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How Teachers Can Help Students With Social Anxiety

Having to attend school whilst struggling with social anxiety is not the easiest thing to do. Being surrounded by people for the majority of the day can be utterly exhausting. Believe me when I say I am no stranger to the feelings of dread felt regularly within the school environment. Having been a student who lives with extreme social anxiety, I want to provide a few tips for teachers on how they can make school less terrifying for people like me.

1. Encourage group participation but don’t force it.

Group work can be great at getting students to engage with the learning material, but it can only be described as a nightmare for anxious people. Constantly having to worry about how they are coming across to others in the group or feeling too scared to speak up in fear of saying the wrong thing is horrible. As the class wallflower, most of the time we prefer to work on our own. However, group work cannot be avoided entirely and therefore teachers should consider having small groups (of two or three) so those with anxiety feel a little more comfortable.

2. Modify presentations.

Hearing the word “presentation” is enough to send anxious souls into an immediate panic attack. Even thinking about it now brings on a cold sweat and I can feel my heart rate increasing. Rather than standing in front of the whole classroom to give their presentation, it may be possible for it to be performed in front of the teacher only. This small change can mean everything. Allowing this option can make us feel safer about the situation and enables us to display our hard work without being driven to an anxiety attack.

3. Consider the class seating arrangement.

My ideal seat would be in the corner at the back of the room. Socially anxious students hate being seated in the middle, where they are surrounded by people in all directions. It is can be so overwhelming that it makes it hard to focus or concentrate. Personally, I found it difficult to write notes when there were other students sitting directly behind me. By allowing us space to sit at the back, we can work better due to there being less pressure.

4. Write homework tasks on the board.

Usually, anxious students are the most attentive but this can also be our downfall. It can be difficult to give your full attention to the teacher when you feel compelled to listen and watch the other students around you, since your brain has convinced you they are definitely talking about you. For this reason, it can be helpful to write homework instructions on the board because if we don’t catch what you’ve said, we won’t feel comfortable asking you to repeat it. The rest of the day will be spent beating ourselves up about it and panicking about completing the right work.

5. Let us get changed for gym class in another room.

If I’m having issues simply talking or being in the presence of other people, what makes you think I want to get dressed in front of them? No thank you! I remember dreading physical education in high school to the point where I would point blank refuse to participate at all. Allowing someone with anxiety to put on their gym kit in a separate room, or even in the toilets, will be a huge relief.

6. Approach us about our anxiety.

If you notice one of your students are struggling, the most helpful thing to do is to approach them at the end of the school day and have a chat about what is going on. Socially anxious people can find it difficult to approach people of authority. By initiating the conversation, you can lift a huge weight off our shoulders and it shows you want to help.

7. Be patient.

Any modification you make for students with social anxiety will be greatly appreciated. Helping to make their school day a little easier will encourage them to keep attending and allows them to gain back their confidence at their own pace. We cannot transform into extroverts overnight, but just continue to be understanding and patient towards us and we will get there eventually.

School can be a really difficult time for those who battle with social anxiety. Simple tasks which people take for granted can be extremely difficult to do when you have a constant, debilitating fear. However, it can be a much smoother experience with the help of compassionate teachers who are willing to help.

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Thinkstock photo via Wavebreakmedia