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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For way too long, there’s been an idea that discipline has to make kids feel bad if it’s going to steer them away from bad choices. But my gosh we’ve been so wrong. 

The idea is a hangover from behaviourism, which built its ideas on studies done with animals. When they made animals scared of something, the animal stopped being drawn to that thing. It’s where the idea of punishment comes from - if we punish kids, they’ll feel scared or bad, and they’ll stop doing that thing. Sounds reasonable - except children aren’t animals. 

The big difference is that children have a frontal cortex (thinking brain) which animals and other mammals don’t have. 

All mammals have a feeling brain so they, like us, feel sad, scared, happy - but unlike us, they don’t feel shame. The reason animals stop doing things that make them feel bad is because on a primitive, instinctive level, that thing becomes associated with pain - so they stay away. There’s no deliberate decision making there. It’s raw instinct. 

With a thinking brain though, comes incredibly sophisticated capacities for complex emotions (shame), thinking about the past (learning, regret, guilt), the future (planning, anxiety), and developing theories about why things happen. When children are shamed, their theories can too easily build around ‘I get into trouble because I’m bad.’ 

Children don’t need to feel bad to do better. They do better when they know better, and when they feel calm and safe enough in their bodies to access their thinking brain. 

For this, they need our influence, but we won’t have that if they are in deep shame. Shame drives an internal collapse - a withdrawal from themselves, the world and us. For sure it might look like compliance, which is why the heady seduction with its powers - but we lose influence. We can’t teach them ways to do better when they are thinking the thing that has to change is who they are. They can change what they do - they can’t change who they are. 

Teaching (‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘How can you put this right?’) and modelling rather than punishing or shaming, is the best way to grow beautiful little humans into beautiful big ones.

#parenting
Sometimes needs will come into being like falling stars - gently fading in and fading out. Sometimes they will happen like meteors - crashing through the air with force and fury. But they won’t always look like needs. Often they will look like big, unreachable, unfathomable behaviour. 

If needs and feelings are too big for words, they will speak through behaviour. Behaviour is the language of needs and feelings, and it is always a call for us to come closer. Big feelings happen as a way to recruit support to help carry an emotional load that feels too big for our kids and teens. We can help with this load by being a strong, calm, loving presence, and making space for that feeling or need to be ‘heard’. 

When big behaviour or big feelings are happening, whenever you can be curious about the need behind it. There will always be a valid one. Meet them where they without needing them to be different. Breathe, validate, and be with, and you don’t need to do more than that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days and some things are rubbish, and that sometimes those days and things last for longer than they should, but we get through. First we feel floored, then we feel stuck, then we shift because the only choices we have we have are to stay down or move, even when moving hurts. Then, eventually we adjust - either ourselves, the problem, or to a new ‘is’. 

But the learning comes from experience. They can’t learn to manage big feelings unless they have big feelings. They can’t learn to read the needs behind their feelings if they don’t have the space to let those big feelings come back to small enough so the needs behind them can step forward. 

When their world has spikes, and when we give them a soft space to ‘be’, we ventilate their world. We help them find room for their out breath, and for influence, and for their wisdom to grow from their experiences and ours. In the end we have no choice. They will always be stronger and bigger and wiser and braver when they are with you, than when they are without. It’s just how it is.♥️
When kids or teens have big feelings, what they need more than anything is our strong, safe, loving presence. In those moments, it’s less about what we do in response to those big feelings, and more about who we are. Think of this like providing a shelter and gentle guidance for their distressed nervous system to help it find its way home, back to calm. 

Big feelings are the way the brain calls for support. It’s as though it’s saying, ‘This emotional load is too big for me to carry on my own. Can you help me carry it?’ 

Every time we meet them where they are, with a calm loving presence, we help those big feelings back to small enough. We help them carry the emotional load and build the emotional (neural) muscle for them to eventually be able to do it on their own. We strengthen the neural pathways between big feelings and calm, over and over, until that pathway is so clear and so strong, they can walk it on their own. 

Big beautiful neural pathways will let them do big, beautiful things - courage, resilience, independence, self regulation. Those pathways are only built through experience, so before children and teens can do any of this on their own, they’ll have to walk the pathway plenty of times with a strong, calm loving adult. Self-regulation only comes from many experiences of co-regulation. 

When they are calm and connected to us, then we can have the conversations that are growthful for them - ‘Can you help me understand what happened?’ ‘What can help you so this differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right? Do you need my help to do that?’ We grow them by ‘doing with’ them♥️
Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting

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