Anxiety at School – What Kids and Teens With Anxiety Need Teachers to Know

Anxiety at School - What Kids and Teens With Anxiety Need Teachers to Know

All kids have greatness in them, and like any of us, they will all need their own combination of ‘the right things’ to flourish – the right people, the right environment, the right motivation, the right encouragement. The right support will make magic happen. It will light a vibrant, glowing spark that will open the world up to them, and them up to the world. 

As they grow, there will be things that get in their way. These will also be the same things that will teach them resilience, strength, courage, and the lessons that will breathe life into the remarkable potential that is in them. Anxiety can be a big one of these.

Anxiety is so common, and in any classroom it’s very likely that there will be a number of children who will feel its heavy hand. Anxiety loves anything unfamiliar, or any situation that comes with any potential for embarrassment, failure, humiliation, or shame. These are the twists that can skittle even the strongest of us, and the classroom is ripe for all of them.

Outside of anxiety, it’s easy enough to believe that whatever happens, we’ll be okay, and if we’re not okay then we’ll cope with that too. When anxiety shows up, it runs a relentless and persuasive argument that every situation is a risky one – and embarrassment, failure, humiliation and shame all count as risk. Anxiety isn’t always rational but it’s real, and very persuasive. 

None of us can ‘go it alone’ and we all need the right support from the right people at the right time to discover the remarkable, fiercely capable, and sometimes wonderfully surprising parts of ourselves. That support will look different for everyone. Teachers play an enormously important role, and can make a long-lasting and profoundly positive difference in the life of any child. There will be few other adults outside of a child’s family, who will have so much influence in nurturing children towards the extraordinary humans they are all capable of becoming. It’s not easy though! All kids are different and what works brilliantly for one might be disastrous for another. Teachers do an amazing job, and the more information you are able to give them about your child, the more they will be able to work towards providing just the right environment to help your child or teen flourish.

If we could ask kids and teens with anxiety what they need in the classroom to help them be the best they can be, here are some things they might say. Not everything on the list will be important to every child, but sometimes even the smallest tweaks can go a long way to helping kids and teens with anxiety find the very best version of themselves. When any child is given the opportunity to explore and unfold their potential, it will shine a little more light into the world for all of us.

  1. The reason I don’t put my hand up isn’t always what you think …

    I wish you were able to see how many times I have the answer or something interesting to say, just perched on the edge of my lips, but then the thought of saying the wrong thing or looking silly, becomes bigger than the need to contribute. I wish it wasn’t like this – I’d love you to hear what I have to say – but for now, it’s just how it is. When I try to talk myself out of the fear, my anxiety lumbers in and talks louder … ‘Wait, what if you get it wrong.That would be awful. And so embarrassing. Everyone, including the teacher, will think you have no idea. Then there will be more attention and more questions and more of the teacher making sure you understand. Ugh. No way. Don’t do it. Leave your hand down. Seriously, whatever you do, don’t put your hand up. Just don’t.’ 

    What teachers can try instead: Kids and teens with anxiety will often find it easier to be involved when they are working in smaller groups, especially if they are with people they feel safe with. Let them find their voice in a small group first – it’s an important step to helping them find it in a bigger group later on.

  2. When you call on me unexpectedly, my mind goes blank.

    Putting me on the spot terrifies me, and shuts down anything thoughtful or interesting I have to say. My thinking brain taps out at the worst time and when it does, I have no words and I can’t think. I worry that the more it happens, the more it will happen. I want to be better with unpredictability, but it’s going to take time – not time for me to get it right, but time to feel safe enough to get it wrong.

    What to try instead: Anxiety has a way of stealing minds and voices at the worst time. When anxiety hits, it shuts down the pre-frontal cortex – the thinking, analysing, problem-solving part of the brain. If you’re going to call on a child or teen with anxiety, try to give them a warning and an opportunity to work out what to say first. Ask quietly for their thoughts and what they would like to add to the discussion. If they say something interesting, let them know, and then ask if they can share it with the class. Rather than being an experience that confirms how awful it is to speak in front of the class, it can become an opportunity for them to build their confidence and discover their influence.

  3. Small groups feel safer, and will bring out the best in me.

    I’m more likely to find my voice in a smaller group, especially if it’s with people I trust. It’s a way for me to experiment with sharing my ideas and trying new things, without being overwhelmed by the anxiety that comes with being in front of a big audience.

    What to try:  With anxious kids and teens, the safer they feel, the more they will surprise everyone with what they are capable of. Small groups can be a wonderful scaffold between anxious thoughts (‘I can’t do this’), and brave behaviour. Gently encourage them towards sharing with a bigger audience, perhaps as the speaker for the group, or performing something that has already been rehearsed in a smaller group.

  4. I know you want me to experience new people but …

    It might take a while for me to let you into my world, but when it happens, you’ll realise that I’m a pretty great human to be with – warm, friendly, funny … ok, now I’m blushing, but you get the idea. I know you think it’s important that I experience new people, but what’s even more important is that I have the opportunity to find out what I’m capable of. This is more likely to happen when I’m feeling safe.

    What to try: If the experience is going to be new or unfamiliar (camp, a performance) try to let any anxious kiddos be with at least one familiar person. Doing things with familiar people might seem like a very small step forward, or no step at all, but little steps are what the big ones are made of.

  5. I love it when you tell me my questions are good ones.

    I know you’re there to help me, but the thought of coming to you with a question can feel like roller skating up a glacier – very wobbly, not so safe, and best not done. I’ll often tell myself that if it was a good question, other people would be asking it. I’ll tend to convince myself that I’m better off figuring things out on my own. Sometimes I’ll think I have it figured out (because that’s what I need to believe) and I won’t even realise I’m on the wrong track. An anxious brain is a strong brain and I can talk myself out of all sorts of things, especially the need to ask questions. 

    What to try: Let them know their questions are good ones. As well as this, quietly checking in sometimes will make it easier for anxious kids and teens to let you know if they need a hand. And while we’re on questions …

  6. Question time makes questions easier.

    It doesn’t matter how many times you tell me that I can ask questions whenever I want to, choosing the right time to do that feels too big and messy sometimes. Am I interrupting you? Are you too busy? Am I wasting everyone’s time? Should I wait? Should I already know the answer? See – so confusing!

    What to try: Setting aside specific time for questions can make asking questions easier. This will put more certainty around the right time to ask, and stifle some of the ‘should I or shouldn’t I’ hesitation.

  7. Feeling normal is a lovely thing to feel.

    If you can help people (and me) realise that anxiety is just a version of what we all feel from time to time, it will help me to feel more understood, less alone, and more okay with where I’m at. Sometimes feeling different is a great thing to feel, but when the different thing is anxiety, it can feel a bit rubbish. It makes a difference to know that you get it.

    What to try: Anything you can do to normalise anxiety, will help anxious kiddos feel as though they are in strong, safe hands. Chat to the class about what anxiety is. Explain that it’s something we all get it from time to time, (before an exam, sport, a performance) but that some people get it a lot. Let the class know that anxiety can feel like a big deal when you’re going through it, but it’s actually a sign that someone is about to do something really brave – and that brave is whatever feels brave for them.

  8. There is so much more to me than what you see.

    Until I feel safe and comfortable, people will only see the fringes of me. I don’t deliberately put myself away, it’s just the way I am, and it’s not something I need to change – ask anyone who knows me, they’ll tell you I’m pretty excellent the way I am. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you’ve seen everything I have to give, or that you know what I’m capable of. I don’t even know what I’m capable of yet, but I know I can do difficult things, and surprising things – I just need to feel safe enough to explore. 

    What to try:  Kids with anxiety are often no trouble at all, so it can be easy to overlook them or to assume they are giving everything they have to give. They might be giving everything, but there might also be more they are keeping back. Stay curious about their potential, and gently keep stretching them at their edges. So many times they will be capable of more than they are giving, but their anxiety about getting it wrong, or looking silly will hold them back. They key is asking for just enough – not too much, and not too little. 

  9. I don’t want to be indulged. I want to feel safe.

    We all have things that can help us feel safe, understood and capable. We also all have things that can make us feel stretched, frightened, and anxious. For me, these things will push to the surface a little more often at school, given that it’s the place where I’ll be experimenting with new things, discovering my edges, and exploring the unfamiliar. I don’t expect to be given special treatment or extra attention. In fact, attention is something I’d generally like to steer clear of. It’s just that there are things that will make it easier for me to show you what I can do.

    What to try: Connection is important for all kids, especially anxious ones. The safer they feel, the easier it will be for them to explore, experiment and take the risks that will help them to discover what they are capable of. Your relationship with them is key to helping them feel safe, so when you can, work on that. Casually ask them about their weekend, any of their extra-curricular activities, their pets, or anything else that seems to be important to them – but don’t ask in front of the class. They might only give you a word or two to start with, and it might feel uncomfortable for a while, but good things take time and the effort will be worth it.

  10. Please don’t bring attention to me.

    I love being noticed, but being the centre of attention can feel terrifying. This is whether it’s being called on in class, or being praised in front of everyone for something I did well.

    What to try: Anything that puts anxious kids or teens squarely in the centre of attention can feel overwhelming. Instead, go for gentle acknowledgement by letting them know when you’re pleased or when they’ve done something well. 

  11. If I freeze, don’t make a big deal of it.

    Sometimes when anxiety hits I don’t know what to say and I don’t know what to do. It freezes me. It can make me look unprepared, or as though I don’t have the answers you’re looking for, but that’s not how it is. Everything I need is in me – the answers, the words, the movement – but anxiety can steal it for a while.

    What to try: If kids or teens freeze at the start of a performance or during one, or when they are called on in class, don’t make a big deal of it. Anything you can do to downplay it, normalise it and help them find a safe space (by inviting them to sit back down for a while or to take a moment) will make you someone kind of wonderful. Then, give them the opportunity to start again when they’re ready.

  12. Sometimes my anxiety blocks out what you’re saying.

    What you’re saying is important and I want to understand it, but when you’re talking to me, sometimes all I can think to myself is ‘don’t say the wrong thing, don’t do the wrong thing’ – oh the noise gets noisier. This means that sometimes I’m so worried about not making a mistake, that I don’t hear anything you say. I’m not meaning to be rude or inattentive – I hate the thought that anyone might think I’m doing that, but sometimes wanting to avoid doing the wrong thing lands me somewhere in the thick of it.

    What to try: When you can, check that your instructions have been heard correctly, and avoid getting frustrated, annoyed or upset if you have to repeat them. Anxious kids and teens aren’t asking for anything more than anyone else – lots of other kids in the class will need things explained or the instructions repeated. For anxious kids though, it will make a difference if you can initiate the check for understanding, just until there is enough safety established for them the lead.

  13. Understand that anxiety is masterful at looking like something else.

    Sometimes when I’m anxious, I feel angry, fierce or furious. I don’t mean to be disruptive or to cause any trouble. I wish I didn’t do this too.
    Why it happens: Anxiety is fight or flight, and sometimes the ‘fight’ part can take over. When this happens, it can drive tantrums, aggression or meltdowns.
    What to try: Know that the behaviour will stop as soon as the anxiety passes. You might be tempted in the moment to talk about consequences, but if the behaviour is being driven by anxiety, it will only make it worse. Leave any discussions of consequences until after things have calmed down. 

    When I’m anxious, I’m being drive by a brain that thinks it needs to energise me for fight or flight. This can make me hyperactive, wriggly, bouncy or jittery – but I never mean to be disruptive.
    Why it happens: When the brain senses any sort of danger it will surge the body with a mix of neurochemicals designed to ready the body for physical action (fight or flight). Sometimes if there’s no need to fight or flee, the excess energy might come out in excessive physical movement.
    What to try: If the hyperactivity is being driven by anxiety, it will pass as soon as the anxiety does. In the meantime, physical activity is the natural end to the fight or flight response, so anything physical will also help to neutralise the surging of neurochemicals and bring calm. If something is happening that’s causing a few kiddos in the class to be jittery and bouncy, try inviting the whole class runs on the spot for a quick minute to calm the mood.

    Sometimes I’ll burst into tears, but not because I’m sad. It might seem as though it’s happening for no reason at all. This can be confusing to me too.
    Why it happens: Sometimes anxiety can look like tears. Lots of tears. This happens because the amygdala, the part of the brain that drives anxiety, also drives emotion. When the amygdala is at full volume (as it is during anxiety), emotions will also be at full volume.
    What to do: Understand that sometimes, tears can driven by anxiety more than sadness. When that happens, rather than trying to understand what’s driving the tears, just be a strong steady presence until the anxiety settles. If you can, try to encourage strong, deep breathing. This will activate the relaxation response, which will help to neutralise the surging of neurochemicals that come with anxiety.

  14. Remember what I’m here for.

    I’m here to learn and to grow. Confidence, independence and resilience are all important too, and I have plenty of potential for all of that in me, but first I’m here to learn. The easier and safer that feels, the easier it will be to build everything else.

    What to try: Don’t force independence, friendships, confidence, resilience. Kids and teens with anxiety are pushing themselves all the time, even if you don’t always see it. They already have everything they need inside them to be amazing humans. It will unfold, grow and strengthen when they feel safe.

  15. Let me know that you get it.

    I know I’m not the only one with anxiety, but when it hits it can feel like I’m the only person on the planet that has to push through the days with anxiety in the way.

    What to try: Let me know that I’m doing okay. If you can notice some of the great things about me, that will help me to feel as though you’re on my team. If I freeze, forget, need you to repeat things, let me know that you understand that it’s not my fault, and that it’s okay. Then let me try it again.

  16. Details. I love them. As many as you can give me.

    Wherever you can, give me as much detail as you can so I can have as much clarity as possible. One of the worst things you can do, for example, is ask me to come and see you at lunchtime on Monday – when it’s Friday. It just means I’ll worry all weekend about what you might need to talk to me about. Instead, let me know what it’s about, or at least let me know that it’s not anything bad. Anxiety will always make me think of the worst possible scenario first. It can be a beast like that.

    What to try: Wherever you can, fill in the unknowns so there is no room for an anxious kiddo to fill them in with something worse.

And finally …

Kids and teens with anxiety have remarkable strengths that the world needs more of. Often, unless you’re one of the ones they feel safe with, you’ll only see the tip of what they are capable of. School and learning was never meant to be about how outgoing kids are, or confident they are in initiating contact with an adult. Greatness is built bit by bit, and the foundations are strongest when it’s safe. Anything you can do to help this along will go a long way to helping anxious kids and teens find their own important way to shine. The more we can help them to feel that they are stronger, braver, better, bigger and more powerful than anything that they are scared of, the more we can open up the world to them, and in turn, they will open up their very wonderful world to us.

You might also like …

‘Hey Warrior’ is the book I’ve written for children to help them understand anxiety and to find their ‘brave’. It explains why anxiety feels the way it does, and it will teach them how they can ‘be the boss of their brains’ during anxiety, to feel calm. It’s not always enough to tell kids what to do – they need to understand why it works. Hey Warrior does this, giving explanations in a fun, simple, way that helps things make sense in a, ‘Oh so that’s how that works!’ kind of way, alongside gorgeous illustrations.


51 Comments

Jake F

This was so wonderfully written! It is written in a way that drives home the message that all students have so much to give the world, so much beauty, wonder, talent, resilience, intelligence, and potential inside them….but for some there are recurring thoughts and feelings that are discouraging and disparaging inside them that inhibits the giving of those wonderful, unique gifts…but luckily if given enough patience, encouragement, and respect those anxious students will in time deliver the best and most unique version of themselves that the world needs and awaits.

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Alice C

It’s interesting to know that group work is still something that a person with anxiety can benefit from as long as the group is small. I’m considering to enroll my kid in an online high school next year if there are no significant changes to the status of the current pandemic. Hopefully, it wouldn’t be a very stressful environment for her since.

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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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