Anxiety at School: When Talking and Doing Feels Too Big

Children and teens with anxiety have so much to offer in the classroom, but too often, anxiety can keep this hidden.  I often say that if you want to know what’s happening, ask the anxious one in the room. Because of their need for safety, children who tilt more towards anxiety might be more likely to take things in, watch, notice things that might otherwise go unnoticed, as they try to get a sense of what it all means – but they won’t always share their insight.

Too often though, that silence or lack of involvement can be misread. Sometimes silence means ‘I don’t have anything to say.’ Sometimes it means, ‘I have plenty to say but I don’t want to share it right here and right now.’ Whenever anxiety is fuelling that silence, it’s likely to mean, ‘I don’t feel safe enough – yet.’ Of course, we want to move children towards taking safe risks and finding their voice in the classroom, but the more we rush this the more unsafe school is likely to feel, and the more we lose precious opportunities to help these kids and teens discover their potential.

Anxiety doesn’t always mean, ‘I’m not safe’. Often, it means, ‘I don’t feel safe enough yet.’

Anxiety is a felt sense of threat. It’s not about what is actually safe, but about what the brain perceives. For kids and teens with anxiety, seemingly benign things might count as ‘threat’. ‘Threat’ means different things for all of us. For kids with anxiety at school, asking questions, contributing to class discussions, asking for help, or trying something new might all count as ‘threat’. It is not for us to question the rationality of their fears. We don’t need to talk them out of how they feel. We couldn’t if we wanted to. The truth is that they can feel anxious and be brave anyway – but only if they feel safe enough and held enough by the important adults beside them.

If anxiety is a felt sense of threat, the antidote to this is a felt sense of safety. For children, a felt sense of safety starts with the adult in the room, but this will take time. A child can have the safest, most loving, brilliant teacher, but until there is a felt sense of connection with that teacher (or another adult in the room), anxiety will interrupt learning, behaviour, and their capacity to show the very best of what they can do. And what they can do will often be surprising – insightful, important, beautiful things.

We have to be patient though. Relationships take time. Safety and trust take time. The teachers who take this time are the ones who will make the world feel safer for these children – all children, and change their world in important, enduring ways. This is when learning will happen. It’s when we’ll stop losing children who fly under the radar, or whose big behaviour takes them out of the classroom, or shifts the focus to the wrong things (behaviour, learning, avoidance, over relationships).

Why learning needs relationships.

The greatest way to support learning and behaviour is with safe, warm, loving relationships. It’s just how it is, and there are no shortcuts. We can pour all the resources we want into learning support or behaviour management, but until children have a felt sense of safety and connection with the adult in the room, the ‘thinking brain’ won’t be available. This is the frontal cortex, and it’s the part of the brain needed for learning, deliberate decisions, thinking through consequences, rational thinking. During anxiety, it’s sent offline. It can only ever be ‘online’ when there is a felt sense of safety.

This safety will only happen through relationship – not just any relationship, but one in which that child feels seen, held, and safe. This isn’t a child thing or an anxiety thing. It’s a human thing. We’re wired to feel safest when we’re connected to the people around us. There are a couple of reasons for this.

The first is that relational safety is an instinctive need. Babies wouldn’t survive if there wasn’t an adult to take care of them, so children are wired to feel safest with an adult they feel close to, and threatened in the felt absence of one. It’s why relationships are so key to anxiety. Parents can’t be everywhere all the time – we were never meant to do this parenting thing alone. Another adult can provide a felt sense of safety in the parent’s absence, as long as the relationship is safe, warm, and loving. Any adult in the child’s community – teacher, coach, grandparent, aunt, uncle, family friend – has a profoundly important role to play in nurturing and growing that child, and opening up their world.

The second reason relationship is so important is because it can unlock the door to that child’s world. When children feel safe, they will show us more clearly what they need, but more importantly, they will let us be the one that provides this in meaningful ways, whether it’s validation, trust, confidence in their capacity to cope or do hard things, cues of safety.

Of course, we can offer all of these things from outside their world, but it might not hold as much heft until they let us in. Only then will they grant us enough authority to guide and influence them. When they open the door to us, they will be more likely to believe us when we tell them they are safe, that they are brave enough and strong enough, and that they can do hard things.

How can we build relationships at school that build brave behaviour? 

Entry into their world only happens by invitation, and only when they’re ready. We can’t rush our way in, or force our way in, or talk our way in. It just doesn’t work that way, for any of us. It takes time, a gentle hand, and an open heart. Here are some ways we can nurture this along.

1. Be curious.

To provide children with a felt sense of safety, we first need to understand how that child sees and experiences the world. This happens by being curious, and eventually being invited into their world – not to change it, but to understand it, strengthen it, and soften it where we can. From there, we will be more able to understand what that child needs, and provide it in meaningful ways.

2. Why, ‘There’s nothing to worry about,’ doesn’t work.

It’s not enough to tell them not to worry. Think of it like this: Imagine that someone you don’t know or don’t trust enough is telling you to close your eyes and follow them across a roaring, bustling freeway, assuring you that it’s safe. Would you feel safe enough? Now, what if it was someone you felt close to, and who you knew you really mattered to. You might still feel terrified, but you’d be more likely to feel ‘okay enough’.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the environment and the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them. 

It’s also important to remember that during anxiety, we’re dealing with an amygdala (the seat of anxiety in the brain) that has registered threat, and recruited you for support. The amygdala doesn’t care for rational conversation. It just needs to know that it’s been heard, and that support it here. This is why validation is so important. Something like, ‘I know how big this is for you. I really get it,’ sends a message to the amygdala that it’s done its job, support is here, and it can rest.

3. 2 x 5 x 5

Building relationships takes time, but it doesn’t have to take a lot of time, each time. If you are a teacher or any  important adult in a child’s world, frequent small conversations will can build a connection that is at least as strong infrequent big doses. Try for 2 minutes a day, 5 days a week, for 5 weeks. The conversation can be about anything, as long as it shows interest in their world – what they’re reading, what they did on the weekend, what they had for breakfast, noticing something they’ve said or done, pets, sport, music practice – anything.

4. Find similarities.

Similarities build connection. It’s the power of sports teams, and neighbourhoods, and communities. Notice similarities whenever you can: ‘We’re both wearing blue today!’, or, ‘You have a dog! So do I!’

5. Let your face light up when you see them. 

When children walk into a room, they will be looking to the adult in the room for signs of safety. They will read nonverbals more than anything we say. Whenever you can, let your face and your voice make your intent clear. Neutral faces and monotone voices (which we often use as a ‘calm’ voice, but which isn’t always ‘calming’) can register threat in an anxious brain because the intent isn’t clear. Let your face light up when you see them, and mirror their feelings when they’re feeling, and let your voice do the same.

6. Let them see their important adults speaking with big hearts about them.

If you are a parent, ask your child’s teacher to let you know (maybe once a week) about anything significant – even if it’s just a teeny bit significant. Then, share that with your child, ‘Miss Kelly told me that you asked a really great question in class. She said she loved that you were brave enough to do that.’ Then, let your child’s teacher know little snippets that your child is happy for you to share, so it can be a point of connection between your child and the teacher.

7. Let your child see who has the baton.

For a while, some children might need to see who has the ‘caring for me’ baton. Until they feel safe enough, let them see the baton pass from the parent to the teacher. Some children will benefit from being ‘handed over’ to the same person at dropoff each day. This can be done through words, ‘Mr James is going to take you for the day now. I know he’s going to take really great care of you.’ Then, Mr James says, ‘I’m so pleased you’re here! Do you have everything you need for today? …’ For younger children, it might also involve a physical hand over where a parent takes the child’s hands from theirs, and puts it into the hand of the teacher.

8. Any loving adult can fill the void, not only the classroom teacher.

Even for teachers with big hearts, and who undertand the importance of building an attachment relationship, it can be difficult when they have to split their attention between a room full of other children who need them. This is when another adult in the school can play a really important part in filling the void – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the school counsellor, the person in the office, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings or behaviour get big during the day, and who can do little check-ins (see the 2 x 5 x 5 strategy above) along the way.

And finally …

We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety are thoughtful, observant and insightful, and their wisdom will always have the potential to add something important to the world for all of us. Until they have a felt sense of safety though, we just won’t see it.

Relationship is key – but honestly, isn’t it for everything? The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains that block our way. Even as adults, we never forget the ones from our childhood who took the time to let us know we matter. Sometimes it’s not even about having someone believe that we can, but about knowing someone will still believe in us and care about us if we can’t. A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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