Student anxiety has been a pressing issue for teachers and their pupils for many years. Helping to identify anxious students and knowing how to help them is an essential part of the teaching role. Anxiety can display itself in a multitude of ways, and it may not be evident to the untrained eye. An anxious student might become withdrawn and quiet, or they might also be disruptive and disrespectful. How anxiety manifests differs for different people, and learning to recognise the signs, get to the root of the problem, and work with students suffering from anxiety can help ensure they get back on track as quickly and painlessly as possible.
Student anxiety - a worsening problem
The Child Mind Institute reports that anxiety disorders are the most prevalent mental health problems in children and young people, with as many as one in three experiencing some form of anxiety disorder before their 18th birthday. Worrying can hugely impact a person's life, particularly in an educational setting. A student with anxiety may suffer from panic attacks, become socially withdrawn, unable to concentrate or absorb information, have difficulty sleeping, feel irritable, not hand in work assignments on time, turn up late for class, or not turn up to class at all. Teachers play an important role in not only recognising the signs of anxiety in students, but also knowing what to do about it. If you are concerned that a student in your care is feeling anxious, here are some practical steps to take:
Organise a meeting
Set aside time to sit down with the affected student and discuss the problem. It may be unclear what they are feeling or why they are acting the way they are, so try to be patient and prepared to listen and encourage the student to talk. They might need a lot of support in recognising their triggers and which coping strategies will work best for them. Setting up a private meeting will help students build trust in you as a confidant and let them know you are here to help.
Recognise the signs
Learn to recognise the signs of anxiety in students, as mentioned above. By being aware of what anxiety looks like and how it might manifest, teachers are less likely to brush off anxiety as disruptive behaviour or shyness and therefore come to their student's aid before the problem grows.
Encourage students to share
Encourage openness and honesty in the classroom. Often anxiety can be a very lonely experience. By encouraging your students to share how they feel and talk openly, you can create a supportive environment where people won't feel embarrassed or less than because they are suffering from anxiety or any other problem with which they might need help.
Work together to create coping strategies
Different students will need different kinds of support and will respond better to various coping strategies accordingly. Present the student with options of what actions they can take when they feel anxious. Some students may need permission to leave the classroom for five minutes and walk down the hall or a space where they can sit quietly and breathe; others might need assurance or reassurance and want to be able to talk it through. Some students might need space to try and work out the problem alone and prefer the teacher to quietly check in on them once tasks have been set and work is already underway.
Validate their feelings
Being told 'I believe you,' is one of the most powerful ways to help someone who is suffering from a mental health problem. Students may have difficulty admitting that they are struggling or feel embarrassed to share their issues with you. Trying to normalise this and letting them know that you believe them, that their feelings are real and that they are not alone can be invaluable. If someone feels understood and validated, they are much more likely to confide in others. With this in mind, make sure you never shame or belittle students. While their behaviour may be frustrating, by being calm, encouraging, and a good listener, you will be able to help them much more easily, and get to the root of the problem together.
Rather than singling one student out, you could encourage your whole class to adopt mindfulness strategies and even start your class with some mindfulness techniques before you begin teaching for the day. Teaching students about mindfulness can help them focus on the present and not get carried away with anxious or intrusive thoughts.
Try to ascertain the cause
There are lots of reasons why a student might be feeling anxious, and it could be about something that is taking place at school or something outside their school life altogether. Trying to get your students to open up so you can understand the root cause of the problem is going to be helpful and will inform the course of action you take next.
Know when you refer to a professional
While teachers are well-placed to help students with anxiety, there is a limit to what they can do. If you feel a student has a problem that cannot be helped with the above, it might be time to refer them to a professional. Some anxiety disorders can be very debilitating, and seeking professional help is always a good idea if students are struggling to cope. If you have a school counsellor you could start there or encourage the pupil to make an appointment with their GP. You may also need to speak to their parents if you feel that their anxiety is a more concerning problem. Unfortunately, the number of students dealing with anxiety is increasing, so much so that it is something almost all teachers will come across in their profession. Arming yourself with the knowledge and skills to help anxious students will ensure you can give these pupils your support. It will also help them find a way to reduce or eliminate their anxiety so that it doesn't interrupt their education or well-being.
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