Childhood has always been filled with stressors, but recent studies show that childhood anxiety is on the rise. The Child Mind Institute says that 30% of children now experience significant anxiety, although many of these children never receive treatment. The CDC says that the number of diagnoses increased from 5.4% in 2003 to 8.4% in 2012. It’s been rising steadily since then.
Seasoned teachers and administrators say that they are seeing more and more teens checked into hospitals due to stress and anxiety. It’s become such a common reason for absences that some school districts have started allowing students to take mental health days so that absences accrued because of stress and anxiety will not count against them.
A decade ago, the concept of mental health days for students was unheard of, and students who did deal with increased levels of anxiety were on their own.
Although the response to mental health is gradually changing to provide more support for students, there is still much that can and should be done to offset this growing problem.
Sources of Student Anxiety
70% of teen students interviewed by the Pew Research Center say that anxiety and depression are the biggest problems they see among peers. One source of this anxiety is pressure.
Whereas most adults fear that students will be pressured into drinking or taking drugs, the truth is that most teens feel greater pressure to get good grades, fit in socially, participate in extracurricular activities in school, and be good at sports.
In fact, over half of the teenaged students surveyed say they’re experiencing no pressure to be sexually active, and over 60% say they experience no pressure to drink alcohol or use drugs.
While that’s great news for the physical health of students, 29% of the students interviewed say they feel tense or nervous about their day at school either every day or almost every day. The same amount of students wish daily that they had more good friends either every day or almost every day.
An additional 25% of students miss their parents, saying they are able to spend too little time with them. 40% of those teens are from low-income households.
Younger children may not feel the same pressures, but they do experience anxiety. From separation from parents to loss of a loved one, young children may be experiencing very troubling worries that they aren’t able to adequately express. Some fears seem irrational to adults but are very real to children. And imagined fear can be just as impactful as realistic fears.
Ways Educators Can Affect Anxiety
There are many ways to help anxious students. Because they spend so much of their time at school, it’s vital that educators and others in the school setting contribute to making the experience as mentally healthy as possible.
Be Clear about Expectations
Students want boundaries. They want to know what you want them to do and what you don’t like. Clarifying what you want from them as far as behavior and work effort are considered can eliminate opportunities for misunderstanding.
One of the common complaints many parents and students have is when teachers don’t define their expectations but seem to take points away or give consequences for students arbitrarily.
Manage Your Classes Effectively
In addition to clearly stating your expectations for work and behavior, establish routines and procedures that students can become familiar with. Knowing what to expect can be very comforting and give students a sense of belonging. It creates emotional safety, and it also makes classroom management much easier.
Be Aware of Homework Loads
Homework can be difficult to juggle with sports practices, family responsibilities, and, for older students, work. Many educators have started giving less homework, and sometimes stopped giving out homework altogether. Homework is fine, especially when limited, necessary, specific, and purposeful.
If you do send homework home, be sure all instructions are clear and adequately detailed. Whenever possible, break larger assignments up into smaller due dates or require that students create a detailed outline of smaller due dates for themselves so that they aren’t left with large assignments with a lot of work due at once.
Many students have shortened instructions or assignments in their I.E.P.s. It’s vital that you follow a student’s I.E.P. as they are made to enhance the ability of students to achieve the most academically.
Not only is it a legal requirement that you do so, but it will also save you and your students from some hefty anxiety. Many students with I.E.P.s simply cannot work at the rate of their fellow students, and asking them to do so is stressful for both them and you.
Sending home unfinished work for homework just adds to the frustration.
When All Else Fails, Encourage Rest
Have you ever gone home exhausted from a day of inservice or professional development? Learning is exhausting.
Students who have been ill, who participate in sports or other extracurricular activities, or those contributing to their families’ finances by working may come to school in the same state before they’ve even had the chance to learn.
Students may need a rest before learning from time to time. Encouraging the occasional head-on-desk nap to refresh themselves may give them the energy they need for the second half of class.
Many people are embracing flexible seating, and a futon or small couch can be bought fairly inexpensively. It can be especially handy to have one in early childhood classrooms (especially one with fabric that’s easily cleaned and disinfected).
One of our contributors always had one in their pre-k and kinder classroom. In addition to being a great place for students to do work with clipboards and enjoy reading on their own, students who were not feeling their best, or who were just too tired and cranky to deal with were sent to the couch for a little rest.
After a 15-minute snooze or quiet reading time, most students were refreshed and ready to bounce back into classroom activities.
Teaching Healthy Coping Skills
One of the most beneficial things teachers can do for students is to teach them appropriate ways to cope with worry, stress, and anxiety. In fact, teachers themselves often benefit tremendously from learning these methods.
More districts are now adding cognitive-behavioral strategies and social-emotional learning elements to their curriculum as it becomes mandatory to teach these “soft” skills.
Some of these skills include focusing on breathing and breathing techniques, focusing on something pleasant, talking to a friend or trusted adult, and mindfulness.
Another skill that’s very empowering for people of all ages is reframing a situation. When you look for the downside in everything, you will certainly find it. Fortunately, the reverse is also true. One famous example is from Fred Rogers - famously known as Mr. Rogers to children for generations.
His mother told him that when he saw scary things happening on the news he should always look for the helpers. In any tragedy, there are always those who rush toward the chaos to help those impacted. Seeing chaos or tragedy as an opportunity to help others is a great way to reframe it.
Students can’t control other people or circumstances, and strong negative emotions are a perfectly acceptable reaction to pain, discomfort, disappointment, or difficulty. At some point, though, even the most tragic and difficult things have to be turned into fuel to carry on. A bad experience like getting your car stolen could be viewed as a good opportunity to get more exercise.
Losing a game is a great time to practice being happy for someone else and appreciating your own effort if you’ve given your all.
Someone taking your favorite seat in math class may mean you get to meet a new friend you’d never have really talked to otherwise.
While it’s frustrating for someone else to point out the bright side when you’re feeling sad, teaching students to look for a way to reframe difficulties as opportunities can be a lifelong skill that will help them be successful.
Often, students can only see their own perspective in situations. Another way to reframe a situation is to think of all the other explanations for someone doing or saying something there could be. For example, a student may walk up to a group of other students in gym class, overhear them saying their name, and assume the group is talking and laughing about them.
It’s just as possible, though, that the students could be talking about someone else with the same name, be retelling a funny story or joke that originally was told by the student, or be talking about things in general and laughing about something completely unrelated. Sometimes students need someone who is able to see other possibilities to help them pivot to a more useful perspective.
When Anxiety is Excessive
There will be times when nothing you do or say seems to be making any difference for a student. In fact, the student’s anxiety level seems to grow insurmountably despite everyone’s best efforts, including their own.
These are times in which it’s appropriate to seek outside intervention.
Speak to your colleagues who work with the student as well, consult the counselor, and when appropriate, let the parents know. It may be time for the family to consult a family doctor if the anxiety is persistent and chronic.
Untreated anxiety can become something else in time, like depression. It can also be the beginning symptom of deeper issues beginning to emerge for the student, so it’s important to communicate with family members and keep them informed.
In addition, remember to document. Hopefully, a student’s anxiety will decrease with time and attention, but should any further difficulties arise, documentation can be very helpful for those treating more serious or persistent mental health issues.
Here are links to the sites we referred to for information on the statistics about anxiety in students: