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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. 

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.

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).

     

  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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72 Comments

Poppy

Thank you your articles are very helpful. My 4 year old pre schooler is struggling at school with speaking to teacher and in groups. There approach is now to refuse to let her have fruit if she won’t say thank you or refuse to help her with her coat and not let her outside if she won’t ask for help. I’m am becoming frustrated and concerned this approach is making her anxiety worse. She is being punished for her shyness and fear of speaking out.

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Karen Young

Oh Poppy it’s such a mistake to punish children for being shy or anxious. There is absolutely nothing wrong with either. She is so young and learning to trust the world. I understand the importance of encouraging manners and asking for help, but this has to happen through connection, not through shame and punishment. Her behaviour isn’t because she wants to cause trouble, and it’s not bad behaviour. She is learning about how the world works and for now, she is choosey about who she lets her guard down for. At the moment, there is no distinction for her between interacting with people and manners. That will come – there is plenty of time for that, but for now, the lesson is that the world is safe. A gentle, loving approach will nurture the right way to respond to the world much quicker than a punitive one.

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Hey Warrior - A book about anxiety in children.