Identifying anxiety in the classroom can be one of the hardest chores you might have as a teacher. That’s because the signs of anxiety can be easily misread as symptoms of other learning difficulties, such as OCD or ADHD. Still, the chances of having an anxious kid in your classroom are pretty high – studies have shown that 4.4 million children aged 3 to 17 years old have been diagnosed with this learning disability.
In today’s article, we talk about how you can identify anxiety among your students, and we give you some tips to help those kids thrive.
What is anxiety?
This learning condition can be often disregarded by tutors and parents, who might perceive it as ‘just a kid who worries before a test.’ However, anxiety is much more than that. It’s a reaction to stress that involves excessive concern interfering with daily activities. This ongoing tension can be accompanied by physical symptoms, such as restlessness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, muscle tension, dizziness, fainting spells, or issues sleeping.
When anxious kids are under stress, their nervous system acts automatically, triggering their fight-or-flight response, so telling them to relax or calm down won’t help – in fact, it might make it worse. However, anxiety can be manageable, as long as the triggers are identified and the child’s concerns and feelings are acknowledged. Kids can learn how to slow down their emotions, control their reactions, understand how to prevent further anxious episodes, and improve their productivity in the classroom – with proper guidance.
How many types of anxiety are there?
Unfortunately, there is more than one type of anxiety children can struggle with:
- Separation anxiety – in this situation, children worry excessively when separated from their caregivers. They have a difficult time throughout the day, but especially during drop-offs, when their parents have to leave.
- Social anxiety – in this case, kids find it hard to participate in class and socialize with peers. They might isolate themselves and become withdrawn, refusing to mingle with other kids during class or recess.
- Selective mutism – in this situation, kids have issues speaking up in particular settings (to certain colleagues, or around the educator). This condition can easily be mistaken for shyness.
- Generalized anxiety – These kids usually struggle with perfectionism, both at school and at home, and the list of triggers can be endless. They have a hard time controlling their emotions and let their excessive worries take over.
- Phobias – Children manifest an excessive fear of particular things, like germs, snakes, or public speaking, and that triggers anxious behavior.
What are the symptoms of anxiety?
To help students with anxiety, you first need to be able to spot the signs of this condition. It can be tricky diagnosing adults with anxiety disorder, but when it comes to children, that becomes even more challenging. Symptoms might mimic other conditions or be mistaken for temper tantrums or hormones or other disorders. What’s more, children will be less likely to understand what is happening to them and might isolate themselves and refuse to talk about what they are going through. Below are some signs to look for, that might signal that a child is struggling with anxiety:
- Difficulties focusing on specific tasks
- Restlessness (Eg. squirming in their seat), fidgeting with their pencil or paper
- Refusing to go to school and constantly checking their phones to get in touch with their parents (most common for the separation anxiety disorder)
- Acting out and even throwing tantrums whenever things don’t go according to plan
- Asking lots of questions, over and over again, in search of reassurance
- Aggressive behavior, when they are feeling threatened or out of control
- Hard time speaking in public or participating in various classroom activities (giving presentations, doing group work, eating in the cafeteria); when the anxiety level becomes very heightened, they might even freeze
- Physical discomfort (Eg. sweaty palms, stomach aches, nausea, headaches, tense muscles, trouble breathing, sometimes they might even feel their heart racing)
- Doubting their abilities in a particular subject, refusing to turn in homework, and excessive self-criticism (these are usually linked to the generalized anxiety type, in which kids worry that they didn’t perform well enough)
- Worrying about tests much earlier than their classmates, making up negative scenarios
- Dreading assignments, subjects, or school itself
- Being negative about everything and always assuming the worst
- Moodiness for no apparent reason.
How can teachers support kids in overcoming anxiety?
1. Practice ‘breathe in and breathe out’
Inhaling deeply and going outside – even for a couple of minutes – can work wonders for anxious minds. If you see that one of your students is overwhelmed, give them a break and let them change the scenery for a while. Ask them to take deep breaths and take a look at the surroundings. This will turn the focus away from their worries, toward something more tangible: how many parked cars can they see? How many types of trees are there? How many shades of green are in the grass? This exercise will help them get out of their own heads and worries and focus on their surroundings, grounding them back to reality.
2. Design ‘a safe space’
Create a safe zone in the classroom where children can express their anxiety and retreat to calm down or take a break when things get overwhelming. It doesn’t take much: just a quiet nook that isn’t used in another activity. Some teachers provide headphones, books, coloring books and pencils, games, stuffed animals, and other things that help them take a break and decompress. However, if you notice that a child is spending all of their time during recess in the quiet nook, you should look into it and try to see why. While quiet time is important, interacting with other kids, playing games, and socializing are also crucial in a child’s development.
3. Make them keep ‘a gratitude journal’
This is one piece of advice that works wonders both for children and adults. Provide students in the classroom with notebooks or journals for them to write down things they’re thankful for. It’s been proven that once you trigger a positive train of thought, the brain is incapable of producing anxious behavior. Derail anxiety by asking kids to record every day at least one thing they are grateful for, and when they find themselves overwhelmed by negativity, they should reread their journals. Put aside five minutes at the end of each school day to this activity; this will help them be more realistic and more positive and head home with a more positive outlook on things. End the day on a high, if you will.
4. Encourage a healthy lifestyle
The factors that trigger anxiety are strongly connected to a child’s lifestyle. Getting the right amount of sleep and having a balanced diet is essential in managing situations that might seem overwhelming. Even though you don’t have control over what your students do when they’re out of the classroom, remind them how important rest and healthy eating are while they’re at school. Also, encourage healthy breaks every hour, and try to implement a no-devices rule during classes.
5. Make room for purposeful storytelling
Just like any other kid with learning disabilities, anxious kids dislike talking about what bothers them as much as they dislike being the center of attention. However, if you choose to share a story about anxiety management with the entire classroom, the students suffering from anxiety might be a little more receptive than during one-on-one interventions. Talking about their fears and concerns and feelings without putting them on the spot is a good way to capture their attention, and the crucial information they need will be absorbed much better, because they won’t feel targeted. Nowadays, there are numerous books about anxiety that target children, so make the best of available material to help kids understand that what they’re feeling is perfectly normal, and that they’re not alone in it.
6. Encourage movement and exercise
There is a strong relationship between mental health and exercise. Besides getting enough sleep, this is probably the most important aspect to consider when dealing with anxiety, both for children and adults. Any type of physical activity releases endorphins – chemicals in the brain that act as natural painkillers. These endorphins also improve the ability to sleep, which in turn reduces stress during the day. What’s more, anxiety often feels like there is a lot of pent-up energy in one’s body, with nowhere to go. Getting outside and moving, being active, releases that energy and helps anxiety and tension in the body dissipate. Anytime you see students struggling with overwhelming thoughts, get them moving. Just 10 or 15 minutes of exercise, like walking outside, playing ball, or riding a bike will enhance their state of wellbeing. Try to incorporate movement and outdoor activities during breaks, to help students stay balanced, release negative energy, and come back to class refreshed.
7. Customize the learning process
Adaptability plays a huge role for children with this learning disability, especially for those who struggle with performance anxiety. Design individual tests and assignments for the children struggling with anxiety or shyness, so that they won’t feel that stressed. You can also extend cue sheets and time when asking to complete a task. Children with anxiety tend to also feel exposed, so try to accommodate their needs by having them sit somewhere at the back of the class, not in the front row, where they might feel like everyone is looking at them. Finally, don’t put them on the spot in front of the whole class, as that might just make matters worse and they will always be in a state of fear during your classes. Instead, be encouraging but don’t be pushy; if they’re relaxed enough during your class and don’t feel afraid, they’ll be more inclined to raise their hand, and that’s when you should turn the focus on them – when it’s their choice.
If you believe one of your students might be struggling with anxiety, contact Da Vinci Collaborative. We’re a team of highly trained professional teachers, equipped with the necessary knowledge to tutor children suffering from dyslexia, autism, ADHD, and other conditions. Reach out to us if you have any questions!