diffuse the attack. Which in turn is a great help to the teacher in managing the situation.
Start by having the student pay attention to and describe how they feel physically when they get anxious. Upset stomach? Racing heart? Sweaty palms? Headache? Then help them recognize the behavior change that happens next. There’s a helpful technique known as “How Does Your Engine Run?” that helps children identify feelings and come up with ways to self-regulate.
The goal is to get the student to the point where they understand what is happening to them and can identify tactics that help, such as taking a 2 minute break or splashing water on their face.
Teaching frustration tolerance
Many kids have difficulty with tolerating frustration. In the throes of anxiety, they feel devastated and think their current struggles are going to define their entire life.
As a teacher, you can help them to understand that anxiety will pass and they will get through it. That their high school issues don’t mean they can’t succeed in life.
You can also help them to see the difference between a real threat and a perceived one that might not actually threaten them at all. Above all, let them know that you are there to help.
Working with accommodations
When anxiety reaches the point where a student receives IEP accommodations, a student might be given extra time, a decreased workload, special seat assignment, or an agreement to come late and leave class a few minutes early.
Teachers sometimes struggle with accommodations when they don’t understand the nature of anxiety and how debilitating it can be for a student. (And when the teacher feels that way, it’s not surprising when the other students resent another student’s accommodations that may seem unfair.) It’s important to remember that it’s about giving each student what they need to succeed. It’s equitable, not equal.
Another issue teachers face is the changing nature of anxiety (as well as other student mental health issues). Accommodations recommended the year before may not make sense in the new school year if the child’s behavior has changed. It’s important for a teacher to get to know the student and make sure the IEP you are given matches what you are seeing in the classroom. If not, it’s time for a parent meeting to discuss changes.
The best solution for student anxiety: training & support
Two critical things are needed to help teachers manage student anxiety in the classroom, and ensure that each child gets the education they deserve and are entitled to receive:
Staff training. School districts are realizing that education is about more than academics. Students need social and emotional learning to succeed in the world. Those lessons need to be taught in every classroom. Teachers and school counselors need to be trained in how to do so, and how to best support students with mental health needs.
If you have questions about training your staff to manage student mental health issues, I am happy to help. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Making expert mental health support available for students. School staff, even those who are receiving mental health training, cannot be expected to handle student issues without support from experts.
Every school has students who need help to succeed. It’s important to realize that not all of these students need to be sent out of district to therapeutic schools. And if you can avoid that, it’s a huge cost saver. With the right school-based mental health program, you can get access to advice and guidance from experienced clinicians that can make all the difference in keeping students where they belong: in their home district.
Learn more about school-based mental wellness programs from this informative guide: Proactive Mental Wellness: The Keystone of Your Strong School Community