Students With Anxiety Need our Support
Recommendations for Teachers and Parents
Many students (and adults) suffer from anxiety. Fortunately, when I was a teacher, I always had my parents as a resource.
My parents were psychologists who specialized in anxiety: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Social Anxiety to be specific. It’s only because of this that I was able to better support students. I heard counselors and resource specialists tell me kids were “lazy” or that their parents were enabling them to fail. I understood that if you are having a panic attack, you literally can’t function. It is so distressing and debilitating. No one should choose to feel this way. I let my students know I cared about them and told them we could work out ways for them to be successful in my class. I felt glad to help them, yet also sad that they had to struggle for so long to get to high school before a teacher recognized that they were suffering and needed support. We need more discussion and training around academic and social anxiety in schools.
Things Students With Anxiety Wish Their Teacher Understood
As parents, it can be difficult to know how to support a child with anxiety. Kids can suffer from separation anxiety, social anxiety about making friends or talking in groups, or academic anxiety such as taking tests, reading or doing math.
Even though I have learned some strategies from my parents it is difficult at times to know what is best. It is such a balancing act between giving our kids the love, reassurance and hugs they need and not pushing too hard vs. pushing them out the nest or telling them to “rub some dirt on it!”. Both are necessary parts of parenting, it’s sometimes hard to know when to do what.
Some Success Stories
As a teacher, I have used various strategies with students. In some cases it has meant talking off line with students to create more manageable expectations for class participation. One student, for example was extremely anxious about speaking in class. We made an agreement that she only needed to speak out loud ONCE a day and that I would give her the prompt beforehand so she could prepare. She was successful at this, so we gradually ramped it up each day.
Another girl was so scared to speak in class she had panic attacks and didn’t come to school at all. After speaking with her and her mom one on one. We agreed she would participate nonverbally. Then little by little, we worked on having her talk in pairs, then (very quietly) in groups, then in larger class discussions. It was great to see her onstage at the end of the year receiving a “most improved” award. Who would have thought the “shyest girl in class” could ever be seen on stage, with the brightest smile you’ve ever seen. She was beaming!
Recommendations for Teachers and Parents
Disclaimer: I am not a therapist, OR and anxiety expert. Nonetheless, working with the knowledge I have gained over the years, I have learned a few things:
- We all suffer from anxiety. It’s normal. It’s important to let students know that EVERYONE experiences anxiety. Anxiety is a part of our fight or flight response in our brain. Even though it can be protective (when say, running away from bears!) it also shuts down cognitive processing that really does make it impossible for people to think or act at times. (Doing algebra is REALLY NOT A TOP PRIORITY WHEN RUNNING AWAY FROM, SAY BEARS!)
- It is normal to want to avoid anxiety. Anxiety raises the heart rate, makes breathing shallow, constricts blood vessels, releases neurotransmitters and stress chemicals in the body. If you’ve ever had an anxiety or panic attack, you know this feeling— it’s no fun.
- Some folks suffer from extreme levels of anxiety which prevents them from leading a happy, healthy life. In some cases, anxiety gets so great people have what are called panic attacks. I had a friend once who suffered from panic attacks so bad, he felt like he was having a heart attack and had to go to the emergency room. In cases like this, where anxiety gets in the way of daily activities, it’s a good idea to get help.
- The most effective way to reduce anxiety is GRADUAL exposure. My dad used to say “face and erase your fear”. That said, it’s important to do it gradually, or risk traumatizing someone. In my discussions with students, I always asked them to rate their anxiety in performing specific tasks from 1 – 10 (1 = no anxiety and 10 = panic attack). I never asked students to do anything that would be higher than a 4 or 5 on the anxiety scale. The key to this approach is exposing a person to fearful triggers that are not overwhelming and for enough time that they can feel their fear subsiding. (And experience success!) Over time, you can gradually increasing challenges.
- When we pressure students to perform too far beyond their comfort zone, it often makes anxiety worse. The analogy of forcing a child to face their fear by “throwing them into the deep end of the pool” is ineffective and in many cases is highly traumatic. Events like this often increase anxiety and make people work harder to avoid potentially triggering situations in the future.
- Anxiety can be very specific. I once had a student who was very social. She was able to talk to friends one on one, but got anxious talking with teachers or speaking in class. I know folks who can speak on stage, but get tongue-tied making small talk at parties. Just because a child “should” be able to do something, doesn’t mean he or she can.
- The first and most powerful steps in dealing with anxiety is just talking about it. Many folks who suffer from extreme anxiety will go to great lengths to avoid even thinking about what makes them anxious. Asking students to talk or write you a letter about what makes them anxious (while being explicit about the fact that this is ALL you are asking) is a great way to help them overcome their fears. Once they can discuss their anxiety without too much anxiety, you can move on to actually trying a strategy.
- Include children in problem-solving. It’s important for students to be active participants. I always asked students to write me a letter or tell me what THEY think might be a way to successfully face their fears. If they are to overwhelmed to suggest ideas, I list possible ideas in a multiple choice fashion and let them pick. Students need to learn that with support, they have the power to help themselves overcome their fears.
Parents Can Be Great Allies and Advocates
One of the greatest roles of being a parent is that of an advocate and ally. One example I heard about came from a parent who shared that at the start of each new year, she writes a letter to her child’s teacher. In it, she provides background information to help him or her be more informed and understanding with her child. She also suggests strategies that help her child succeed in overcome various challenges. I know that as a teacher it would really have been great to get this information before problems come up.
Helping an anxious child can be challenging at times, and it can be hard to know what to do. It’s important for us as parents to remember that there are school and community resources who can help. We can do a lot by reaching out for help, so anxiety doesn’t prevent our kids from making friends, feeling left out, or getting access to the great education they deserve.