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How Teachers Can Help Students With Anxiety

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January 02, 2024


It starts with teaching hope

Anxiety has become more and more common in recent years. We live in an anxious society where many people live on the edge, waiting for the next crisis to arrive and falling apart when it does. It is no wonder then that our children deal with anxiety. According to the ADAA (Anxiety and Depression Association of America),

1 in 8 children has an anxiety disorder.

That makes it one of the most common childhood mental illnesses, more common even than ADHD.

A Normal Part of Life? Or Something More?

Anxiety is a regular part of childhood and life. Scary movies, trouble with friends, fear of getting in trouble, or a big project, can all trigger a child’s anxiety. Anxiety has its place because it often motivates us to do something to alleviate stress. If we are nervous about school, we study. When children fear negative consequences, they may make a different choice. If a movie is scary, they turn it off or walk away.

For children with anxiety disorders, however, their fears are more intense, longer lasting, and don’t go away as quickly; they aren’t just a phase. They tend to persist. These trigger a variety of behaviors that are disruptive to the child’s life, learning, and to the classroom. A child who fears the boogeyman may have trouble falling sleep for a few weeks, but the fear fades. A child with anxiety may fear multiple things, from crowds to catastrophes. Their fears persist to a point where it impacts school life, family life, friends, and learning. Children with anxiety may react to their feelings in a variety of ways, from being nervous to speak in class to angry outbursts.

Consequences of Untreated Anxiety

Living with constant anxiety is a miserable way to live. Approximately 80% of children with anxiety disorders are not getting the treatment they need. The ADAA states:

Research shows that children with anxiety disorders are at higher risk to perform poorly in school, miss out on important social experiences, and engage in substance abuse.

For some of these children, medication is the answer. Often though, part of treatment includes changing their thinking.

How Teachers Can Help

We can model how to deal with anxiety by learning to deal with it in healthy ways and also by explicitly teaching children (both those who have anxiety disorders and children dealing with everyday fears and worries) how to handle their anxiety.

Trust and Anxiety
Princeton researcher and scholar Victoria McGeer sees hope and trust as vital and interlinked in overcoming anxiety, so learning to have hope and trust in others is a good place to start. Truthfully, anxiety is a failure of trust. There may be a good reason for this lack of trust in the child; maybe people in the child’s life have failed them in the past, or perhaps they have had to deal with trauma that has made trust more difficult.

But What If?
Children with anxiety get caught up in the ‘what ifs’ of what might happen in a particular situation (What if everyone laughs at me? What if I get lost? What if I don’t have any friends?) rather than trusting in the world around them. It is important for children to learn move past these ‘what ifs.’ ‘What ifs’ can make a problem seem more significant than it actually is. The ordinary disappointments of life grow to epic proportions, and suddenly a small mishap or embarrassment feels more like Godzilla closing in.

Hope, Disappointment, and Confidence

When trust seems difficult, children can still learn to hope. Hope is focusing on the best outcome and believing that it will happen. Simply telling kids to be positive or have hope is not enough. In fact, sometimes they can feel misunderstood when adults are telling them ‘cheer up’ or ‘look at the bright side.’ A better approach is to

acknowledge the potential disappointment that may come with a situation if their hopes aren’t realized and then create confidence in them that they can handle that disappointment if it comes.

Teaching children to recognize and accept the disappointment makes it much easier for them to focus on hope.

Give kids the tools to face their ‘what ifs.’ Show them that ‘what ifs’ are not real, they are just fears. One way to do this is to point out and encourage children to come up with their own, silly ‘what ifs.’ For example: What if a herd of hungry elephants breaks into the local grocery store and steals all the peanut butter?! Helping children to see the silliness in the ‘what ifs’ helps them see how much more important it is to focus on hope. Children can learn that by focusing on hope we don’t change the outcome of the situation, but we do change how we feel which makes us that much better equipped to deal with it.

Teachers Help Students Cope

Teaching kids hope, to recognize the potential for disappointment, giving them to the confidence to face disappointment, and helping them choose to focus on hope and not despair, is a formula for reduced anxiety. For kids and adults alike.

Amy Curletto has been teaching for 12 years in grades K-2. She has a bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood and Elementary Education and also has endorsements in reading and ESL. Besides education, her other passion is writing and she has always dreamed of being a writer. She lives in Utah with her husband, her 3 daughters, and her miniature schnauzer. She enjoys reading, knitting, and camping.

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