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How Teachers Can Help Students Cope with General Anxiety in the Classroom

How Teachers Can Help Students Cope with General Anxiety in the Classroom

Creating a classroom environment that is conducive to learning is a priority for any educator. And, while mental health awareness is on the rise across the country, it can be difficult to identify students who might be struggling with mental health disorders such as anxiety. It’s important to understand what anxiety looks like and to build classroom procedures that are supportive and effective for helping students who struggle with it, diagnosed or not. Let’s take a look at what anxiety can look like in your students and examine a few strategies to help:

Signs of Anxiety in Children

It’s no secret that anxiety is rising in children across the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 7.1 percent of children aged 3–17 years (approximately 4.4 million) have diagnosed anxiety. While 6 in 10 children (59.3 percent) aged 3–17 years with anxiety receive treatment, mental health awareness is on the rise and more prevalent than ever in classrooms across the country.

Anxiety is more than just a temporary fear—it is a constant state of worry or nervousness for some students. While the signs of anxiety look different for everyone, here are a few common symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder, from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America:

  • Feeling nervous, irritable, or on edge
  • Feeling a sense of impending danger, panic, or doom
  • Having an increased heart rate
  • Breathing rapidly (hyperventilation), sweating, and/or trembling
  • Feeling weak or tired
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Having trouble sleeping
  • Experiencing gastrointestinal (GI) problems

Other common forms of anxiety include: panic disorders and panic attacks, agoraphobia, social anxiety disorders, selective mutism, separation anxiety, and specific phobias.

Anxiety can also impact a student’s educational performance, and result in issues like:

  • High absenteeism rates
  • Difficulty processing and retrieving information
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Disruptive behaviors in class
  • Fractured relationships with peers and teachers
  • Irregular homework completion and classroom participation
  • Complaints of physical ailments

Strategies to Help Combat Anxiety in the Classroom

Schools can often be a stressor and exacerbate anxiety in some students. While the root cause of a student’s anxiety might stem from something outside the classroom, there are ways to help mitigate situations in the classroom that might cause a student to feel anxious. Here are a few tips to get you started:

1. Implement mindfulness practices

When a student is beginning to feel overwhelmed with anxiety, leading deep breathing and mindfulness exercises is a quick way to slow down one’s breathing (and the thoughts racing through one’s mind). Deep breathing’s physical effect on one’s body can help a student in distress feel calmer in a matter of minutes. These deep breathing exercises from Coping Skills for Kids are a great resource to get you started. If you’re looking for an app to use, Headspace offers FREE access for teachers to lead group meditation sessions in the classroom!

2. Offer extra time on homework or tests

If time limits on homework or exams cause anxiety in your classroom, consider offering extra time for completion or alternate methods of turning in work. For example, if a student becomes anxious at the amount of content he or she must write, consider having that student complete the work by typing or delivering it in an oral format.

3. If class participation causes anxiety, consider a few alternatives

Speaking in front of a group of peers can be anxiety-inducing, so offer a few alternatives to classroom discussions like turning around and sharing answers with a partner instead of the whole class or using whiteboards or notecards to hold up answers instead of saying them out loud. These strategies will help make your next classroom discussion less nerve-racking for all involved.

4. Provide cool-down spaces in the classroom or “cool-down passes” for a quick break

The sights and sounds of a classroom can quickly become overwhelming for someone struggling with anxiety. Offer a space in the classroom or a “cool-down pass” so that a student can step outside if need be. When a student is experiencing anxiety, his or her mind is racing at a million miles per hour, and often, a quick moment to cool down and relax can be the key in managing anxiety. It’s also important to let your students know that it is perfectly OK for them to take advantage of these spaces or passes. Students shouldn’t feel ashamed or embarrassed of experiencing anxiety, and normalizing anxiety is key.

5. Work with parents and the school counselor to consider other accommodations

If a student’s anxiety is becoming a major problem in the classroom, consider working with your school’s guidance counselor and the student’s parents to put together other accommodations. Sharing information and problem-solving with all parties is an important part of making sure that you can help put together a comprehensive plan that supports a student’s anxiety. This list from Psycom is a great resource to help brainstorm accommodations for an anxious student.

Looking for more resources to support students with anxiety in the classroom? Check out these strategies to help students cope with test anxiety!