Try these helpful tips to identify and assist students who experience severe, consistent anxiety in the classroom.
In the season of state testing, you are bound to feel an overall sense of =anxiety in the classroom. Yet, there are some students who experience this anxiety year-round, even more often than you may realize. Anxiety can make your heart race at the thought of running out of time on an assignment. Anxiety can make your eyes tear up when you receive a grade lower than an A. Anxiety can even make you physically sick on the day of a major assignment, or lash out at fellow classmates. Anxiety in the classroom can even be debilitating for some students, leading to a major impact on their academic lives. How can we, as educators, reduce this stress?
What does anxiety in the classroom look like?
Learning how to identify students who may be experiencing anxiety is the first step. Anxiety in the classroom can manifest in a variety of ways, some obvious while others are not. There are many types of anxiety, which makes pinpointing a telltale list of symptoms tricky. Below are a few examples of common anxieties and how they may present themselves:
• The student worries about school performance, to the point of perfectionism
• The student has difficulty speaking in front of others, whether peers or the teacher
• The student performs compulsive rituals to alleviate stress
• The student has difficulty working with or being around peers, whether socializing or in class work
• The student has irrational fears
You may already be able to think of a student or two who falls into one of these types of anxiety, but it isn’t always that easy. Anxiety in the classroom can sometimes look like a behavior problem and be mistreated. Consider when you have seen the following:
• Attendance problems
• Frequent trips to the restroom or nurse’s office
• Acting out
• Difficulty answering questions
• Struggles in only one class
Some of these may have surprised you. Anxiety looks different in each child, and it is important to recognize these signs and get to the bottom of what may be causing the behavior. Remember that the behaviors resulting from anxiety do not occur by choice. The nervous system is acting in a fight or flight response that can be hard to control.
How can anxiety affect academic performance?
In all forms, anxiety can lock up the brain. This makes it difficult or impossible to not only focus on learning new material, but also draw on past experiences and material that they have already learned. As you can imagine, this can make everyday classroom experiences a challenge.
How can you reduce anxiety in the classroom?
Reducing anxiety in the classroom is often not as easy as telling the student to relax. Anxiety can be debilitating and the student may need time to overcome whatever it may be that is causing stress. Try these ideas to assist students in that process:
1. Take a deep breath
Sometimes a simple reminder to breathe can make a world of difference. Guide the student in taking a few deep breaths, focusing on each inhale and exhale. This is a good practice before an assessment or social situation that may be causing anxiety in the classroom as it encourages mindfulness.
2. Walk and talk
If you see a student getting anxious or stressed, get them on their feet for a walk and talk. This can be around the classroom, or even out in the hallway. Get the student’s mind off of the stressor with conversation on a different topic.
3. Let them leave the classroom
Allow the student to leave the classroom briefly if he or she is feeling stress build. Perhaps a quick trip to the water fountain would do the trick, or recruit their help to bring a message to another classroom or front office if you think they are too afraid to ask. This will allow the student to step away from the situation and calm down.
4. Positive notes
Help students in your classroom build self-esteem by leaving positive notes. You can personally leave encouraging notes for the student, or get the whole class involved. Have each student write something positive about another student on the board. This can be a great community-building activity as well.
Often students with anxiety in the classroom are worried about completing assignments or assessments. Offering extra time if they need it can take off some of that pressure. If you want to take it one step further, you can offer a quiet place to work with less distraction. Sometimes seeing other students turn in their assignment before them can be the cause of their anxiety and they will perform better in isolation.
6. Signal participation
For students whose anxiety in the classroom stems from social anxieties, provide signals when before you call on them to answer a question. This way they are prepared and aren’t caught off guard. You can even simplify the question to be a yes or no to start and build their confidence.
7. Designate a safe person
Having someone the student feels comfortable talking to about their anxiety in the classroom is important. This may be you, the guidance counselor, or the school nurse. Allow the student to have some time to check in with their safe person when needed to practice some of these techniques before returning to class.
Anxiety in the classroom is unique to each student and should be treated as such. Take the time to talk with the students affected and identify some steps that will help them the best. For more resources about about specific anxieties, read these tips for math anxiety and test anxiety.