Teachers have always had to deal with anxious children from the first day at kindergarten to the last day of their tertiary entry examination and the years in between. At a basic level anxiety is another expression of fear and the two are products of stress. No surprise here and in other Newsletters (particularly the 19th June 2017) this is discussed in detail. To recap stress in itself is not a bad thing, we need a level of stress to engage in the world but too much stress or distress will hinder performance especially in the classroom.
Anxiety is that lingering apprehension or almost chronic sense of worry about particular things or even life in general. Professionals would diagnose someone as having clinical, generalized anxiety if they displayed three or more of the following over a six-month period:
- Concentration Problems
- Muscle Tension
- Sleep Disorders
In general, anxiety is described in three ways:
- Panic Attacks – where there is an immediate fear that the child is facing a catastrophe and has nowhere to go. These are generally short term and result in the child avoiding any situation that ignites that emotion. However, these situations can be really traumatic and move well beyond anxiety.
- Social Anxiety – This is the fear and avoidance of any situation in which a child thinks they may be the centre of attention that can lead to their embarrassment. It is no surprise that social anxiety is the predominant form of stress in children, especially adolescents.
- Generalized Anxiety – This is where the child worries over everyday things for months at a time. They are children who will avoid what we may consider mundane or are constantly seeking clarification or reassurance before they attempt a task.
The prevalence of anxiety at a clinical level is about 14.5% or one in seven Australians and in the majority of cases it starts in childhood. As with all things there is a coming together of genetics and environmental conditions that lead to anxiety but as always teachers can only impact on the environment in an attempt to limit the levels of anxiety in their classroom.
So, what to do? If you really have concerns about the level of anxiety of a student in your class then you must refer them to the school counsellor and/or tell the parents about your concerns. The latter is not as easy because this is news for whatever reason they don’t want to hear.
However, for the day to day running of the class, when you think a child is really anxious to the level you have concerns encourage them to talk about it. The following questions will assist both you and the child:
- Tell me about how it feels being anxious?
- What is making you anxious?
- What do you fear will happen?
- What does it stop you from doing?
A technique that can be effective is for the teacher to establish a procedure where they can give the child some space to calm down. This is a type of ‘time out’. In fact, you can empower the child to control his or her access to time out through some non-verbal cue. For example, the child could move an object on their desk that signals to the teacher that they are becoming overwhelmed with anxiety. The teacher would then ask that child to go and get something from say the principal or the office. Of course, the principal and the office would be aware of the purpose of the visit and provide that time out while the child remains in supervision. Just the provision of this retreat can be enough to alleviate the threat of anxiety and give the child a sense of control over their fears.
However, dealing with anxiety like all classroom activities is best served when the relationships between the teacher and the students along with the students’ relationships with each other are strong and positive. This, along with a calm and a really predictive environment will help minimize the impact anxiety will have in your classroom.