Anxiety at School: What Kids and Teens with Anxiety Need Teachers to Know

All kids have greatness in them, and like any of us, they will all need their own combination of "the right things" to flourish - the right people, the right environment, the right motivation, the right encouragement. The right support will make magic happen. It will light a vibrant, glowing spark that will open the world up to them, and them up to the world. 
As they grow, there will be things that get in their way. These will also be the same things that will teach them resilience, strength, courage, and the lessons that will breathe life into the remarkable potential that is in them. Anxiety can be a big one of these.

By Karen Young

Anxiety is common. In any classroom there will be a number of children who will feel its heavy hand. Anxiety loves anything unfamiliar, or any situation that comes with any potential for embarrassment, failure, humiliation, or shame. These are the twists that can skittle even the strongest of us, and the classroom is ripe for all of them. When anxiety shows up, it runs a relentless and persuasive argument that every situation is a risky one – and embarrassment, failure, humiliation and shame all count as risk. Anxiety isn’t always rational but it’s real, and very persuasive. 

None of us can ‘go it alone’ and we all need the right support from the right people at the right time to discover the remarkable, fiercely capable, and sometimes wonderfully surprising parts of ourselves. That support will look different for everyone. Teachers play an enormously important role, and can make a long-lasting and profoundly positive difference in the life of any child. There will be few other adults outside of a child’s family, who will have so much influence in nurturing children towards the extraordinary humans they are all capable of becoming. It’s not easy though! All kids are different and what works brilliantly for one might be disastrous for another. 
If we could ask kids and teens with anxiety what they need in the classroom to help them be the best they can be, here are some things they might say. Not everything on the list will be important to every child, but sometimes even the smallest tweaks can go a long way to helping kids and teens with anxiety find the very best version of themselves.

The reason I don’t put my hand up isn’t always what you think…
I wish you were able to see how many times I have the answer or something interesting to say, just perched on the edge of my lips, but then the thought of saying the wrong thing or looking silly, becomes bigger than the need to contribute. 

I wish it wasn’t like this – I’d love you to hear what I have to say – but for now, it’s just how it is. When I try to talk myself out of the fear, my anxiety lumbers in and talks louder…‘Wait what if you get it wrong. That would be awful. And so embarrassing. Everyone, including the teacher, will think you have no idea. Then there will be more attention and more questions and more of the teacher making sure you understand. Ugh. No way. Don’t do it. Leave your hand down. Seriously, whatever you do, don’t put your hand up. Just don’t.’ 

What teachers can try instead: Kids and teens with anxiety will often find it easier to be involved when they are working in smaller groups, especially if they are with people they feel safe with. Let them find their voice in a small group first – it’s an important step to helping them find it in a bigger group later on.

When you call on me unexpectedly, my mind goes blank.

Putting me on the spot terrifies me, and shuts down anything thoughtful or interesting I have to say. My thinking brain taps out at the worst time and when it does, I have no words and I can’t think. I want to be better with unpredictability, but it’s going to take time – not time for me to get it right, but time to feel safe enough to get it wrong. 

What to try instead: Anxiety has a way of stealing minds and voices at the worst time. When anxiety hits, it shuts down the pre-frontal cortex – the thinking, analysing, problem-solving part of the brain. If you’re going to call on a child or teen with anxiety, try to give them a warning and an opportunity to work out what to say first. Ask quietly for their thoughts and what they would like to add to the discussion. If they say something interesting, let them know, and then ask if they can share it with the class. Rather than being an experience that confirms how awful it is to speak in front of the class, it can become an opportunity for them to build their confidence and discover their influence.

Small groups feel safer, and will bring out the best in me.

I’m more likely to find my voice in a smaller group, especially if it’s with people I trust. It’s a way for me to experiment with sharing my ideas and trying new things, without being overwhelmed by the anxiety that comes with being in front of a big audience. 

What to try:  With anxious kids and teens, the safer they feel, the more they will surprise everyone with what they are capable of. Small groups can be a wonderful scaffold between anxious thoughts (‘I can’t do this’), and brave behaviour. Gently encourage them towards sharing with a bigger audience, perhaps as the speaker for the group, or performing something that has already been rehearsed in a smaller group.

I know you want me to experience new people but...

It might take a while for me to let you into my world, but when it happens, you’ll realise that I’m a pretty great human to be with – warm, friendly, funny … ok, now I’m blushing, but you get the idea. I know you think it’s important that I experience new people, but what’s even more important is that I have the opportunity to find out what I’m capable of. This is more likely to happen when I’m feeling safe. 

What to try: If the experience is going to be new or unfamiliar (e.g. a performance) try to let any anxious kids be with at least one familiar person. Doing things with familiar people might seem like a very small step forward, or no step at all, but little steps are what the big ones are made of.

I love it when you tell me my questions are good ones.

I know you’re there to help me, but the thought of coming to you with a question can feel like roller skating up a glacier – very wobbly, not so safe, and best not done. I’ll often tell myself that if it was a good question, other people would be asking it. I’ll tend to convince myself that I’m better off figuring things out on my own. Sometimes I’ll think I have it figured out (because that’s what I need to believe) and I won’t even realise I’m on the wrong track.

What to try: Let them know their questions are good ones. As well as this, quietly checking in sometimes will make it easier for anxious kids and teens to let you know if they need a hand.

Feeling normal is a lovely thing to feel.

What to try: Anything you can do to normalise anxiety, will help anxious kids feel as though they are in strong, safe hands. Chat to the class about what anxiety is. Explain that it’s something we all get it from time to time, (before an exam, sport, a performance) but that some people get it a lot. Let the class know that anxiety can feel like a big deal when you’re going through it, but it’s actually a sign that someone is about to do something really brave – and that brave is whatever feels brave for them. 

There is so much more to me than what you see.

 Until I feel safe and comfortable, people will only see the fringes of me. I don’t deliberately put myself away; it’s just the way I am. 

What to try:  Kids with anxiety are often no trouble at all, so it can be easy to overlook them or to assume they are giving everything they have to give. They might be giving everything, but there might also be more they are keeping back. Stay curious about their potential, and gently keep stretching them at their edges. So many times they will be capable of more than they are giving, but their anxiety about getting it wrong or looking silly will hold them back. They key is asking for just enough – not too much, and not too little. 

I don't want to be indulged.

I want to feel safe. I don’t expect to be given special treatment or extra attention. In fact, attention is something I’d generally like to steer clear of.

What to try: Connection is important for all kids, especially anxious ones. The safer they feel, the easier it will be for them to explore, experiment and take the risks that will help them to discover what they are capable of. Your relationship with them is key to helping them feel safe, so when you can, work on that. Casually ask them about their weekend, any of their extra-curricular activities, their pets, or anything else that seems to be important to them – but don’t ask in front of the class. They might only give you a word or two to start with, and it might feel uncomfortable for a while, but good things take time and the effort will be worth it.

Please don't bring attention to me.

I love being noticed, but being the centre of attention can feel terrifying. This is whether it’s being called on in class, or being praised in front of everyone for something I did well. 

What to try: Anything that puts anxious kids or teens squarely in the centre of attention can feel overwhelming. Instead, go for gentle acknowledgement by letting them know when you’re pleased or when they’ve done something well. 

If I freeze, don't make a big deal of it.

Sometimes I don’t know what to say and I don’t know what to do. It freezes me. It can make me look unprepared, or as though I don’t have the answers you’re looking for, but that’s not how it is.

What to try: If kids or teens freeze at the start of a performance or during one, or when they are called on in class, don’t make a big deal of it. Downplay it, normalise it and help them find a safe space (by inviting them to sit back down for a while or to take a moment). Then, give them the opportunity to start again when they’re ready. 

Sometimes my anxiety blocks out what you're saying.

What you’re saying is important and I want to understand it, but when you’re talking to me, sometimes all I can think to myself is ‘don’t say the wrong thing, don’t do the wrong thing’ – oh the noise gets noisier.

What to try: When you can, check that your instructions have been heard correctly, and avoid getting frustrated, annoyed or upset if you have to repeat them. Anxious kids and teens aren’t asking for anything more than anyone else – lots of other kids in the class will need things explained or the instructions repeated.

Understand that anxiety is masterful at looking like something else.

Sometimes when I’m anxious, I feel angry, fierce or furious. I don’t mean to be disruptive or to cause any trouble. I wish I didn’t do this too.

Why it happens: Anxiety is fight or flight, and sometimes the ‘fight’ part can take over. When this happens, it can drive tantrums, aggression or meltdowns.

What to try: Know that the behaviour will stop as soon as the anxiety passes. You might be tempted in the moment to talk about consequences, but if the behaviour is being driven by anxiety, it will only make it worse. Leave any discussions of consequences until after things have calmed down. 

Sometimes I'll burst into tears, but not because I'm sad.

It might seem as though it’s happening for no reason at all. This can be confusing to me too.

Why it happens: Sometimes anxiety can look like tears. Lots of tears. This happens because the amygdala, the part of the brain that drives anxiety, also drives emotion. When the amygdala is at full volume (as it is during anxiety), emotions will also be at full volume. 

What to do: Understand that sometimes, tears can be driven by anxiety more than sadness. When that happens, rather than trying to understand what’s driving the tears, just be a strong steady presence until the anxiety settles. If you can, try to encourage strong, deep breathing. This will activate the relaxation response, which will help to neutralise the surging of neurochemicals that come with anxiety.

Remember what I'm here for.

Confidence, independence and resilience are all important too, and I have plenty of potential for all of that in me, but first I’m here to learn. The easier and safer that feels, the easier it will be to build everything else.

What to try: Don’t force independence, friendships, confidence, resilience. Kids and teens with anxiety are pushing themselves all the time, even if you don’t always see it. They already have everything they need inside them to be amazing humans. It will unfold, grow and strengthen when they feel safe.

Let me know that you get it.

I know I’m not the only one with anxiety, but when it hits it can feel like I’m the only person on the planet that has to push through the days with anxiety in the way.
What to try: Wherever you can, fill in the unknowns so there is no room for an anxious kid to fill them in with something worse.

And finally...

Kids and teens with anxiety have remarkable strengths that the world needs more of. Often you’ll only see the tip of what they are capable of. Do whatever you can to help anxious kids and teens find their own important way to shine. The more we can help them to feel that they are stronger, braver, better, bigger and more powerful than anything that they are scared of, the more we can open up the world to them, and in turn, they will open up their very wonderful world to us.•



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