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To the Teacher of My Child With Anxiety

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I know you have a lot of stress, dealing with a classroom full of students who can be extremely difficult to manage and motivate at times. I know the expectations and demands on teachers continue to grow each year, whether from federal, state, cultural, socioeconomic or others. I also know the recognition you deserve and financial compensation you receive is grossly inadequate for the work you do every day with each of your students. I also know you may not receive consistent support from parents or guardians of the students with whom you work.

Please know not all parents are this way. Some parents want to support you as a person who will have a large amount of influence in their child’s life. With this being said, I am asking for your help in working with a student in your class who faces challenges with anxiety. I know you have every single other student in your classroom to manage, but I would like to offer you a little perspective on a child dealing with anxiety.

1. As their teacher, you may not recognize a child is experiencing anxiety.

Anxiety is when a child experiences nervousness or worry about a particular thing to the point where it interferes with the child’s ability to function, including eating, drinking, sitting or completing work. One child experiencing increased anxiety at school may start crying when he is called on to answer a question. Another child experiencing increased anxiety at school may act out or cause disruptions in class. In both instances, the child is experiencing a fight, flight or freeze response in order to cope with what is happening. Sometimes, these behaviors may seem like rebellion, defiance or just downright stubbornness. Sometimes that may be the case, but there are instances when it is not.

2. The child may not know he or she is experiencing extreme anxiety.

Unless a child is seeing a mental health professional and has been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, the child may not recognize what she is experiencing is an increase in anxiety to a point where it interferes with her work. Even if a child is seeing a counselor for their anxiety, she may not recognize she has been triggered when her response to your question is to stare at you and not say anything (which would be a freeze response). She is not always being disrespectful, but is simultaneously trying to slow down her heart rate, trying to quiet the thoughts in head, trying to avoid crying so her peers won’t laugh at her and a whole list of other racing thoughts in the moment.

3. You have the ability to help my child through increased anxiety or even an anxiety or panic attack.

Please know not all behavior is defiance. Sometimes my child’s anxiety becomes overwhelmingly debilitating for him. Having an open body language when communicating with him may help. Having your hands open, rather than folding your arms when talking to him, can help. Consider the tone of your voice when speaking to him and his reaction to you. Pay attention to his body language in class.

Do you see him squirming in his seat when you’re teaching? Does he fidget when having to stand up in front of the class or give an answer? These don’t always mean my child is experiencing anxiety, but they are some examples of indications my child has experienced an anxiety trigger. Using slow hand movements, taking deep breaths or even slowing down your speech may invite my child to mirror your body language and communication, which would also help him through the anxiety he is experiencing in the moment.

4. Please take a moment and speak with my child individually and let him or her know you support him.

My child sometimes feels like you’re saying he’s stupid because he doesn’t understand the work. I know you may not be saying this to my child, but please understand this is a feeling he is experiencing.

One thing you can do to help my child during these times is to validate his feelings by simply letting him know you recognize something happened in class and you want to see how you can help. He may not initially be forthcoming to you about his anxiety because of embarrassment. Please let him know you are there to support him and that he can feel free to speak to you if he needs to. I know your job is not to coddle or necessarily nurture feelings, but I do believe a few intentional steps by you may yield large success from my child in your class.

5. Would you consider develop adopting a culture of safety for your classroom?

I’m not speaking about safety in terms of fire drills or locking the doors, but rather safety regarding feelings or the mental health needs of my child and any other child. This could be something as simple as you or the school social worker/counselor discussing anxiety with the students and offering ways to manage anxiety. Educating the class about anxiety and how normal it is may actually help in decreasing anxiety for my child or another child who may experience situational anxiety. Some other ideas you might want to include: essential oils, deep breathing, mindfulness techniques and soft music.

I’m not asking you to raise my child or provide mental health treatment to him. I’m asking you to join with me, as we help my child work through any barriers that may arise and affect his ability to learn and be successful in your class. Thank you for the work you do for my child and all children you teach.

Image via Thinkstock.

Originally published: September 9, 2016
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