Solutions for Anxiety at School

Little boy at desk in classroom
It's hard for children and teens to learn when experiencing anxiety. Maskot/Getty Images

Anxiety can impact learning and school success—sometimes in surprising ways. Understanding exactly how anxiety impacts children and teens in school can help you understand the problems your child faces. Whether your child has a diagnosed anxiety disorder or you suspect anxiety may be causing school troubles, awareness of anxiety along with strategies that work in schools will help you to support your child in school.

There are several different anxiety and anxiety-related disorders that children and teens experience. The criteria used for children and teens do vary somewhat from the criteria used to diagnose adults. These disorders include generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, separation anxiety disordersocial anxiety disorder, selective mutism, and phobias. What each of these disorders shares is a tendency to worry excessively, feel afraid, or an overwhelming sense of panic. It is these tendencies that cause anxiety disorders to disrupt learning and school achievement.

How Anxiety Disorders Interfere With Learning and School Achievement

  • Trouble Participating: Your child may not be able to participate in class discussions or work with other students on group projects if they feel afraid. They may go from being nervous about a test to unable to complete a test if they feel too overwhelmed by anxiety. Your child may be afraid of being called on to provide an answer or read in front of the class.
  • Aches and Pains: Worry, fear, and panic all take a toll on the body. Upset stomachs and body aches are common in children and teens with anxiety disorders. If the symptoms occur each school day but disappear on weekends or holiday breaks, anxiety related to school may be the cause of the pains.
  • Frequently Distracted: Worrying and fear take up a person's attention so they are unable to pay attention to what is going on around them.
  • Often Tired: Worry and fear can keep a child or teen from being able to go to sleep, causing them to be sleepy. Lack of sleep reduces cognitive performance, and may even lead a child to fall asleep in school.
  • Doesn't Speak Up—or at All: Children and teens experiencing anxiety often avoid speaking up at school. They avoid asking questions when they need help, and may even decline help that is offered. This can cause a child to fall far behind because they cannot speak up to get the help they need.
  • Refuses to Go to SchoolIn order to avoid all of the anxiety triggers that exist in a school, whether it is tests, social groups, or school performance related, children will sometimes avoid going to school at all.

Here are the first steps you can take if you suspect anxiety is causing your child's school problems.

Get in Touch With a Care Professional About Your Concerns

While everyone may feel afraid or worry from time to time, anxiety disorders are persistent and interfere with a person's life. It's important to seek out professional evaluation and advice early. School years fly by quickly, and the longer a child or teen is struggling with anxiety interfering in their education the further fall behind in school.

 

Getting involved early will prevent the slide from anxiety being any longer than it needs to be. While there isn't a hard rule, a good guideline is to speak with your child's pediatrician or primary care provider if problems last for two weeks.

Find out Exactly What You Are Dealing With

Earlier you read about the variety of anxiety conditions that children and teens may have. Understanding which one your child is experiencing can help you and the school to find the best strategies to help. 

It's also important to realize that anxiety is often experienced with other conditions, such as depression or ADHD.

ADHD can also appear to have the same symptoms as anxiety. The presence of another condition may make someone more susceptible to anxiety because of the increased stress caused by other conditions. If anxiety is already present than stress from other disorders may make it worse.

Each person will have a unique experience with anxiety. Be sure to check with your child's care provider if there are any other conditions present.

Here are some specific ways you can support your child or teen who has school anxiety.

Come up With a Plan Rather Than Letting Them off the Hook

If your anxious child tells you they can't do something, it's easy to let them avoid it. Total avoidance of anxiety-producing situations does not work in the long run. Come up with a plan to slowly get your child or teen to fully participate in the situation that causes them anxiety. The term for this is "exposure therapy."

You can work with your child's care provider to come up with an appropriate exposure therapy plan. An example of such a plan is if your child is refusing to go to school, your child begins by attending school for only one hour a day, then slowly increase the amount to cover a full day.

Get Your Children's Teachers Involved and Follow up With Them

Schedule a time to meet with your child's teachers to explain your child's anxiety experience. Once the teachers understand how your child's anxiety may be affecting them in the classroom, teachers can find ways to support your child. Some examples include:

  • Not calling on the student to read aloud or answer questions if your child is afraid of embarrassing themselves in front of the class. Work towards a system where the teacher provides a subtle clue to the student they may be called on soon, giving the student time to formulate an answer.
  • Having your child meet one on one to give a speech or oral report if your child experiences unusually high anxiety over public speaking. Work towards giving presentations to a small group.
  • Having your child take a test with extended time or in a separate room if they experience test anxiety. Some children will become anxious or the time limit of a test, while others may start to worry if they see other students are finished and they are not. 
  • Have the use of a "chill-out" pass, where your child can leave the classroom and go to a designated quiet area if they feel unusually anxious. 

Be sure to take good notes during this meeting. You want to have a clear record of exactly what strategies were agreed upon, and how long they should last. This record will help you to remember exactly what was said, and will also come in handy if you need to try different strategies in the future. 

Consider Getting a 504 Plan

A 504 plan is a plan for accommodations for a physical or mental disability. If your child has a medical diagnosis of an anxiety disorder, a 504 plan may help them to access a higher level of classroom accommodations than without such a plan. It also helps to ensure that any modifications that are agreed on will be followed by the school.

Check in Frequently With Your Child About How School Is Going

All children and teens may avoid telling their parents about trouble at school. They may fear disappointing their parents. Children and teens experiencing anxiety can become experts at covering up school problems. Ironically this fear of disappointing others should anyone find out school isn't going great is the result of wanting to be successful. These kids care about their school performance.

In order to get them to talk about how school is really going and what they are struggling with, they need to feel safe. They need to know they will be supported and provided help through workable strategies rather than solely being punished or feeling a parent's anger. 

Talking with them frequently will give you and your child a chance to address issues quickly, before they escalate. You can also structure the conversations to help them learn to find solutions rather than judging themselves.

Stay Calm and Be Careful How You Express Concerns

Children and teens learn a lot about the world from their parents. You have tremendous influence over your child's opinions and values. Children also look to their parent's moods and reactions for clues about how they should view the world around them.

Children and teens experiencing anxiety can be unusually sensitive to comments you make that express that a situation or person might be distressing. For example, an anxious child may take a comment you make about the rise in concussions at school and become fearful of participating in PE. If you happen to notice your child looks fearful or worried after you make a comment that can be viewed as frightening to them, talk with them and give them reassuring but honest facts about what you have discussed. 

Each child or teen experiencing anxiety does so in their own unique way. By taking time to learn about their experience, you learn more than just how to advocate for them. You are also learning more about your child. While anxiety may bring challenges for your child at school and at home, they can conquer the challenges with the good help and support.

Sources:

"Anxiety Disorders at School." Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA. Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA.

Gillespie, Bradley , PharmD. "Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) DSM-5 300.02 (F41.1)." Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) DSM-5 300.02 (F41.1) - Therapedia. Theravive, 2016.

"Sample Accommodations for Anxious Kids." WorryWiseKids.org | Sample Accommodations for Anxious Kids. The Children's and Adult Center for OCD and Anxiety.

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