In regards to special needs education, anxiety is a relatively new concept and many people truly do not understand how difficult it can be for a child to live with anxiety. Every child deserves an equitable educational environment and for this to happen, school staff need to be aware of how anxiety can affect children while they are in their care.
Anxiety is one of those hidden illnesses and at times — even as an adult — it is difficult to explain how anxiety affects me. Imagine how much more difficult it must be for a child to articulate how anxiety is making them feel.
Most of the time, my daughter is able to “hold it together” while she is at school. But her anxiety levels would be rising throughout the school day and there would be signs she needs assistance to calm herself down. Helping her learn how to manage her anxiety has, in turn, helped me manage mine.
So in the hope of paying it forward, here is a list of things I hope will help educators to understand how anxiety may affect their students. I will add I am not claiming to be an expert on anxiety disorders, these are just observations I have made over the years!
Anxiety is a reaction occurring in the body as a result of biological and environmental factors. To put it in simpler terms, anxiety is simply the body’s reaction to brain stress. Anxiety is more than just feeling stressed or worried.
Stress and anxious feelings are a very common response when we feel under pressure and these feelings will usually pass once the stressful situation is removed. You might feel stressed leading up to a job interview or an exam, but once the job interview or exam is over, the stressful feeling passes.
The term “anxiety” is used when an individual’s anxious feelings simply don’t go away. The anxious feelings are more frequent and ongoing and often will present without any particular rhyme or reason. Anxiety doesn’t discriminate and it does not care when it chooses to raise its ugly head.
My daughter has become anxious over leaving a pencil at school in her school desk. She has worried about forgetting where she left her school hat. She has worried about forgetting to take her library book to school. She has become anxious because we forgot a step in her bedtime ritual. For some people, these worries may seem insignificant, but to a child with an anxiety disorder, these are major worries.
At times, my daughter has not been able to tell us what she is worried about, only that she has an immense feeling of worry and fear. At one point last year, she was in tears at school and when she was asked by her teacher why she was crying, she replied “I don’t know.”
Yes, she can be a sensitive child, but she is sensitive because of her anxiety. Her anxiety causes her to overthink situations, experiences and conversations. Please do not dismiss a child simply because you think they are being a overly sensitive.
It is important not to dismiss a child’s anxious feelings as this will only make the situation worse. Their feelings need to be acknowledged. Let them know their anxiety is real and with your help, they can get through it.
Acknowledge they may need help from time to time and this is perfectly OK. We all need a helping hand. It isn’t a sign of weakness, it is a sign of strength. Being understood and not judged can make all the difference to a child.
2. Parents need to be heard and listened to.
I have lost count of the number of times we have been told “But she can’t have anxiety, I’ve never seen that in her.”
Parents who express concern over their child — whether it be to teachers, medical professionals or friends — need to be heard and listened to. Many children, my daughter included, are able to hold it together all day, only to crumble the minute they step inside their home, their safe haven.
Teachers and educators may never see this side of the child but that’s not to say it doesn’t happen. Yes, students are in your care for six hours and five days a week, but you do not see the child when they are at their most vulnerable. You don’t see them when they are shaking and in tears because they didn’t understand their friends. You don’t see them when they have no energy left to hold it together. You don’t see the emotional and mental destruction anxiety can cause.
Speaking from experience, anxiety can be a debilitating experience. Anxiety can make it incredibly difficult to cope with day-to-day functioning. Anxiety can impact an individual’s quality of life. If not watched and managed, anxiety can manifest into larger mental health problems.
3. Anxiety requires understanding.
Everyone feels anxious from time to time and when we feel anxious, we may be able to reason with our thoughts to assist us in coping with stressful situations. This is not always the case for a child with anxiety issues. Their anxious feelings are not easily controlled and they may not be able to reason with their thoughts.
Telling a child who has anxiety to stop worrying is not going to help. The only thing the statement “stop worrying” will do is make the situation worse.
A child with anxiety is most likely going to have a huge, massive ball of turmoil going on inside them. Even the simple act of breathing can pose a challenge to them. Any individual with an anxiety disorder doesn’t want to be in this situation. They don’t want to be feeling the way they are and in all honesty, they probably wish they could just snap their fingers and calm down.
But it isn’t that simple. Telling a child to calm down or stop worrying may make them feel shame, anger and frustration. This can then add extra anxiety as they try to deal with those emotions on top of the anxiety.
Please understand an anxious child needs you to be patient. They may need your help to get them to calm down. They may need to escape from the stressful situation to come back to a calm state.
4. Anxiety doesn’t look like one thing.
Everyone is different and it can often be a combination of factors that contribute to developing an anxiety disorder. At times, the symptoms of anxiety are not obvious. Anxiety may be a sudden onset in some and a gradual process in others.
Every individual with anxiety has different triggers. Anxiety can present at different levels of intensity. Some individuals may be able to cope with high levels of anxiety, others may not. One child may have completely different coping mechanisms to another.
Anxiety generally presents differently in girls and boys. Anxious reactions of boys tend to be more behaviorally driven. Girls on the other hand, tend to internalize their reactions to anxiety. Both reactions require different strategies to manage anxiety.
5. It is helpful to build a relationship with a child with anxiety.
If you get to know an anxious child, it may mean the difference between being able to pick up on their triggers or not being able to. Building a rapport with your students means they are going to trust you enough to come to you for help. You will then be able to pick up on their signs throughout the day and perhaps assist in preventing them from getting to the edge of the anxiety precipice. This will make a huge difference to a child.
6. Odd behaviors often come about as a result of stress.
As a result of her anxiety, my daughter has developed some self-calming rituals. She will start chewing on things – clothes, pencils, books, anything really. She will start to rock on her chair. She will start to fidget with pencils, clothes, toys. These are all her little cues that her anxiety is starting to become too much for her.
Telling a child to stop chewing on their shirt or to stop bouncing on their chair is not going to help. The child has developed those self-calming rituals for a reason. Let them use them.
If the self-calming ritual is distracting for the rest of the students in your class, sit down with the child and their parents and discuss what other self-calming rituals can be employed instead.
7. It is helpful to develop strategies.
Once you become aware of a child’s anxiety issues, perhaps you could meet with the child and their parents and draft a plan of strategies the child can use when they feel their anxiety levels rising.
You could pre-plan and come up with your own strategies to help students in your class. Have a list of jokes to distract your students. Even a funny thought is sometimes enough of a distraction for children.
I have been using breathing exercises with my children at work when they need a brain break and we’re at the point now that the children are able to recognize when they need time out. They will walk away from the situation, take some deep breaths and walk back in a lot calmer.
There are a number of wonderful books available to assist children who deal with anxiety and worry. We love the books “I have a Worry” and “The Angry Octopus.”
Keep in mind older children may not want to be singled out in front of the peers. Perhaps you and the student come up with a secret signal so they can discretely communicate with you when they need a brain break.
8. Remaining calm is key.
Have you ever noticed a calm teacher somehow magically ends up with a classroom of calm students?
An anxious child craves quiet and calm. If you speak with an anxious child in a quiet and calm voice, they are more than likely going to respond to you and listen to what you are saying. It is much easier to come back down to a calm state when the person who you are talking to is also calm.
My daughter responds so much better when we remain calm. She is obviously still very much in an anxious state, but she is able to come down much easier.
9. It’s important to remember anxiety can be difficult.
Please remember anxiety can be difficult not only for the child, but also for their family members.
Anxiety can make it incredibly difficult to focus and pay attention in the classroom. Imagine being worried about leaving the oven on at home and then having to go to work and put all your efforts into doing your job for the day. All the while thinking, Did I turn the oven off? running through your mind. That is what anxiety is like.
Anxiety may cause a straight A student to fidget and want to move around. They’re not doing this deliberately. I remind myself regularly that certain behaviors are not done on purpose. As yourself why your normally well-behaved and well-mannered student is misbehaving. There may be more to it.
10. Anxiety is a part of the child, not the whole child.
Lastly, the anxiety is part of the child, but it is not the whole child. I read somewhere at times anxiety is part of a child like freckles are a part of another child.
Anxiety should never be looked at as a flaw. A child with anxiety may already have enough self-confidence issues and pointing out anxiety as a flaw is not going to help their self-esteem.
Focus on the positive aspects of the child. My daughter is smart, she is kind and caring. It is important for me to acknowledge what makes her the loving intelligent girl she is.
My daughter’s anxiety does not define her, it is simply part of her being.
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