Student anxiety is one of the most common issues teachers face today—and one of the most frustrating. Anxiety may look like a child refusing to make eye contact or freezing before taking a test, but it can also look like a student being disrespectful or throwing a pencil across the room.
According to the Child Mind Institute, an organization working to help children with mental health and learning disorders, anxiety disorders are the most common mental health disorders in children and adolescents. By the age of 18, nearly one in three children will meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder. While everyone feels anxious at times, it's important to remember that an anxiety disorder goes beyond that; it's not based on what a child is worrying about, but on how worry impacts their ability to function.
Phyllis Fagell, a school counselor and therapist based in Maryland and Washington, D.C., deals with student anxiety every day. According to her, here are the steps teachers should follow to deal with student anxiety in the classroom.
1. Start with a Student Meeting
According to Fagell, students who are experiencing anxiety may not fully understand their actions or responses. "Teachers need to understand that even students themselves may not recognize that anxiety is what's getting in their way," she said. "They may need help recognizing triggers and developing coping strategies."
Further reading: 6 Strategies to Relieve Teacher Anxiety
Fagell suggests starting out by meeting privately with the student before or after class to talk about the issue and better understand its cause. This also helps build rapport and lets the child know their teacher is supportive and understanding.
2. Create a Coping Toolbox
During the student meeting, the teacher and student should work together to create a "coping toolbox," which consists of strategies the student may use in class if they experience anxiety symptoms. "One student might need a walk down the hall or five minutes of concentrated breathing," Fagell said. "Another might need to be reassured that while he has to figure out directions independently first, the teacher will check in with him once the work is underway."
When anxiety ramps up, teachers can remind students to access their "toolbox" and implement the strategy they need.
3. Validate Student Feelings
Before trying to problem-solve with students who are in the midst of racing thoughts or have completely shut down, Fagell recommends that teachers validate students' feelings. For instance, saying, "If I was afraid I might look dumb, I'd be worried about raising my hand too," may reduce the impact of anxiety and help a student relax, develop trust, and feel understood.
Fagell also reminds teachers not to shame anxious students. Their behaviors may be frustrating, but teachers must remember that students aren't intentionally trying to be aggravating.
4. Use Mindfulness
Mindfulness strategies help keep students grounded in the present moment when their thoughts are spinning out of control or their fight-or-flight response is kicking in. Fagell says her students like mindfulness strategies they can do in the classroom without drawing attention to themselves. She teaches students to hold an object in their hand and think of three adjectives to describe it, or to take a few minutes to identify all the sounds they hear in the classroom.
All students (and teachers) benefit from staying present and mindful, so teachers may opt for mindfulness breaks with the entire class to reach and support all students—not just those with anxiety.
5. Teach Competence
Fagell notes that shielding students from all stressors won't cure anxiety. "If we want students to feel competent, rather than helpless, they have to feel they can sit with uncomfortable feelings." Many students have become accustomed to immediate assistance, and become anxious if they have to wait. Giving students an opportunity to practice sitting with their feelings for a set amount of time can help build this endurance.
6. Refer Students for Additional Help
Some students require support beyond what teachers can provide in the classroom and should be referred to the school counselor or an outside mental health professional. Students with more severe symptoms who receive a medical diagnosis for anxiety may qualify for special education and receive an individualized education program (IEP), or may receive accommodations through a 504 plan, both of which qualify the student for additional support beyond what is available in the classroom.
Further reading: Teaching after Recess or Lunch: Challenge Accepted
Student anxiety is an inevitable reality in today's classroom. Knowing how to recognize the signs and deal with the symptoms will help teachers lessen its impact and effect on learning.