Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

Anxious Kids At School. How to Help Them Soar.

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Anxious Kids at School: How to Help Them Soar

Kids are all so different and the world needs the brilliance that comes from every version of them. 

We can’t know what they’re capable of, not for a while anyway. Some kids will start unfolding their potential in a certain direction from early on. For others it will be much later. Sometimes it won’t happen until well through adolescence, early adulthood or later. What’s important is making sure they’re supported enough to find that spark and ignite it when they’re ready.

There’s a risk though, that the potential of an awesome bunch of humans is being squandered.

Anxious Kids At School – What’s getting in their way?

Anxious kids will have the emotional intelligence, academic intelligence, strength, courage and social skills to light up the world, but because they’re often quiet, capable and no trouble at all, they’re easily overlooked. Teachers do amazing work, but the nature of the school system makes it difficult for them to get to know the detail of every child. 

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As with anyone, the best way to support kids with anxiety in being the best they can be is by first understanding the way they see and experience the world. Only then can we start to give them what they need, so they can give the world what it needs, which is them.  

It’s not that they need extra support – they don’t. What they need is for that support to be the type that respects and nurtures who they are, rather than the type that firsts insists they change into someone they’re not. They’re no different to anyone else like that. We’re building people, amazing ones, and there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach.

Success at school shouldn’t depend on having the confidence or extroversion to speak up, ask questions in a room full of people, or approach an adult they have no rapport with. Not yet. Not when they’re young and probably not even when they’re older. There are just too many children who will be stifled by the expectation – not because they’re not capable – but because they are less extroverted, perhaps less confident, maybe a little more anxious and more likely to keep themselves and their skills, knowledge and opinions quiet.

Of course, eventually we all have to be responsible for asking for what we want and going after that, but there’s no hurry to get there. In some children more than others, those skills needs to be nurtured, nourished and built, and that can only happen in an environment that supports them in feeling safe, noticed, free to experiment and free to fail, which will be where some of their greatest learnings will come from.

The expectation that all children should be asking questions, asking for help and making themselves visible from from primary school, or even middle school, is creating a culture where extroversion and confidence is rewarded and introverted, anxious or shy children are being overlooked. That’s a problem for all of us. Their compassion, their insight, their wisdom and their ability to connect are things that the world needs. 

Now for what to do about it …

There are things about anxious kids that will hold them strongly in the world one day. In the meantime, it’s important to recognise, accept and celebrate who they are, but let’s not expect them to be different. More than that, let’s do what we need to do to support them in being the amazing humans they are.

Your child’s teacher is in a prime position to do this, but to do this well, he or she might need to understand your child a little better. Teachers have a limited amount of time and given the tendency of anxious kids to hold back with people they aren’t comfortable with, it can be difficult for teachers to understand them enough to know what they need to flourish at school.

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You  know your child better than anyone on the planet and it’s this information that can make a big difference to your child’s experience and success at school. Think of your relationship with your child’s teacher as a partnership. Teachers want to do the best they can for your child, so give them whatever information they need to help them do that.  All of us have certain things we need to be the best version of ourselves we can be. Most teachers, the good ones anyway, when given the information they need to know about your child, will work really hard to give your child what he or she needs to fly. Here are some things that can make a difference:

  1. Understand their idea of ‘risky’.

    Kids who struggle with anxiety often don’t like being the centre of attention at school. Because of this, they’ll be less likely to take risks. For them, a number of things might come under the umbrella of ‘risky’, including speaking up, asking for help or clarification, asking questions, or having a go. It’s not for any of us to question the rationality of this – it is what it is and for them, it’s real. Understanding this is important to building their trust.

  2. Validate them. And don’t push too hard.

    When encouraging them to do something brave, it’s not enough to say, ‘Don’t worry.’ Think of it like this: Imagine that someone is telling you to put your head between the open jaws of a lion. ‘Just turn your head sideways and rest it on those big lion teeth. Yeah they’re sharp. And yeah it’s a meateater. And yeah, you count as meat. But don’t worry. You’ll be fine.’ Of course we’re not asking our kids to put their heads into the open mouths of lions, but we are asking them to do something that doesn’t feel safe, and just because we tell them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it straight away. 

    What they need is to be validated (‘I really understand that asking a question can be scary for you,’) then given time and understanding to actually experience the environment as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.  They won’t believe it will be okay until they feel it themselves. For some children it will take years to be convinced – it’s just the way they are, and there’s nothing wrong with that. In the meantime …

  3. Don’t wait for them to ask for help.

    They’re still learning that it’s okay to extend themselves into the world and that it’s okay to need help – but they’ll only learn this with experience. In the meantime, it’s important that they are supported in building their confidence by having someone check to see how they’re doing. Anxious kids generally won’t ask for help for so many reasons – it’s risky, it will bring attention, they’ll have to engage with someone they don’t feel comfortable with, and ‘what if the teacher explains it and asks me if I understand and I still don’t get it?’ They don’t hold back from asking for help to be difficult. It’s just something that feels bigger than them so they’ll convince themselves that they’ll be able to work it out themselves. When you think of it from their side it makes complete sense – they’re not about to look for lions with open, head-shaped mouths because a teacher tells them they should.

  4. Don’t wait until they under-perform to check how they’re doing.

    School isn’t a confidence competition and the reluctance of anxious kids to ask for help shouldn’t mean that they’re ignored and left without the support they need. If they are left without that support, they could end up with their confidence being shaken to the ground if they perform badly on a task. Anxious kids are generally really keen to please and will be quick to feel shame if they think they’ve disappointed. It’s important for teachers to be aware of this and to do what they can to give these kids the support they need to do well. That means not waiting for the them to ask for help, clarification or confirmation that they’re on the right track. It just won’t happen. They’re not great at coming forward, which is fine because their strengths lie in plenty of other things. Check on them, approach them and guide them – just don’t wait for them to ask for it. 

  5. And don’t wait for them to ask questions. 

    Teachers often let their students know that they (the teachers) are always available to answer any questions that anyone might have and that there’s no such thing as a stupid question. That’s all important … and none of it will make any difference whatsoever to a child who is anxious. Here’s why. When confident kids ask a question, it will likely come from a place of, ‘Well if I don’t understand then there are probably other kids who also don’t understand.’ For kids who are less confident – but every bit as capable – the desire to ask a question can be shut down by, ‘Well if I’m the only one who needs to ask this, then I’m probably the only one who doesn’t understand it. I’ll wait and sort it out later by myself.’ They might not know the exact questions to ask (because they don’t know what they don’t know) so they will be vastly aware of the risk for confusion, misunderstanding and unwanted attention. A teacher who can work around a child’s reluctance to ask questions, by checking for understanding and checking that he or she is on the right track, will be all kinds of awesome.

  6. Ask them what they think. Their opinions will be wise, informed and deliberate. 

    Anxious kids will think carefully about everything they say before they say it – probably they’ll overthink it and will censor themselves from saying anything. They’ll never talk out of turn, say the wrong thing or upset anyone with their words. When they do speak, it will be wise and insightful. Just don’t assume that because they’re quiet, they have nothing to offer. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

  7. But they will need time to get their thoughts together.

    Invite them to contribute to a class discussion, but don’t ask them to go first. Wherever possible, give them the opportunity and the space to think things through. They’ll likely come back with an edge that will be surprising. Ask for their opinion or for what they think an answer might be, but make sure they’ve had time to collect their thoughts. It’s important not to make the mistake of assuming that because they’re not talking they don’t have anything to say. It’s the environment, the attention and the need to get it right that’s the issue, not their knowledge. The thought of speaking in a large group is likely to set their anxiety on fire. Even for the toughest of us, the thought of having to speak publicly can be one of the most nerve-racking experiences. It’s even worse for anxious kids. Just keep this in mind, but don’t overlook them. 

  8. And they’ll need to feel safe before they speak. 

    Anxious kids will always work best in smaller groups, particularly if they are with at least one other child they feel comfortable with and when there isn’t a strong personality running the show. The opportunity to get the best out of them will be wasted if they are with too many bigger personalities or too many people they don’t feel close too. Give them an opportunity to lead the discussion within the smaller group by being the note-taker (this will see them asking for clarification or opinions – so that what they’re writing down makes sense) or by being the one who reports back to the class on the group discussion (they’ll want to do a good job of this, as they do with everything, so they’ll make sure the discussion is a good one).

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  9. Get to know them. 

    Anxious kids tend to be warm and generous and with an enormous capacity to connect – but people will have to work to uncover it. Kids with anxiety will tend to run in the other direction to anything that’s unfamiliar, so the last thing they’ll do is initiate a connection or a conversation with someone they don’t feel close to, such as a teacher. It’s just too much expect children, particularly anxious ones, to feel comfortable reaching out for support or help from people they don’t have a rapport with. Give your child’s teacher some inside info he or she can use to start building a relationship with your child. Anything your child is interested in will be a good start – pets, sports, hobbies, big news (like a moving house or a new sibling). Ask the teacher if he or she can quietly – not in front of the entire class – strike up a conversation about one of these interests. It will mean a lot to your child to have a teacher who does this and it will start to build the connection that your child needs to feel safe enough to soar.

  10. Find ways to let them shine without the spotlight.

    Anxious kids will rarely welcome the spotlight in public. At home they can be little firecrackers – funny, kooky and crazy good fun – but in public it’s often a different story. There will always be those kids who revel in the spotlight like there’s nowhere else to be, and then there will be those who won’t. Both ways of being are normal and completely okay. Both types of kids have the potential to set the world on fire through their creativity, their passion, their courage and the way they inspire the people around them – but they’ll do it in very different ways.

    Anxious kids aren’t likely to put themselves forward for things. Let the teacher know this and ask the teacher to gently encourage your child to try different things that might give them the opportunity to shine, keeping in mind that they might not readily put themselves out there. Clue the teacher in on your child’s outside interests so that there’s a solid place to start – but don’t let it be the only place. That amazing human of yours might find a spark where he or she hasn’t even looked yet – the school play, the swimming squad, art club, hockey – who knows?

  11. Don’t force them to connect with unfamiliar people.

    Because of their sensitive and huge capacity for empathy, kids with anxiety will be great with people, but let them do it in their own time. Wherever they go, whether it’s to a new class, a new grade, or on camp, let them be with at least one person they are close to. The more the better. This will help them to feel safe and confident and these are the conditions under which you’ll be most likely to see them take flight. They’re not running for election so there’s just no need to force them to meet new people or to have new experiences on their own. They’ll hate it and they’ll be back to the beginning in terms of feel safe and confident enough to show themselves and everyone else what they’re capable of – and that would be such a waste. 

  12. Catch them if they’re performing less than their capability.

    Be aware that children with anxiety might often perform less than they’re capable of to avoid the ‘fuss’ that comes with getting the highest mark, the lead in the play, the captain of the sports team – even though they’re completely capable. Be sensitive to their need to avoid attention if that’s an issue for them. Ask your child’s teacher to praise your child privately when they do something well, but to be mindful that they might not want a public fuss made of them.

    If the teacher can have a little chat about this with your child and name this, it can help to shift it, ‘You would be [a great class leader/ awesome in the school play/ stellar in the cross country squad], but I notice you haven’t put yourself forward for [the role/ the part/ a place on the team]. Are you worried about having to speak on assembly/ that you’ll be in front of an audience/ that you’ll be with people you don’t know? I understand that can be scary. Let’s talk about that.’ 

And finally …

School shouldn’t be a test of extroversion or confidence. By making learning too self-directed too early, and expecting that all kids will be able to seek out clarification or understanding, we’re losing some of them. The spark that’s there in all of them is staying unlit. It’s a loss for them and it’s a loss for us. School is the launchpad into the real world, and the world is losing a lot of brilliance and potential by gearing towards the learning styles of the more confident and extroverted. 

All kids need certain things to be their best, but anxious kids who are quiet and ‘absolutely no trouble’, can be easily overlooked. All kids are different. The more you are able to share with your child’s teacher what works and what doesn’t work for your child, the more likely it is that the teacher can prepare the runway for him or her to fly. 

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67 Comments

Dan

Hi Hey, thanks for the insight. I want to say a few things about teachers and school culture, not just as defense of the profession, but also perhaps to put your readers more at ease. I am in my forties and have just come into teaching after a successful career elsewhere. I work in the state system in a pretty normal school in a disadvantaged suburb.
1. Absolutely central to our pedagogy (the art and science of teaching) is a requirement to know our students. We learn about their town, school, their likes, dislikes, their characters, their friends, family, how they like to learn and so on. The first week of every new class is spent doing this. If your child is anxious and shy – we know.
2. Most teachers use a system of Cold Call with no opt-out for much of their questioning. This involves putting the question to the class as a whole, giving think time and then asking a random child (some use randomising fun tool like Class Dojo to do this). This means that every child gets prepared to answer and the more confident ones do not take over. If a student doesn’t know the answer the question is asked to another student and then the teacher gets the first child to repeat and checks for understanding. Scary at first but the kids quickly get very comfortable with the system.
3. We use a variety of assessment methods, diagnostic (to find out where the students are before we begin), formative (during the teaching to check for understanding as we go and find out which students need extra help) and summative (at the end, where we mainly use the data to tweak the teaching of those parts of the topic that clearly didn’t get across well enough). We are to do these assessments in a range of ways, written, verbal, art, in discussion, group work and so on. We track all this data and we set up our assessments precisely to drive our understanding of a range of different learning styles and abilities. We want all of our students to be making progress and enjoying their learning.
4. In turn, teachers are regularly assessed to make sure that they are doing all this stuff, that they know their students and tailor their teaching accordingly. Take a look at AITSL to see our guidelines. This is not pie-in-the-sky whishmaking, these are the standards that we have to meet if we want to keep our jobs.
Lastly, I know that there are fantastic, driven and compassionate teachers in the private system, but if you want staff in a system that really cares about every child in its care, go public.

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Tina

Well said Dan. I am also a teacher in the state system. I totally agree with what you have said. But I never do the cold call system. As a parent of a highly anxious child this makes every lesson so stressful as the anxious kids never know when they will be called on. I believe this stress actually hinders learning. Just my opinion though. Keep up the great work 🙂

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Linda

Tina, I totally agree my 12 year old is having a hard time in classes with cold calling. I have just found out my child has school anxiety and moving to high school this system is one of the things she is struggling most with. Linda

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Karen Bush

Interesting but could you write something on those children that cover up their anxieties and try to keep them hidden? The ones who like to make others laugh but on the inside worry about everything.

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Hey Sigmund

Yes – these ones often get missed too. Anxiety takes on a lot of different shapes and kids can be really resourceful when it comes to keeping it hidden or under control. I would still have the conversation with the teacher and let him or her know what you think is happening under that brave shield. The key is knowing that the anxiety is there and working to bring your child out from behind it. Nobody knows your child better than you so any information you can give to the teacher will be really valuable.

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Marcia

That’s my daughter… sometimes even I forget that she suffers from anxiety because she hides it so well…that it until I see her poor little nubby fingernails, they remind me that she worries about everything.

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Hey Sigmund

They can be so resourceful at hiding it! It’s great that you’re able to see through it and be there for her when she needs to be noticed.

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Catherine Rucker

I have absolutely no invested interest in this. I live in Germany but I am a therapist. Heart Math does a wonderful affordable workbook for little kids to help them learn to control their fear responses. It’s called test edge. There is also a board game. I use it with my clients to introduce the idea of self calming. Read up on heart rate variability training for children. Good luck to your baby girl. Help her learn to control her reactions to situations and let her take her place in the spotlight. My daughter had anxiety issues but has practiced regularly with the techniques and is so much better.

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Jennifer Smith

This is my son.. he is diagnosed with anxiety disorder yet school keeps telling me he shows no signs of anxiety because he is loud and very active yet the moment someone looks at him or something goes wrong in his routine he falls apart. He has an exceptionally high IQ yet is failing 1st grade and I am beginning to wonder if it is easier for him to fail on his own terms than to take the risk and try his best only to fail anyway.

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Hey Sigmund

The issue with letting him fail on his on terms is that you don’t want to make failing or not being good enough a part of his self-concept. He sounds as though he is capable of great things, but like all kids, he needs the right support to do this. Give him permission to make mistakes and to fail – it’s an important part of learning and growing, but let him know that you know he is capable of doing amazing things. If you can foster a growth mindset, it will really hold him strong moving forwards. Here is some information on how to do that https://www.heysigmund.com/mindset-improve-academic-performance-2/ . There’s nothing wrong with falling and making mistakes, as long as kids know that it’s only part of growing and being the best they can be. Let your son know that you know he is capable of achieving great things, but that everyone makes mistakes and fails sometimes, because figuring out what isn’t right is a really important part of figuring out what is.

Anxiety takes many shapes and kids with anxiety don’t necessarily ‘act’ anxious. Keep doing what you can do help your son’t teacher understand. Having the teacher onside makes such a difference. In the meantime, anything you can do to build your son up and let him know that you know he is so very capable all strengthen him and nurture his self belief, and once kids believe in themselves they’ll be unstoppable. They’ll see mistakes and fair for what it is – evidence that the are trying, learning and on their way to achieving something great, rather than evidence of their shortcomings. I wish you all the very best.

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Erin

As an early years teacher, I have found that modelling “making mistakes” when I’m demonstrating new skills can help to alleviate students’ anxiety. One of my students is highly anxious, so I deliberately make mistakes when I am doing modelled writing for her, then say “oh I made a mistake! Doesn’t matter! What do I need to do?” so that she will prompt me to rub it out and try again. We have had a lot of conversation about how we all make mistakes – Mrs L makes mistakes too – that’s ok, we just need to try again.

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Debi Powell

I’m pretty sure I’m your number one fan. :). Your words are exactly what my heart need to hear! So informative, pertinent, and always so helpful! I have a question about something I’ve noticed lately that’s unrelated to your posts, but more about the placement of the bar on the left side that sort of follows you while reading it, making it very difficult to scroll and read at the same time. It is the one with the Facebook link, twitter, etc. It may be my Surface 3 app that I am sure, and not your page. Is it intentional? I was just curious if it was my computer, or is everyone having the same issue while reading the posts? Thanks for any info or advice on how I may be able to move it to the bottom.

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Hey Sigmund

Debi thank you! I’m so pleased the articles are helpful for you. Now about the share bar on the left – it’s meant to be on the outside of the posts so it shouldn’t get in the way of the reading but I know what you mean – I had the same trouble on a different website when I looked at it with my computer, but it was for share buttons from a different developer. With these ones, when the posts are read on a mobile or an iPad the share buttons are meant to move down to the bottom with a faint grey line that says ‘share’. It looks okay on my devices but I’ve sent off an email to the people who developed the share bar that I’m using to see if we can sort out why it’s doing this for you. In the meantime, are you able to squeeze your screen in or out a little – you shouldn’t have to but it might help. The share buttons are meant to move to the bottom when the screen gets smaller. I haven’t had anyone else say anything, but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening. I’ll let you know when I hear back.

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Anna

I can absolutely relate to this article as I have two “shy” daughters. One is 16 and I just had a talk to her tonight as she is struggling being motivated with school and she is scared how to manage year 11 and next year 12 and what she might do after school. I actually said to her what is written in the article that she is unique and as long as she will do something she loves and where her talents lie, she will be happy and successful. My younger daughter is 8 and struggled since last year with school. But thanks to her amazing teacher with whom I worked closely with, she just blossomed in the past three months and she is so much more happy. She is doing great at school and finally made some good friends:-) thank you for this article!

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Catherine Ruckert

There are, of course, children whose anxiety goes beyond being shy and not liking the spotlight. Some children need professional help to prevent the development of a true anxiety disorder. There are some well researched, well designed programs that teach children how to overcome the physical symptoms of anxiety and allow them to shine in public performance scenarios.

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Fleur

Fab! Best article I have read on this topic. I support slow processing dyslexics with similar qualities and become frustrated by the current emphasis on children to be extrovert and pro active in class.

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Brandi

Thank you for this great article. It’s nice to see that the anxious child is recognized. Many times I hear people tell me my 6 year old is too young to have anxiety. Everyone just says oh, he is so nice to have in class. He is so good and never any trouble. it soon became apparent that he was totally overlooked and off the radar because he was never any trouble. We have since resolved this issue, but it took a lot of work and collaboration between me and teacher. We started doing more small groups and making sure he was in a group with a student he considers a friend. It has made such a big difference! His personality has started to emerge more at school and you can tell that he is finally starting to feel engaged. Thanks again for your great article. The tips in there really do work!

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Hey Sigmund

You’re very welcome. 6 year olds are certainly not too young to have anxiety, and the response your son was getting in relation to being overlooked because he’s so easy to have in class is so common. It’s great that you’ve worked so hard to sort the issue out – you’ve done exactly what he needed and I’m so pleased that what you’ve done has made a difference for him. Sometimes they just need someone to be a strong voice for them don’t they.

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Annette

I found this article so interesting and totally described how my daughter is. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if teachers would take the time to actually get to know our children. My daughter has suffered from anxiety now for over 4 years. She has always been shy, nervous and untrusting of strangers however when you get to know her, when she allows you to get beyond the wall she is funny, loveable, smart and inquisitive amongst many other things. Her science teacher has had this approach which has meant my daughter has excelled in this subject in her first semester at high school she got an A. Unfortunately the Maths and English teachers haven’t adopted this style. I have a meeting with them soon, I shall take this article as it describes everything so eloquently, I tend to get caught up in emotions when discussing my children so thank you I will be sharing x

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Hey Sigmund

I’m so pleased this article has helped you. You’re so right – it makes such a big difference when teachers are able to understand what anxious kids need. They don’t need a lot, but when the classroom and teaching is closer to supporting them, they can surprise everyone, including themselves with what they can do. It’s great that your daughter has a teacher who has been able to do this. I hope your meeting goes well with your daughter’s teachers, and that they feel empowered by the information and more able to understand what your daughter needs to bring out her best. It takes a village doesn’t it x

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Erin

I understand your concern for your daughter – I am a mum too, so I do understand what its like to have concerns about your child and their relationship with school/teachers. But don’t be too quick to condemn your daughter’s teacher (or teachers in general).

In fairness, many teachers do take time to get to know students! Lots and lots of time. We chat to students before/after school and in the playground; we ask them about their interests and families; we notice when they are quiet; we notice that they haven’t had nutritious lunch this week. Our students become our family and we worry about them when we are at home. We stew over the girl who quietly mentioned that she was worried her mummy didn’t love her, or the boy whose older brother smacked him in the face.

Teaching is a hard profession – it centres around relationships and the stakes are high. Parents, teachers, students and the education department all have different demands and expectations. We all want our students to succeed. It’s great that you are talking to your daughter’s teachers. It would be great if you could go into those meetings with some graciousness, accepting that those teachers probably do care and do have lots of students to care for. Comments like “Wouldn’t it be fantastic if teachers would take the time to actually get to know our children.” are untrue and unhelpful.

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Theresa Hilbrant

Mine has a clinically significant anxiety disorder which does not come across as shyness, but obstinance. He refuses to attempt anything that makes him uncomfortable. By the time we and the school figured out what was wrong he was really struggling with reading and writing. Sometimes it’s not just the ones cowering in the corner who are fighting anxiety. It takes on so many forms! It also leads to bullies and behavioral consequences which make the anxiety worse. Thanks for tackling what other people see as a “they need to get over that” issue !

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Hey Sigmund

You’re so right. Anxiety has so many different shapes which can make it really difficult to pick up. It’s one of those things that unless it is picked up, the way the child is responded to can sometimes make it worse, despite the very best intentions. I hope your little man is now getting the support he needs.

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Angela

This is my 14yo daughter to a tee. She is very quiet and reserved and will not ask questions in class (high school). I think she feels that she is not smart enough and doesn’t want to look stupid (in her eyes). In her first year of high school, she was bullied by older students which I became aware of when she stopped eating. She had hidden it from me for months. She then refused to go to school and missed most of the last term of that year. The school dealt with the bullying but it affected her deeply. Two years later (Year 9), she has recently had issues with friendships which were very important to her which have fractured (nice girls with big personalities and competitive natures). She is again refusing to go to school to avoid the girls and missed more than half of the last term (6 of 10 weeks). The new term started last week and she didn’t (couldn’t) go. She told me she felt physically sick. The school is trying to help with strategies for her to return to school but the next (and biggest) step is hers. I have discussed with her options and answers for situations that may arise at school and let her know that I am on her side and want the best for her, without trying to put additional pressure on her. Unfortunately, she is missing so much teaching/learning by staying home and may need to repeat the year which will cause her more anxiety as she will feel like a failure. I have suggested some counselling and on-line self-help for youths to help her manage her feelings but she refuses these options. I considered moving her to another school but am concerned that this will place her in an unknown environment which may increase her anxiety more than staying at her current school. Would you have any ideas for my daughter in this situation, please? Perhaps I need a different perspective on this situation as I’m not sure what my next step should be to help her. Sorry for the long post and thanks for any advice you can offer.

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Hey Sigmund

I’m so sorry to hear that your daughter is struggling like this. This age can be difficult enough for them, but when anxiety is added in it just makes it that much harder. It sounds as though you’re doing everything right and as though you are being wonderfully supportive of her – that’ exactly what she needs. One of the worst things though for your daughter is to avoid school. The more she avoids it, the harder it will be to go back, mainly because she will really start to feel disconnected from the other kids, the teachers, and the routine in general. Avoidance feels good in the short term, but it actually sends anxiety through the roof. Having said that, I know how difficult it can be to get a 14 year old to do something that they’ve decided not to do.

It’s important that your daughter understands why she’s feeling like she’s feeling. The reason she’s feeling sick is because of her anxiety. One of the things that will help her is if she can understand exactly why her anxiety feels the way it does. It will help her to stop getting ‘anxious about the anxiety’. Anxiety feels awful and it’s that physical feeling of anxiety that tends to take over from the feared thing. Here is an article that explains it: https://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-in-kids/ . If you can explain this to her and let her know why it’s happening it will help her to push through it. The language is written maybe for younger kids but the gist of it is relevant for everyone – just relay it to her in a language that will feel right for her, otherwise let her read it but explain that even though it’s written for younger kids, the concept is relevant for everyone, including adults and adolescents. Then, let her read the comments so she can see how many people are struggling with this – it will help her to feel less alone.

If she’s missing school, it would be really important for her to get some sort of counselling support. She might prefer to go to a counsellor outside of school, to avoid the other kids knowing about it. In the meantime, here are some things that will help her to manage it:

. Anxiety: Ways to Feel Better Without Medication https://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-without-medication/
. Managing Anxiety: 8 Proven Ways. https://www.heysigmund.com/managing-anxiety/

The most important thing is doing whatever it takes to get your daughter back to school because the longer she avoids it, the more she will feel as though avoidance is the only option for her. I understand how difficult this is because the avoidance isn’t something your daughter is doing to be defiant – I really get that. Everything in her is telling her that she can’t cope with going to school, but not going to school is making this belief even stronger. Talk to her about how she feels about going to a different school – I would give her the option: this school or another school but it has to be one of them. Give yourself permission to do whatever it takes to get her to school, and don’t feel as though you’re being mean by making her go. I really understand how difficult this is though, but if you can put some conditions down, that might be helpful, such as if she’s going to stay home, she needs to see a counsellor and do schoolwork at home during the day for example. Also get her involved in the solution by asking her what she needs to feel better about going to school.

It sounds like you’re doing what you need to be doing and it’s great that the school is helping with strategies. Having them on side and knowing that they understand the issue is really important. It also sounds as though you’re being a wonderful support for your daughter, which is exactly what she needs. Just keep in mind that if her avoidance keeps going that there will come to be a difference between supporting the person and supporting the pathology. The difference can be a really difficult one to identify, but the main thing to remember is that the easier it is for her to avoid school, the more control her anxiety will have over her.

I know how difficult this is and I know how awful it must be watching her struggle. Keep doing what you’re doing with the school and with her towards getting her there, and if you’re able to get her to see a counsellor, that would be really helpful for her. Keep going, and know that you’re doing a really good job.

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Angela

Thank you for your advice. I will show my daughter the articles (which are fantastic and so readable!) and continue suggesting counselling as the preferred option for her to help her manage her anxiety, now and into the future. I am very happy to have recently found your site and look forward to reading the weekly round-up. Thanks again.

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jodestar

another option to consider, if the school avoidance is too tough, is Distance Education. The school counsellor should be able to give you some info on this, otherwise look at options in your state.

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Angela

I am so excited. My daughter went to school today on a partial enrolment basis, with additional support systems put in place by the school. This requires her to attend the first two sessions daily until she feels more comfortable, with a view to returning to full-time attendance in around 6 weeks. She enjoyed being back at school and caught up with some friends who were very happy to see her, which made her feel included. It was lovely to hear her so animated about her day. I know we need to take one day at a time, but the first step is always the most difficult!

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Hey Sigmund

Angela that’s fantastic news! I’m so happy to hear this. It sounds as though you have a great school there. Yes, one day at a time but it’s important to celebrate the wins and this is a big one. I know how difficult this must have been for your daughter and she did it! She’s brave and she’s amazing. I hope she is able to keep moving forward. Thank you SO much for letting me know.

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Terri Windahl

Thank you for sharing your wisdom and research with us.

After years of therapy, examinations and medications, we finally discovered a root cause of our daughter’s anxiety issues.

Our 11 year old daughter has suffered from anxiety all her life. She was diagnosed with ADHD, then GAD. We tried medications, but side affects (weight gain, facial tics) forced us to discontinue. Then something miraculous happened. Her school performed eye exams and she came home and said that they thought she may need glasses. So off to the optometrist for an exam. He told us she needed to see a specialist because her eyes were not teaming together and she was experiencing double vision, lack of depth perception and other vision challenges. Because she is very bright, she was able to “fake” her way through school until 5th grade. She didn’t know that her sight was impaired because it had always been that way. She started wearing prism glasses and began vision therapy.

Further research prompted us to have her evaluated by an Occupational Therapist. This revealed that she has Sensory Integration Deficiency. This was a HUGE clue as to why she was the target of bullying, why learning to ride a bike was almost traumatic, why she startled at loud noises, why she had severe separation anxiety, etc., etc. Many of her primitive reflexes have been retained, and her executive skill functioning was nearly non existent.

She is just about finished with 18 sessions of vision therapy and the results are tremendous. She will continue with OT and we still have anxiety issues, but we are so grateful to have found the root cause of so many of her challenges.

Have you encountered a case like hers? I believe sharing our story would be very helpful to families who can’t find the missing puzzle piece for their child.

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Hey Sigmund

Thank you so much for sharing your story. It’s why it’s so important to keep investigating when something doesn’t feel right. The right diagnosis makes all the difference. It’s wonderful news that the treatment is working and has set your daughter on track to discovering what she’s capable of. Thanks again for sharing this. You never know who will be reading this and putting some important pieces to together.

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Kristy

Totally disagree with your statement that extroverts are rewarded. Behavior charts are used in every elementary classroom I know and shy, introverted children are rewarded on behavior charts. Extroverted, confident children who are engaged and want to contribute are given anxiety by teachers who are punitive with behavior charts because these children…(gasp) talk!!! This is article is not helpful for gifted children needing an advocate in the classroom.

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Hey Sigmund

This is an article about anxious kids, not gifted kids, and I can assure you that there are many anxious kids who are getting overlooked because they are shy and not showing fully what they’re capable of. Because of their reluctance to ask questions and bring attention to themselves, it is often assumed (sometimes wrongly) that they are doing fine and don’t need help or guidance. Anxious children are regularly rewarded for their behaviour because they’re never any trouble – nobody is disputing that – but that’s not the point of the article. The point is that many of them are not reaching their full academic potential because they are not being given the guidance or support in the classroom that all kids need – gifted, anxious or otherwise. No child gets to be the best they can be by themselves. Because introverted kids are less likely to ask for help, ask questions, and ask for guidance and support – for very valid reasons – they are less likely than more confident children to get the support and guidance they need to bring out their best.

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Annabelle

Absolutely. I find also that if there are problems at home and friendships break down or there is major change then these poor kids just do not know how to cope! So when they don’t or can’t ask for help they struggle along believing that they have no control. These kids gifts and creativity sometimes don’t get chance to blossom as they undervalue themselves. Great that you are addressing this issue.

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Hey Sigmund

Thanks Annabelle. Well said. We’re all missing out on a lot when these kids don’t reach their full potential. If only they knew what they were capable of!

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Leanne

Hi Kristy,
You have totally misconstrued this article. We are not talking about “gifted children” we are talking about children and adolescents who because of their anxiety may be overlooked as they will probably not ask for help when they need it which in turn leads to under achieving academically. Many times teachers are not able to provide the extra support needed to help these children overcome their condition as the teachers themselves don’t possess the skills necessary. I sense anger and resentment in what you have written.

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Annabelle

(to Kristy) As a teacher myself I find your comment rather misguided because most loud extrovert children have no problem seeking attention! In fact they are often attention seeking purely for that reason alone and can be rude or even disruptive if they do not get the result they want! This is why shy quiet children often are overlooked! Some of these quiet children are often gifted! Many parents excuse their loud badly behaved offspring as being bright but unfortunately we find they are usually just spoilt!

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Gwyn

i think this article talks more about quiet, introverted kids, who may or may not have anxiety issues?
It’s a great read, thanks for all the tips. I think some of which apply to adults in the workplace! Have you read ‘quiet’ bu Susan Cain? It’s a great book about these issues in adult life. For all my fellow intoverts out there, have a read, it’s very empowering.

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Hey Sigmund

You’re very welcome. And yes – the points in the article would certainly apply to introverted kids with or without anxiety. Thank you for sharing details of the book that helped you.

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Alexandra lujan

hi, my son, 14yrs, has been through a lot. One brother hit by a car and now disabled, his mother (me) went through cancer, another brother found dead last year. He has been diagnosed with GAD and he sees a psychologist every week to give him skills to manage his anxiety. Life is extremely difficult for him. Could you please let me know if you have any information on GAD, please?.

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Hey Sigmund

Your boys has been through a lot, as you have also been. You sound as though you’re their rock and I hope you have someone who can be yours. It’s great that your son is seeing a psychologist. Here is an article that might help you https://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-in-kids/ . Anxiety is a physiological response, and if children can understand where the this comes from, it will help to ease their anxiety, particularly their anxiety about the anxiety’, which can be a huge trigger for an anxious response. I hope this helps.

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Connie

This article was great to read thank you. I feel that there is too much focus at my daughters school on those overconfident so called gifted individuals who love the limelight. It’s great to read about strategies to help those children who would be just as able to shine if only someone would pay them some attention. They have much to offer too.

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Hey Sigmund

You’re very welcome. And you’re so right – these kids have so much that is wonderful about them. They are bright, creative, capable and socially aware, to name a few. They have a huge amount to offer!

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L. Funnell

Interesting article, thank you for some good thoughts. I agree, getting to know each and every child and focus on their strengths and skills makes for the best outcomes for all children. However, I also agree with several commentators that have mentioned about “shy, quiet” children as very different from those children with genuine anxiety. As an Early Childhood teacher who has worked closely with children with anxiety disorders, anxiety in it’s true form needs specific. compassionate and focussed support, from educators, families and often other professionals if appropriate. Research has shown that children with genuine anxiety challenges are far more likely to become adults who may suffer depression. Anxiety in children is not to be taken lightly at any age.

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Hey Sigmund

Yes – not all shy children are anxious children, and this is an article specifically about children who struggle with anxiety (though the information may also help to nurture the potential of shy children as well). Anxiety can come in many forms and though not all anxious children present as shy, it is often those children who can be easily overlooked in the classroom, despite the very best intentions of teachers. Anxious children who present as more outgoing can also be overlooked, as the tendency for their fight or flight response to be triggered in times of perceived threat can hold them back from asking for help, asking for questions etc. Like any child, children with anxiety have so much potential and, like all children, there are specific ways to support them to nurture that potential. It’s great to hear that there are educators who are experienced with children with anxiety who are able to offer that support.

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Fleur

Thanks for taking the time to write on this topic. I’d agree with those who’ve commented on the independence of the introversion/extroversion traits and the experience of anxiety. It’s important we recognise these as different concepts and that teachers are supported to have appropriate diagnostic and response strategies in place for the kids in their classrooms. I suspect this is also one of the areas that contributes to the sometimes wide gap in communication that occurs between home and school. Mum and Dad can usually tell you about how the anxiety load is travelling – it’s usually pretty evident at pick time and bedtime – the times when kids are tired and ready to let it all hang out with someone who loves them and with whom they feel “safe”. Supporting parents and teachers to be in dialogue is the crucial element here – thanks for making that important point too.

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Julianna

this is a great article, it describle my 8yo son so well. He loves to read, do you know any kids book that could help him learning about anxious children, in a way to help him to feel better?
Thank you

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Hey Sigmund

If you jump on Amazon there are quite a few that might be helpful for. Search under anxiety kids books. A lot of them you can have a look inside. Also maybe have a look at mindfulness books for kids while you’re there. Mindfulness changes the brain and helps protect against anxiety. If your little man can learn how to practice this now, it will really strengthen him moving forward.

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Lisa

Thankyou for your brilliant article. If only more Teachers were aware of the effects of anxiety on Children. My almost 10yr old daughter had a hard six months last year, mainly in regards to school. We are not sure where it all began but we went to a psychologist to help her work through her thoughts etc. This year has been good so far with only a few anxious times – up until last week. The school sent her home feeling sick. She told us with great determination that she was sick, not worried about school. I have since determined that it is school worries. I have spent quite a bit of time at school over the past week helping her through things as she says she doesn’t want to be there . We have had a couple of traumatic mornings trying to get her out the door. Today it was due to an oral presentation. Although she had lots of Adult encouragement, she could not stand in front of the class and do her talk, her tears and panic had her classmates looking at her, which of course made her feel worse. A vicious circle , as she is very intelligent and puts so much pressure on herself. Any ideas on how to get through these times would be appreciated. I have shared your article with her teacher as sometimes these kids are looked upon as sooky and their Mothers as being overprotective. Thanks again. Lisa

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Hey Sigmund

It sounds like your daughter is having a tough time of things at the moment. One of the most important and empowering things you can do with anxiety is to help her to understand why she feels the way she does. Anxiety feels awful, and the feelings become associated with certain situation or enviroments, and become triggered even when there’s nothing really to be anxious about. The problem becomes anxiety about the anxiety. Here is some information that will help you to have a chat with her about what happens when she gets the physical feelings. The more she can really understand this, the less frightening it will be. There are also some ideas for how to manage it there. Here is the link to the article https://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-in-kids/ .

Here are some non-medication ways to deal with anxiety https://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-without-medication/

Mindfulness is amazing for anxiety – it builds the neural connections and helps to strengthen the brain against it. There’s plenty of research that has proven how powerful mindfulness can be. Here are some fun ways to get your daughter into a regular mindfulness practice https://www.heysigmund.com/mindfulness-for-children-fun-effective-ways-to-strengthen-mind-body-spirit/.

And what to say to children who are anxious … https://www.heysigmund.com/building-emotional-intelligence-what-to-say-to-children-with-anxiety/

Finally, you’re doing the right thing by supporting her. It’s important and certainly isn’t overprotective. If you can support her by giving her what she needs, and encourage her to be brave at the same time, this will also help to strengthen the neural connections that will make it easier for her as she gets older.

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Lisa

Thankyou. Have read a couple of those articles, will read the rest. You have some great easy to read, helpful advice. 🙂

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Katherine

As a teacher and a parent of a highly anxious teenage girl, I feel that the education system penalizes anxious kids by its overemphasis on oral communication and presentations.

So many well-meaning educators put anxious students on the spot or force them to present believing they are doing the child a favour and enhancing their life skill of communicating.

In reality, they are sometimes pushing a child who is NOT ready too far, causing the child absolute dread, and worsening the situation.

I really wish we would relax our focus on oral communication in the education system a little.

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Katherine I absolutely AGREE! Anxious kids have so many strengths, including academically, that often aren’t being tapped into because of the way assessments are structured. These children are bright, capable and have incredible potential. It’s so disappointing that they are being measured on qualities that have nothing to do with success, such as being able to perform in front of a room full of people. These children are often wonderful communicators – many would be the best in their class, but the way communication skills are assessed through oral communications and presentations stomps on this. I hope awareness of anxiety continues to grow so that these kids can be given the opportunities they need to shine – and shine they will!

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