Helping Students Turn Anxiety into Achievement

According to the Child Mind Institute, there has been a 17% increase in anxiety disorder diagnoses in young people. When these children show up in our classrooms, they want to be successful just like every other student but face many more challenges than their peers. Irritability, fatigue, and sleep difficulties can impact their ability to focus, have positive peer relationships, and complete assignments. But through empathy, accommodation, and collaboration with students, families, and specialists, we can help students with anxiety achieve at the highest levels.

Show Empathy

Showing respect for and an appreciation of differences in our students is perhaps the best gift we can give them. Students who experience anxiety are bringing their best selves to school every day and having a teacher who accepts and supports them where they are can make all the difference. We can show these students they are known and supported by:

  • Providing a safe and caring environment for students to learn to cope with anxiety
  • Allowing students to have self-calming items that are recommended by therapists (for example, a stress ball)
  • Allowing breaks when needed
  • Allowing students to check in with a counselor or mentor in the building
Be Proactive

The key to making our classrooms safe, joyful, and challenging for students with anxiety is being prepared. Preparation requires knowing what events might trigger them, which means communicating with the student, their caregivers, former teachers, and specialists who have worked with them. Once we have input from all these sources, we can immediately begin to implement strategies that have proven successful with the student. Additional steps we can take are:

  • Seat the student near yourself or a supportive friend/group.
  • Give advance notice of schedule/routine changes (for example, a substitute teacher).
  • Establish a signal so the student can communicate when a break or help is needed.
  • Know the school specialists’ “open” times in case the student needs help during a crisis.
  • Offer quiet time as a time for rest or catching up.
Student AnxietyMake Accommodations

Some teachers believe they should wait until a student has a 504 Plan or Individualized Education Plan (IEP) to make accommodations for them. But if a student is showing signs of anxiety, empathy requires us to act in their best interest. The following accommodations can be used for any student who is showing signs of anxiety:

  • Break tasks into manageable chunks.
  • Give the student notice when work time is winding down.
  • Extend time, if needed, or assure the student there will be time to return to an unfinished task.
  • Check in with the student frequently.
  • Empower the student to pass on performing academic tasks in front of peers but encourage participation at whatever level feels comfortable.
  • Whenever possible, refrain from giving timed tests.
Work with Parents, Therapists, and Support Staff

Responsive Classroom’s guiding principles highlight the importance of working with other adults, including students’ families. This teamwork is essential to the success of students with anxiety. Here are some ways teachers can work with families and others to support these students:

  • If the student has a 504 or IEP, follow it.
  • Make sure special area teachers are aware of the student’s challenges and helpful calming strategies.
  • Complete paperwork for doctors and therapists in a timely fashion.
  • Teach, reinforce, and remind the student to use calming techniques recommended in therapy.
  • Provide regular, positive communication about strides and breakthroughs; over-communicating about the negative often discourages students and caregivers.
  • Set up regular check-ins between the student and support staff or a mentor.
  • Coordinate with everyone on the team regarding the student’s goals and progress.

Students and families affected by anxiety are constantly confronted with the reality that the student’s challenges make it harder for them to learn in a traditional school setting. This reality underscores their need to hear positive information from teachers on a regular basis. We can encourage students and families by:

  • Meeting with the student and parents regularly to assess progress on goals and reinforcing things that are working
  • Setting new Hopes and Dreams as goals are accomplished
  • Sending positive emails or messages to parents about things the student does successfully

Meeting the needs of students with anxiety is as important as providing a ramp for a student in a wheelchair. Making a few accommodations can help them to navigate school life with increasing independence and success.


Written by Deanna Ross, Responsive Classroom Consulting Teacher, and Educational Consultant and Coach
Tags: Empathy, Encouragement, Working with Families

8 Replies to “Helping Students Turn Anxiety into Achievement”

  • I love the “family” dynamics this article has. It screams positivity, and we need that in today’s world. I also think that it would be great if the teachers learned these techniques, possibly correcting the student in the “right now” scenarios before it gets to the next level.

  • Deanna,

    Thank you for sharing strategies for helping students manage anxiety. I have certainly noticed an increase in anxiety (or at least of students expressing it openly) in my classroom over the years. You brought up a great point about the importance of celebrating, especially in regards to including families in the celebration. This is often overlooked but so critical in helping a student and their family feel like a part of the school. I will be bookmarking this article to refer to while prepping for next school year. Thanks!

  • Hi Deanna,
    Your topic is particularly important during these uncertain times where student anxiety is high across the board. I have found that breaking assignments into parts is particularly important during virtual learning. Unfortunately, I think the part that gets lost during this time is the celebrating. It is arguably more important than ever to be celebrating when students are successful (once the empathy, accommodation, and collaboration is implemented). I am going to be implementing forms of celebration into my practice!

  • Hi Deanna,
    This topic is so important, at all times of the year as well as now during remote learning. I have noticed even students who do not exhibit much anxiety during regular school times are now more anxious, not just due to uncertainty but because the teachers are not right there to answer every question right away. We are working on showing understanding and flexibility, and letting students know we believe they are capable, even when they are trying it on their own. Showing empathy and celebrating successes are incredibly important and I will be looking for ways to celebrate more with students.

  • Hi Deanna,
    Thank you for sharing strategies to support students that are dealing with anxiety. It’s so important that we as teachers understand what triggers our student’s anxiety and put the supports in place that will alleviate that stress. Remote learning has certainly been a source of anxiety for my students, but by showing empathy and making accommodations I have been able to support my students and families through this transition.

  • Hi Deanna,
    Thanks for sharing strategies to help students manage their anxiety. I have seen more students coming to school with anxious feelings, even at such a young age. I think it’s so important to celebrate students’ successes and achievements. I also like how you mentioned making accommodations for students even if they do not have an IEP or 504. Parents really appreciate this. Do you have any advice on helping parents who suffer from anxiety? I feel it’s important to support the parents, too!

  • Hi Deanna,

    Thank you for writing about such an important topic! I really loved that you pointed out that educators do not need to wait for the students to have a 504 plan or IEP to make accommodations. Anxiety is such a common disorder among children and adults that it is important to show empathy and support right away. I think that chunking work and giving students a notice when time is winding down is very important. I myself even need to break my work into chunks. I also love the idea of setting new hopes and dreams as the student achieves goals. Moving forward, I want to make sure that I am more aware of students that might have anxiety and make sure that I can support them with all of these techniques.

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