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.’