Creating a calm classroom environment that is conducive to learning is essential for any teacher. And, while mental health awareness is on the rise across the globe, it can be challenging to identify students who might be struggling with mental health disorders such as anxiety. It’s important to understand how anxiety can manifest itself in different individuals and to develop classroom procedures that are supportive and effective for helping students who struggle with it, whether they have been diagnosed or not. Here we explore what anxiety can look like in your students and examine some strategies that can help.
What are the Signs of Anxiety in Children?
Across the world, we are becoming more aware that anxiety in children is rising. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 10-20% of children and adolescents experience mental health conditions worldwide. Globally, anxiety is the sixth leading cause of illness and disability for those aged 10-14 years. Whilst this statistic is distressing, the good news is that mental health awareness is firmly on the rise and more prevalent than ever in classrooms across the world.
Anxiety is more than just a temporary fear—it is a constant state of worry or nervousness for some students. While the signs of anxiety look different for everyone, here are a few common symptoms of anxiety, taken from the charity Mind:
- Feeling tense, nervous or unable to relax
- Having a sense of dread, or fearing the worst
- Feeling light-headed or dizzy
- Feeling restless or unable to sit still
- Headaches, backache or other aches and pains
- Sweating or hot flushes
- Sleep problems
Anxiety can also impact a student’s educational performance, and result in issues such as:
- High absenteeism rates
- Difficulty processing and retrieving information
- Lack of sleep
- Disruptive behavior in class
- Fractured relationships with peers and teachers
- Irregular homework completion and classroom participation
- Complaints of physical ailments
It is important to keep in mind that different factors may be at play when examining a student’s mental health. According to the charity Young Minds, the following circumstances are an example of what can make some children and young people feel more anxious:
- Experiencing lots of change in a short space of time, such as moving house or school
- Having responsibilities that are beyond their age and development, for example caring for other people in their family
- Being around someone who is very anxious, such as a parent
- Struggling at school, including feeling overwhelmed by work, tests or peer groups
- Experiencing family stress around things like housing, money, and debt
- Going through distressing or traumatic experiences in which they do not feel safe, such as being bullied
Strategies to Help Combat Anxiety in the Classroom
Schools can often be a stressor and exacerbate anxiety in some students. As we have touched upon, while the root cause of a student’s anxiety might stem from something outside the classroom, there are ways to help mitigate situations in the classroom that might cause a student to feel anxious. Here are a few tips to get you started:
- Implement mindfulness practices
When a student is beginning to feel overwhelmed with anxiety, leading deep breathing and mindfulness exercises is a quick way to slow down one’s breathing and any racing thoughts. Deep breathing’s physical effect on one’s body can help a student in distress feel calmer in a matter of minutes. These deep breathing exercises from Coping Skills for Kids are a great resource to get you started. If you’re looking for an app to use, Headspace has a section dedicated for children, so that you can lead group meditation sessions in the classroom or virtually!
- Offer extra time on homework or tests
If time limits on homework or exams cause anxiety in your classroom, consider offering extra time for completion or alternate methods of turning in work. For example, if a student becomes anxious about the amount they must write, consider allowing that student to complete the work by typing or delivering it in an oral format.
- Is class participation causing anxiety? Consider a few alternatives
Speaking in front of a group of peers can be anxiety-inducing for some students. Try offering a few alternatives to classroom discussions like turning around and sharing answers with a partner instead of the whole class or using whiteboards or notecards to hold up answers instead of saying them out loud. These strategies will help make your next classroom discussion less nerve-racking for all involved.
- Provide cool-down spaces in the classroom or “cool-down passes” for a quick break
The sights and sounds of a classroom can quickly become overwhelming for someone struggling with anxiety. Offer a space in the classroom or a “cool-down pass” so that a student can step outside if they feel they need to. When a student is experiencing anxiety, their mind is probably racing, and often, a quick moment to cool down and relax can be the key to managing anxiety. It’s also important to let your students know that it is completely OK for them to take advantage of these spaces or passes. Anything you can to emphasize that students shouldn’t feel ashamed or embarrassed of experiencing anxiety, and normalizing anxiety is key.
- Work in partnership with parents and the school counselor to consider other adjustments
If a student’s anxiety is becoming a major problem in the classroom, consider working with your school’s guidance counselor and the student’s parents to put together a plan of other adjustments. Sharing information and problem-solving with all parties is an important part of making sure that you can help put together a comprehensive strategy that supports a student’s anxiety. This list from Psycom is a great resource to help brainstorm accommodations for an anxious student.