Anxiety can show up in students in many different ways; you may see a student constantly freeze before big presentations, or act out by talking back or disrupting the class. A child’s anxiety is not based on what a child is worrying about, but on how their worry impacts their ability to function.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health disorders in children and adolescents. Nearly 1 in 3 of all adolescents ages 13 to 18 will experience an anxiety disorder. Unfortunately, the rate of hospital admissions for suicidal teenagers has also doubled over the past decade. These statistics combined show a bigger picture of the current youth mental health crisis, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Surgeon General Vivek noted:
“Mental health challenges in children, adolescents, and young adults are real and widespread. Even before the pandemic, an alarming number of young people struggled with feelings of helplessness, depression, and thoughts of suicide — and rates have increased over the past decade.”
The past few years and the COVID-19 pandemic have been challenging for everyone’s mental health, but young people have experienced a unique set of challenges. Suddenly, students were unable to attend in-person classes, and in-person social opportunities like clubs, sports teams, and after-school programs came to a screeching halt. This can be devastating, especially since extracurricular activities have been proven to increase academic performance and self-esteem, along with providing opportunities for social interaction and improving interpersonal skills. If you feel like your student may be struggling with their anxiety, there are steps that you can take to make sure that they are able to better manage and lessen their anxiety levels.
Students who are experiencing anxiety may not fully understand their emotions or actions, and more importantly, they might not understand that their anxiety is getting in the way of their well-being. You can help a student work through their anxiety by helping them recognize their triggers and developing coping strategies that work for them.
Tip: Brain Health Basics is a free 1-hr program that you can easily adopt in your classroom to help students understand their mental health, build the vocabulary to talk about it, and self-advocate.
It might be helpful to reach out to a student privately before or after class to address your concerns. open communication between you and a student can build trust and rapport and can help show your student that you are someone that they can turn to for understanding and support.
Meeting with your students can also be a great time to validate your student’s feelings. Sometimes, a student with anxiety may need more than a problem-solving session. When a student is experiencing racing thoughts or if they have completely shut down, try reassuring them that the emotions that they are experiencing make sense and that they shouldn’t feel ashamed for feeling anxious.
It may be helpful to implement some classroom accommodation strategies. These strategies can help improve the emotional landscape of your classroom for students with and without anxiety:
These are only a few suggestions on how you can accommodate your classroom to best suit your students’ emotional needs. All classes are different and what works for your students may differ. Take a moment to check in with your students to see what would work best for them.
Mindfulness is the ability to be fully present in the moment. Practicing mindfulness can help us not be overly reactive in a situation or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us. It can be beneficial for people who have anxiety because it helps them learn how to stay with difficult feelings rather than analyzing, suppressing, or encouraging them.
Teaching your students mindfulness strategies can help them when their thoughts are spinning out of control. It might be helpful to stick to strategies that don’t draw much attention to a student in a classroom, like the box breathing technique, or the 5-4-3-2-1 coping strategy.
Remember that trying to shield students from all of life's stressors won’t cure their anxiety. While students do not have to deal with mental health challenges on their own, it’s important that students feel competent and able to sit with uncomfortable feelings. In the age of the digital era, many young people have gotten used to having things quickly, and it may be helpful to give them the tools they need to become emotionally resilient.
Sometimes, students who are experiencing anxiety need more support than what teachers can give. If you feel as though your student’s anxiety is becoming uncontrollable or unmanageable, refer your student to a school counselor, or a mental health professional. When students are connected to a professional, they are more likely to get the help and accommodations they need in order to thrive in the classroom and beyond.