Tips & Tricks, Teachers, Schools, Anxiety 5 minute read

The Educator's Guide for Managing Student Anxiety in the Classroom

Anxiety can be one of the most impactful struggles students face in classrooms today. 

From academic development through to building imperative social skills, anxiety can hinder a student’s wellbeing on a number of levels. A challenge for both student and teacher, navigating and managing classroom anxiety is a team effort and is fast becoming an essential skill in the modern teacher’s toolbox. 

To effectively support an anxious student, it’s important educators understand what anxiety actually is. Often a misunderstood emotion, anxiety is defined to be the overwhelming feeling of fear, dread and in some cases, catastrophe. It can also manifest in a range of mental and physical symptoms. 

When experienced for long periods of time, anxiety can develop into what mental health professionals diagnose as a psychiatric disorder. A psychiatric disorder is where a mental health issue impairs a person's everyday functioning and causes great distress for that person and those around them.

The Australian Psychological Society most recently noted (Nov 22) a close to doubling (45%) of Social Anxiety Disorder among 6-12s, making it one of the largest considerations in education today. 

Research suggests that early intervention is a key factor in improving student mental health and wellbeing. Meaning, educators are in one of the most beneficial and central positions to help manage and improve student anxiety.

Causes of Anxiety in Students

The cause of anxiety in students will be unique to every individual. However, in a broad sense, chronic anxiety can stem from three generalised factors: 

1. Environmental factors

Sometimes, an unavoidable traumatic event can lead to spikes of anxiety in a child. In some cases, these experiences lead to reactive anxiety—a more short-lived emotional state directly linked to an event or situation. 

Similarly, higher-stress situations in a school or classroom environment can cause anxiety in students; for example:

  • Bullying
  • High / unnecessary demands on students' performance and achievements

In other cases, a longer-term anxiety disorder may develop, especially if early intervention and support isn’t provided. 

Example of these traumatic or high stress events can look like: 

  • Divorcing parents
  • Moving homes or cities
  • A death in the family

If left unaddressed, it can lead to long-term detrimental physical, mental and social health consequences.

2. Family circumstances

For others, anxiety disorders may stem from familial dynamics, and how emotion is expressed at home: 

  • When a parent or caregiver models anxious or fearful behaviour, a child can very quickly pick up and mirror these responses.

  • Overtime, this modelled behaviour of worry and dread can cause a child to self-impose restrictions and apply anxiety behaviours to daily life, reducing their sense of autonomy.

  • Guardians who also place too much attention on their child’s mood and happiness can cause their child to do the same. Children in this position can develop a hyper-awareness of any and all discomfort they’re feeling. This awareness often leads to overthinking and spiralling thoughts, creating space for anxiety to develop.

3. Biological

Some people are more biologically predisposed or “at risk” of developing anxiety disorders. These people tend to have:

  • Imbalances of the “happy” neurotransmitters in our brain—serotonin and dopamine.

  • When these neurotransmitters aren’t being adequately produced or properly sent around the body, we can experience unexpected dips and peaks in mood and mental alertness.

  • We can also experience physical symptoms like difficulty in regulating body temperature, causing even more discomfort and worry.

Signs and Symptoms to look out for

Anxiety will manifest itself differently in every student. Some students might withdraw and become quiet, while others may become more outspoken and outwardly frustrated.

It’s important as an educator to know the full spectrum of how anxiety may present itself in the classroom.

Behavioural symptoms and signs:

  • Difficulty concentrating in class 
  • Withdrawn or increased dissociation
  • More volatile behaviour with increased anger outbursts and irritability
  • Shyness and avoiding social engagement
  • Low self-esteem and increased negative self talk
  • Expression of continuous, irrational fear or worry for daily tasks
  • Hesitancy or refusal to extend their own learning (for example: not wanting to read aloud in the classroom)
  • Reduced healthy risk-taking in their learning (this often looks like avoidance of challenges for fear of making a mistake)

Physical symptoms and signs:

  • Frequent aches and pains (upset stomach and head being the most common) 
  • Increased fidgeting/inability to sit still
  • Frequent trips to the bathroom or frequent sick bay visits
  • Constantly seeking and demanding the presence of a comfort figure (e.g. separation anxiety) 
  • Exhaustion due to poor sleep
  • Tense muscles and sweaty palms

The Role of Educators in Managing Anxiety in the Classroom 

Early intervention for anxious kids can make a difference. For this reason, holistic education needs to include wellbeing—the benefits are too significant not to.

It’s important to recognise, however, that anxiety is a tricky, multi-layered experience. Intervention beyond time spent in the classroom must also be considered. That’s why we’ve broken down this section into three key steps.

Before stepping into the classroom

1. Educate yourself on anxiety disorders

Understanding anxiety and how it can present itself is the first step to helping your more anxious students. Knowledge is power.  

2. Consider your lesson plans

Students with anxiety may not respond as effectively to standard lesson plans as other students. How you accommodate those students will vary depending on their symptoms. 

Consider your lesson plan and ask yourself some questions:

  • Is this too information dense, or text-heavy?
  • Have I provided enough time to finish tasks?
  • Is this too stimulating? Am I asking them to switch tasks too often? Or, not enough? 
  • Do I need to change how this lesson or activity will be assessed?

Adjust your plan accordingly and remember to communicate your plan with the students to ease worry.

3. Assess whether you need extra support

Some students require more support than others when dealing with anxiety symptoms. 

Requesting extra support via a teacher’s aide can help action the accommodations required to support your anxious students, while still progressing the lesson plan for the entire class.

 

In the classroom

1. Create and foster a healthy bond with the student

Develop trust between yourself and your student to help to foster an environment for more open communication and to safely express vulnerability. 

This type of relationship will help the student express their anxious thoughts and be more reciprocal to your efforts to help manage their anxiety in the classroom.

2. Respect your students' feelings

When anxiety symptoms begin to present themselves, it’s important to recognise and acknowledge the emotion behind these behaviours. This shows the student you’re aware and can empathise with their situation. 

However, over-humouring these emotions can do more harm than good. Avoid empowering these worries and instead, use your relationship with the student to encourage naming and facing their worries with your support.

3. Know your classroom expectations and accommodations

Communicating your expectations to students is imperative for effective classroom management. These expectations should be both:

  • Behavioural—what’s appropriate classroom behaviour?
  • Academic—how much effort do you expect students to put in to reach academic goals?

Studies have shown that teachers who express high expectations of their students, encourage better student engagement and social belonging

Of course, accommodations to these expectations may be necessary when a student is experiencing anxiety symptoms. 

 

Some common anxiety behaviours and their accommodations include (1080 x 1280 px)

 

Beyond the classroom

1. Teach your students about healthy choices

Physical and mental health are linked. Teaching your students how to support their physical health through movement, good eating and sleeping habits will help them develop healthy routine patterns early.

2. Talk to the family

Keep family members up to date with your anxiety strategies in the classroom. Encourage similar accommodations at home to try and create a consistent approach to reducing anxiety and boosting wellbeing. 

3. Help students build resilience beyond the classroom

Anxiety in the classroom normally filters into daily life for most students. By taking the time to help support students to recognise their triggers and symptoms, you’re helping to develop their ability to self-recognise and over time, self-regulate their anxious reactions.

 

As we approach the new school year, supporting your students’ return to the classroom doesn’t have to be daunting. Arm yourself with the correct knowledge, tools and classroom strategies to manage student anxiety with Smiling Mind's Trauma-informed Practice in Education course. 

This 10-hour, self-paced course teaches strategies to recognise and respond well when a child may be triggered—in other words, experiencing a stress response. It provides theoretical knowledge and practical strategies to support a trauma-informed learning environment

Find out more about Smiling Mind's Trauma-informed Practice in Education course and its learning outcomes.

Discover the Course:  Trauma-informed Practice in Education

Smiling Mind

Written by Smiling Mind

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