Anxiety rates among children and teenagers have reached record levels across the world. Last year, a metastudy analysed data from over 80,000 children and teenagers across North America, Europe and Asia. It found that rates of anxiety and depression had almost doubled in the last couple of years, with a prevalence of 23.8% and 19% respectively.
Now that students are back in education full time, teachers are seeing these issues play out in the classroom in different ways. Data from the UK shows that students often turn to teachers for support, as trusted adults in their lives. It makes sense: after all, you probably know your students better than almost anyone, apart from their parents and caregivers.
However, in order to help students who are suffering from anxiety, teachers need to know what anxiety looks like, and how they can offer effective support.
How to recognise anxiety in children and young people
Anxiety can take many forms depending on the age of your students. Young children often suffer from separation anxiety, or specific fears and phobias, whereas older children are more likely to experience social anxiety, or general anxiety. The symptoms of anxiety can also encompass lots of different behaviours. Here are some of the most common:
Poor attendance and missing lots of school can often be a sign of school-related anxiety or social anxiety, where the student can’t face going in. With young children, separation anxiety is fairly common – but once it starts affecting students’ attendance, it’s a problem. School refusal rates often spike after holidays, long weekends or periods when a student has been off sick. Those extra days at home can make it harder to face going back.
A lack of focus during class
It might look like they’re not paying attention, but anxious thoughts can prove very distracting for students, making it impossible to concentrate on the task at hand. Physical agitation can often indicate that a student is feeling anxious. Repetitive, disruptive behaviours like kicking or swinging back on a chair can be attempts at self-soothing.
Angry outbursts with other students or teachers
This type of behaviour can seem like aggression, but often it’s because students are experiencing such high levels of anxiety that it has triggered their fight-or-flight response.
Complaining of physical symptoms
Students, especially younger students, often don’t have the vocabulary to express their thoughts and feelings, and instead experience anxiety in a very physical way in their bodies. They might have stomach pains, feel sick, feel that they need to go to the bathroom more often than usual, or even experience vomiting and diarrhoea.
Not completing school work
When students are feeling anxious, they often find it harder to participate in group work. They will avoid things like presentations and physical education classes. Similarly, another common sign of anxiety is a failure to hand in homework. Students can be so worried that their work isn’t good enough that they will prefer to hand it in late, or not at all.
How teachers can help to support students with anxiety
Once you’ve got a good understanding of anxiety, and the variety of ways that it presents itself, you can start working to support your students. Here are some strategies:
Check in with students regularly
Create opportunities for your students to confide in you. Make sure they know when they can come and talk to you privately about anything that is worrying them. During these conversations, aim for open, relaxed body language, give students time to express themselves and ask neutral, open questions.
Try to avoid interrupting, offering unsolicited advice or dismissing their concerns. Sometimes, the biggest difference you can make is simply listening and providing a safe space for a student to unburden themselves. If a student shares anything which makes you concerned for their safety, follow the appropriate safeguarding procedure.
Help students develop strategies for dealing with feelings of anxiety
As a teacher, your aim shouldn’t be to totally eliminate sources of anxiety. After all, once your students leave the classroom, they will encounter stressful situations that you can’t help with. Instead, make it your goal to give your students strategies that they can use to overcome their feelings of anxiety.
Teach your students some calming techniques rooted in the body, like progressive muscle relaxation or belly breathing. Encourage them to ‘talk back’ to their anxious thoughts by saying, “That’s not true,” or “I will get through this.” Get them to ‘write it out’ by putting down all their intrusive thoughts on a piece of paper that they can throw away afterwards. Create a calming corner of the classroom where students can go if they need to decompress for a few minutes.
Finally, it’s important to talk about anxiety. Emphasise that experiencing anxiety is nothing to be ashamed of. Open, honest discussions are the best way to give your students the tools to understand anxiety and the language to express their feelings.
Reduce pressure around tests, presentations and homework
There will be some types of anxiety that you can’t do anything about, for example fear related to climate change, or separation anxiety. However, when students’ anxiety is triggered by school work, this is an area where you can reassure them and make changes to accommodate their needs.
For example, you could remove the time pressure when it comes to tests, allowing students the extra time that they need without having to worry about not finishing in time. That way, students who ‘freeze’ under pressure will feel more relaxed and be able to complete the test.
When it comes to homework, reassure your students that it doesn’t matter if they make mistakes – you’ll be happy if they manage to hand something in. Some anxious students spend far too much time redoing and rechecking their homework, so it’s also a good idea to suggest a time limit when you assign a homework task.
Finally, certain school activities like presentations can trigger a lot of anxiety. Consider allowing students to film their presentation at home, or present by themselves at lunchtime without the rest of the class as an audience.
For more resources on supporting your students’ wellbeing, have a look at more articles on our blog, where you’ll find posts on building students’ resilience, mindfulness in the classroom and boosting students’ happiness. By following small steps like these, you’ll have the power to make a big difference to help your students feel calmer, happier and in a better frame of mind to learn successfully.
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