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.
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
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.
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.