Student Anxiety: How Teachers Can Help Ease the Worry

Whether it’s a big upcoming test or trouble with at home, student anxiety can be expressed in a variety of ways. When left untreated, anxiety can lead to learning issues and relationship problems that can impact student success.

Teachers who know how to identify anxious behavior and support students with anxiety can help boost student morale and happiness. Here’s what to know about anxiety, plus how you can help.

How Student Anxiety Affects Learning

Students with chronic anxiety often have poorer learning outcomes compared to their peers without anxiety. This is because anxious students are often so distracted by whatever worry consumes them, they cannot focus on the learning tasks at hand, Alisha Kirby at education news resource K-12 Daily writes. Even if their attendance is not an issue and they’re physically present in class, students with anxiety disorders can be absent mentally, unable to process or retain information.

This is especially true when students are presented with instructions, the team at C8 Sciences writes. Lists can be hard to read and focus on, and students with anxiety typically struggle with long-term projects that don’t have direct supervision. In turn, they might not complete all of the aspects of assignment, which can result in poor grades.

Additionally, anxiety might prevent students from advancing at a normal rate. Clinical neuropsychologist Ken Schuster at Child Mind Institute says that this often looks like a learning disability, when in reality the student is perfectly capable of learning the subject matter and tasks at hand. Fear of failing at something that’s a little bit hard at first might prevent a student from putting in the extra effort or asking for help, which can cause them to fall behind.

What Causes Anxiety in Students?

Understanding the sources of anxiety can help teachers better identify when a student is experiencing these feelings.

Wellness coach and stress management expert Elizabeth Scott spells out a long list of sources of anxiety for students. These include social stressors, bullying, work that’s too hard or too easy, homework problems and test anxiety.

Scott adds that aspects of a student’s home life can also play a role in how students feel at school. The issues can be seemingly small, such as the student feels they’re not getting enough family time. If connecting with their parents to share goals, needs and worries is a problem, though, that student might be in need of a confidant.

student work - student anxiety

Students can also feel anxious because of current political and socioeconomic tensions in the United States. Writer and assistant professor Benoit Denizet-Lewis says that for students with undocumented family members, for example, anxiety is very common. These students might fear for the future and worry that their family will be broken up. Similarly, living in low-income neighborhoods can pose dangers that make students feel unsafe.

Smartphones, social media and increased screen time might also be a major cause of student anxiety, according to National Education Association senior writer and editor Mary Ellen Flannery. Many students face bullying on social media, which increases opportunities to experience low self-esteem and negative thinking.

Social media also causes students to compare themselves to other students more, another negative habit that can contribute to poor self-esteem. Usable Knowledge staff writer Leah Shafer says that increased screen time makes it harder for students to stop comparing themselves to others, constantly wondering whether they’re good enough and questioning what they have to offer the world.

Identifying and Reducing Student Anxiety

Inattentiveness is a telltale sign of student anxiety, therapist Katie Hurley writes. Anxious people tend to get distracted more easily, finding it difficult to transition from one task to the next in an efficient manner. Therefore, teachers might think that students are off-task and distracted, when in reality they are suffering from overwhelming thoughts of worry.

Lack of participation in the classroom might also be a sign of anxiety. HeySigmund founder Karen Young says quiet students often have a great deal of anxiety about speaking up in front of the classroom. This doesn’t mean that they don’t have anything to say or that they don’t want to contribute. Rather, it means that they’re extremely worried about saying the wrong thing, or being made fun of by their classmates. That fear overrides their willingness to participate.

For similar reasons, students who are experiencing anxiety might skip class all together. The Anxiety Disorders Association of British Columbia (AnxietyBC) says that that attending school and classes on a daily basis is part of a positive and fruitful school experience. And, it’s one fundamental part of learning that can be disrupted by major life trauma and student anxiety.

They might feign an illness to skip class, which gives them an excuse to miss out on anxiety-inducing moments. Former teacher Linda Privitelli tells TeachStarter that the physical symptoms of anxiety can actually cause students to feel sick, however, so they may be telling the truth when reporting illness. Since anxiety can cause stomach aches, headaches and dizziness, asking students exactly what’s hurting might give you cues as to their anxiety levels.

stretching - student anxiety

Fostering Student Relationships

Making time to talk with students one-on-one might help you get to the bottom of what they’re feeling anxious about. Production assistant at NPR’s All Things Considered Samantha Raphelson highlights one strategy where school psychologists go to student homes to speak when them and identify their struggles.

Teachers might be able to emulate this by having short, dedicated meetings or chats with each student, creating space and time for discussion. Knowing whether or not a child is struggling might help you understand why they’re not participating — so that you can give them other opportunities to contribute.

In the same vein, you might consider putting students into small groups more often, especially if you know there are socially anxious individuals in your class.

Sharing Mindfulness Strategies

In addition to identifying anxious students and catering to their needs, helping students engage in mindfulness strategies can help them overcome worrisome thoughts and focus on the present.

There are many ways to teach these strategies, and some are as simple as deep breathing. StudySkills founder Susan Krugers says that deep breathing slows down a person’s heart rate, which in turn reduces their anxiety cycles. Massaging certain places of the body is also a healthy routine that can teach students to identify and overcome their anxieties.

Former teacher and education writer Karen Nelson adds that being outside can calm an anxious student’s brain. Nature filled with small, beautiful moments to focus on, such as the chirping of a bird or the sound of rushing water. Teaching students how to tune into these sounds can ease their minds so that they focus on something other than what they’re worrying about. Plus, this is a strategy they can incorporate into their daily life, even when they’re not at school.

Images by: Matthew Henry, Sarah Pflug

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