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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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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