Anxiety at School: What teachers and parents can do.

The more teachers, coaches, or any important adult can help children feel safe, seen, cared for, the more those kids will feel safe enough to ask for help, take safe risks, learn, be curious, be brave, learn, grow.

The research is so clear on this. Students who genuinely feel cared for by their teachers do better at school. This is because when children feel relationally safe, the learning brain opens wide up. Without that felt sense of relational safety, the brain will focus on getting ‘safe’ rather than learning.

Brains are here to keep us safe. They aren’t here to keep us happy, for relationships, learning, play – unless that matters right now for our survival. The priority for all brains is safety. When we talk about ‘safety’, this isn’t about what is actually safe or not safe. It’s about what the brain perceives. It’s also not just about physical safety. Relational safety (feeling cared for, welcome, seen, validated, free from humiliation, shame, judgement) is just as important to the brain. 

When the brain registers any form of threat, even if ‘threat’ is unlikely or teeny, it will hoard all available resources in case it needs them for survival. Only when brains feel truly safe 

Any ideas that behaviour at school should be managed with separation-based discipline, shame, star charts or behaviour charts or anything that publicly ranks students (someone is always on the bottom – usually the same someones), or overly-stern voices are outdated and are not at all informed by science. Fear does not motivate. It shuts down the learning brain and makes it impossible for children to learn. It does the same to adults. It’s also why we need to steer away from suspensions and stand-downs. None of these fix the problem long term. They’re the biggest ‘you’re not welcome’ signs children can get and will only contribute to the problem long-term. Of course, none of this means ‘no boundaries’. It means building relational safety and setting and enforcing boundaries in ways that don’t tear it apart.

Unless you’re one of the ones anxious kids feel safe with, you’ll only see the tip of what they are capable of. School and learning were never meant to be about how outgoing kids are or how confident they are in initiating contact with an adult. Greatness is built bit by bit, and the foundations are strongest when it’s safe.

What parents can do.

  • Know that whatever you decide, they will follow. Do you believe they are safe and loved at school? This isn’t a rhetorical question. Building relationships that feel safe and loving for children takes time. If you aren’t quite there yet, they won’t be either. What can help you feel more certain? Do you need a conversation? More information? Help to facilitate a relationship between your child and an anchor adult? Have a conversation with your child’s school. They want to be the best they can be for your child too, and you’re the one who can help that happen.
  • Be the ‘glue’ that connects your child and their teacher. Whenever you can, let your child know you like and trust their teacher. To facilitate this, ask your child’s teacher to tell you something your child did well – maybe once a month or once a fortnight. Then, pass this on to your child. ‘Mrs Jones emailed me to let me know how hard you’re working in maths. I really love the way she noticed that about you.’ Or, incidental comments sprinkled around that sound something like, ‘I really like your teacher. I think you got a goodie with Mr Smith.’

What teachers can do.

  • Let them know you’re their person: ‘I’m going to help you do the very best you can this year. ‘Being my best’ will mean different things to different people. I’d love to know what this means for you and how I can help. What matters most to me is that you try hard, make brave choices, be kind, and know that you can come to me any time. The more you can help me understand what you need and what doesn’t work for you, the more I can help you have a great year. I’m so pleased you’re in my class.’
  • At the start of the year (or any time), ask them to write the answers to the following questions:
    • What does ‘doing well this year’ look like for you?
    • What might make this hard?
    • How can I help?
    • What are three things teachers have done for you in the past that have helped you have a good year?
    • What are three things that teachers have done in the past that have made it harder?
    • I wish my teacher knew …
  • Build the connection. Micro-moments matter. Whenever you can (and you might not be able to do this all the time, and that’s okay), connect when they walk into the room. Let this be verbal or non-verbal. As soon as kids walk into a room, they’ll be looking to the adult in the room for, ‘Do you see me? Are you happy I’m here? Are you ready to receive me today?’ They’re looking to answer the big relational safety question: ‘Am I welcome here?’

And finally …

Good teachers change lives. They really do. So much of a young person’s experience at school isn’t about what teachers teach but about who they are. When children feel seen and safe, learning will happen. The brain will surrender safety resources and allow those resources to feed into curiosity, learning, connecting, and growing in all the vibrant ways we know they can. 

One Comment


This is just so affirming and so spot on… as a mumma and a teacher I know how crucial it is for children to feel safe and to connect with their teacher/ teachers at school.
Keep up the really insightful and helpful pieces, Karen.


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Lead with warmth and confidence: ‘Yes I know this feels big, and yes I know you can handle it.’ 

We’re not saying they’ll handle it well, and we’re not dismissing their anxiety. What we’re saying is ‘I know you can handle the discomfort of anxiety.’ 

It’s not our job to relive this discomfort. We’ll want to, but we don’t have to. Our job is to give them the experiences they need (when it’s safe) to let them see that they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. 

This is important, because there will  always be anxiety when they do something brave, new, important, growthful. 

They can feel anxious and do brave. Leading with warmth and confidence is about, ‘Yes, I believe you that this feels bad, and yes, I believe in you.’ When we believe in them, they will follow. So often though, it will start with us.♥️
There are things we do because we love them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel loved because of those things.

Of course our kids know we love them, and we know they love us. But sometimes, they might feel disconnected from that feeling of being ‘loved by’. As parents, we might feel disconnected from the feeling of being ‘appreciated by’.

It’s no coincidence that sometimes their need to feel loved, and our need to feel appreciated collide. This collision won’t sound like crashing metal or breaking concrete. It will sound like anger, frustration, demanding, nagging. 

It will feel like not mattering, resentment, disconnection. It can burst through us like meteors of anger, frustration, irritation, defiance. It can be this way for us and our young ones. (And our adult relationships too.)

We humans have funny ways of saying, ‘I miss you.’

Our ‘I miss you’ might sound like nagging, annoyance, anger. It might feel like resentment, rage, being taken for granted, sadness, loneliness. It might look like being less playful, less delighting in their presence.

Their ‘I miss you’ might look like tantrums, aggression, tears, ignoring, defiant indifference, attention-seeking (attention-needing). It might sound like demands, anger, frustration.

The point is, there are things we do because we love them - cleaning, the laundry, the groceries, cooking. And yes, we want them to be grateful, but feeling grateful and feeling loved are different things. 

Sometimes the things that make them feel loved are so surprising and simple and unexpected - seeking them out for play, micro-connections, the way you touch their hair at bedtime, the sound of your laugh at their jokes, when you delight in their presence (‘Gosh I’ve missed you today!’ Or, ‘I love being your mum so much. I love it better than everything. Even chips. If someone said you can be queen of the universe or Molly’s mum, I’d say ‘Pfft don’t annoy me with your offers of a crown. I’m Molly’s mum and I’ll never love being anything more.’’)

So ask them, ‘What do I do that makes you feel loved?’ If they say ‘When you buy me Lego’, gently guide them away from bought things, and towards what you do for them or with them.♥️
We don’t have to protect them from the discomfort of anxiety. We’ll want to, but we don’t have to.

OAnxiety often feels bigger than them, but it isn’t. This is a wisdom that only comes from experience. The more they sit with their anxiety, the more they will see that they can feel anxious and do brave anyway. Sometimes brave means moving forward. Sometimes it means standing still while the feeling washes away. 

It’s about sharing the space, not getting pushed out of it.

Our job as their adults isn’t to fix the discomfort of anxiety, but to help them recognise that they can handle that discomfort - because it’s going to be there whenever they do something brave, hard , important. When we move them to avoid anxiety, we potentially, inadvertently, also move them to avoid brave, hard, growthful things. 

‘Brave’ rarely feels brave. It will feel jagged and raw. Sometimes fragile and threadbare. Sometimes it will as though it’s breathing fire. But that’s how brave feels sometimes. 

The more they sit with the discomfort of anxiety, the more they will see that anxiety isn’t an enemy. They don’t have to be scared of it. It’s a faithful ally, a protector, and it’s telling them, ‘Brave lives here. Stay with me. Let me show you.’♥️
#parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinkids #teenanxiety
We have to stop treating anxiety as a disorder. Even for kids who have seismic levels of anxiety, pathologising anxiety will not serve them at all. All it will do is add to their need to avoid the thing that’s driving anxiety, which will most often be something brave, hard, important. (Of course if they are in front of an actual danger, we help anxiety do its job and get them out of the way of that danger, but that’s not the anxiety we’re talking about here.)

The key to anxiety isn’t in the ‘getting rid of’ anxiety, but in the ‘moving with’ anxiety. 

The story they (or we) put to their anxiety will determine their response. ‘You have anxiety. We need to fix it or avoid the thing that’s causing it,’ will drive a different response to, ‘Of course you have anxiety. You’re about to do something brave. What’s one little step you can take towards it?’

This doesn’t mean they will be able to ‘move with’ their anxiety straight away. The point is, the way we talk to them about anxiety matters. 

We don’t want them to be scared of anxiety, because we don’t want them to be scared of the brave, important, new, hard things that drive anxiety. Instead, we want to validate and normalise their anxiety, and attach it to a story that opens the way for brave: 

‘Yes you feel anxious - that’s because you’re about to do something brave. Sometimes it feels like it happens for no reason at all. That’s because we don’t always know what your brain is thinking. Maybe it’s thinking about doing something brave. Maybe it’s thinking about something that happened last week or last year. We don’t always know, and that’s okay. It can feel scary, and you’re safe. I would never let you do something unsafe, or something I didn’t think you could handle. Yes you feel anxious, and yes you can do this. You mightn’t feel brave, but you can do brave. What can I do to help you be brave right now?’♥️

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