10 Things Educators Should Know About Anxiety in Children
As a parent and an educator, I have sat through many meetings for other children and my own regarding anxiety. One thing I’ve learned is anxiety is a relatively new concept in the area of special needs. I’m continually surprised that most people sitting around the table truly do not understand how difficult it can be for a child to live with anxiety.
There is no judgment in this list I wrote. I believe teachers are superheroes. I also believe every child deserves an equitable educational environment. I’ve lived with anxiety my entire life, and my daughter was diagnosed with it years ago. Helping her manage her anxiety has, in turn, helped me manage mine. My girl is my biggest hero, but so much credit is due to the teachers who were honest with me about how much she was struggling. This list is my small gesture of paying it forward.
1. Anxiety is more than being nervous, worried or sensitive. It is a biochemical reaction in the body. It requires understanding, treatment and attention. If not watched, it can manifest into larger health problems.
2. Anxiety does not look like one thing. Every child with anxiety has different triggers, different levels of intensity and different coping strategies.
3. Anxiety can present itself in different ways in boys and girls. In my educational experience, boys’ reactions tend to be more behavior-driven, while girls’ reactions tend to be more internal. Both require different strategies of managing and teaching effective coping strategies.
4. Parents expressing concern about an anxious child need to be heard, even if that child has never presented anxiety in the classroom. Many children “keep it together” all day only to crumble at home.
5. Telling a child to “calm down” does nothing but potentially pour kerosene on the fire inside of them. They don’t want to be feeling the way they do, going through their anxiety and/or panic. They likely want more than anything to calm down. Telling them to do so might only bring more shame, fear, anger and frustration.
6. Approach an anxious child with a quiet, calm voice and a caring demeanor. Their insides are in massive turmoil, and just breathing can pose as a challenge.
7. Develop a relationship with an anxious child. Know their triggers. Acknowledge that they may need some help, if they are open to it, from time and time. Draft a plan together about strategies that might work when they are in the thick of an anxiety or panic attack. Being understood and not judged can make all the difference in the world.
8. For younger students, help them to understand that their anxiety is not entirely them. Assign an animal, like a cat, to the anxiety and develop a way to help them “train” the cat to calm down when it starts to act up. For example, the child can take five calming, deep breaths if they feel the cat starting to get riled up. Take the cat for a walk. Distract the cat with a funny thought.
9. Older children may not like being singled out. Have an agreed upon and laid out plan in place for when their anxiety arrives. Allow them to take a two-minute walk around the building. Come up with a secret signal so they can communicate that they are struggling and may need a break.
10. Know that anxiety, while difficult, does not define them. Anxiety is a part of them, like freckles may be for another student. It should not be looked at as a deficit or a flaw. Most anxious kids are smart, observant and creative individuals. Focus on those parts of them. Acknowledge who they are apart from their anxiety.
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