As we go back to school, we should expect that many students will have some anxieties. We all are! Students will be worried about getting sick or someone in their family getting sick. These worries may appear in different ways for different students. It will be important to support students with these- this includes understanding what anxiety is and what we can do about it.
What is anxiety?
Everyone experiences anxieties – there are many normal stressors that can cause your body to respond with anxiety. It can actually help in times of stress – our bodies go into fight or flight mode which, at times of stress, can be critical for successfully completing the stressor.
However, an anxiety disorder is much more intense and excessive, and may be accompanied with other symptoms. When diagnosing anxiety in a child, it is important to know if the anxiety is beyond a child’s control and is present for at least 6 months. For example, do the child’s worries impact their ability to make friends, do well in school, or interact positively with family? Is the child able to recover from a worry when the worry isn’t present or do they worry about future triggers or stressors even when it has been removed? These questions help to distinguish between typical anxiety caused by specific stressors.
There are many types of anxiety:
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder
- Separation Anxiety Disorder
- Obsession Compulsive Disorder
- Specific Phobia
- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
- Anxiety Attacks (Panic Disorder)
- Social Anxiety Disorder
- Selective Mutism
Whether students have a diagnosed anxiety disorder or typical anxieties, we need to teach students how cope with their worries.
What’s a normal worry?
There are many different typical worries for children based on their age group. It is helpful to know what is a typical worry to support all students, as well as to know what is not typical so you know when to increase supports for a particular child. When we know what our students are typically afraid of, we can prepare them for any upcoming triggers. For example, if our elementary students are typically afraid of snakes and spiders, we can warn students before we read a non-fiction book about snakes.
Infant and toddlers typically fear loud noises or sudden movements, large looming objects, strangers, separation, and changes in the house.
Preschoolers are typically afraid of the dark, noises at night, monsters and ghosts, and animals (like dogs).
Elementary school students are typically afraid of snakes and spiders, scary news or tv shows, failure and rejection, a teacher who’s angry, being home alone, storms and natural disasters, injury, illness, doctors, shots, or death.
Emotional Symptoms of anxiety
Anxiety can appear different for different students. Sometimes other emotional symptoms, beyond irrational and excessive fear and worry, appear. These could include feeling tense and jumpy, being irritable and restless, anticipating the worst, having trouble concentrating, and feeling like your mind has gone blank.
Physical Symptoms of Anxiety
Anxiety doesn’t just have emotional symptoms- it can take on physical symptoms as well. These can manifest differently in different students. Some of these include agitation and restlessness, disruptive behavior, frequent trips to the nurse (with complaints of headaches, stomachaches, nausea, or vomiting), crying, and difficulty participating in class and interacting with peers.
What causes anxiety?
Anxiety can be caused by several things, but the most common cause is genetics. Other causes are brain chemistry, life situations (like a serious illness or loss in the family, as well as abuse or neglect), and learned behaviors (growing up in a family where others are often fearful or anxious).
What can you do?
Over the next two weeks I will be writing more on strategies for supporting students with anxieties and great books to read with children. I have also created a 10-lesson unit that can be used in small groups or with the whole group to teach students about anxiety and how to cope with it. This lesson includes everything you could need for teaching it!
Additionally, there are a few simple things you can do with an anxious child. You can validate their feelings and normalize these feelings by saying, “everyone feels worried sometimes” and even model your thoughts and coping strategies when you have worries. When students are calm, teach them coping strategies and practice them regularly. I will go into more coping strategies in a few weeks.
If a child shares a worry with you, instead of reassuring them, ask them “How likely is ____ to happen?” This will help them to challenge their anxious thinking. You can also ask them to brainstorm with you ideas to handle the situation. When you let them lead and support them as needed, the child will feel empowered, instead of reliant on you. When a child makes steps toward conquering their worries, even very small steps, you should acknowledge and praise them for those steps! Tell them exactly what they did and how it helped them.
Additionally, if a child is having a particular anxiety around going to school or an activity, try to avoid “skip days” or “mental health days” where the child can avoid the situation altogether. This actually can make the anxiety worse and lead to more avoidance of the situation.
Many of our students this year may need support with anxieties. Some of these anxieties are typical, and some may mean the child has an anxiety disorder. It is important to understand how anxiety can appear and why we get anxiety, in order to best support the students in your class.