What does Anxiety look like in class?

We keep reading these articles about the anxiety that so many people are struggling with these days. We are shocked and sympathetic to this plight but what specifically does it look like in our classrooms? And how do we help to support those learners and not exacerbate the problem?

Anxiety is crippling. It can look like crying, anger, task avoidance, sleeping in class and negative attitudes. It manifests differently in our students and can be confusing, frustrating and difficult to comprehend.

A good strategy is to prevent adding stress to an already anxious child. Returning to a full classroom is anxiety provoking not just for the first week of school…but for months or even longer. A crowded, or noisy space doesn’t feel comfortable. It’s assaulting the senses in a way that the child isn’t used to and they don’t have coping mechanisms for it. Understand that even though it may be March, that doesn’t mean all your students have acclimated back to the stimuli of school.

Students with anxiety spend a lot of time worrying about things that might happen. Will I be embarrassed in class today? What if nobody wants to sit with me at lunch? What if the teacher doesn’t like me or gets angry at me? Even though these things haven’t happened and may never happen, they create irrational fears out of these ideas that cause them to panic.

Furthermore, when that panic sets in, it often manifests with behaviors that we find unproductive. Certainly putting ones head down on a desk during class doesn’t help us learn. Leaving to the bathroom for 10 minutes every day prevents students from learning the days lesson. We, as teachers, work to correct those behaviors because that’s what we’ve always done. No, you can’t put your head down in class. No, you’ve lost bathroom privileges because you go too often and take too long.

I spoke recently with a friend’s daughter who was diagnosed with Anxiety and Depression about 18 months ago. She is a freshman in high school, an honors student and an all around “wonderful scholar”. This year she has struggled intensely with the return to school.

She shared that sometimes is takes all her energy and courage just to walk into a classroom. If the class is being overly loud that will send her right over the edge and she will start crying. Because she doesn’t want others to see her crying in class she will run out to the bathroom and hide there for the remainder of the period. She doesn’t ask the teacher because the teacher is busy and she doesn’t want to bother her. By the time the period ends the Dean has been called and she’s being escorted to the office to be reprimanded for leaving the class without permission, and her mother is being called. This is the worse case scenario for this child, who has never been in trouble before. Now it’s ten times harder for her to walk back into this class the next day.

On another occasion, she was working with a group on a project in class when the teacher starting yelling at the class because they were making too much noise. This child internalized all that yelling and felt it was specifically directed at her (even though it wasn’t…. that’s what anxiety does) and put her head down on the desk in an effort to avoid the yelling. The teacher, (obviously frustrated), walked over and yelled specifically at her for putting her head down and compounded things further. She wasn’t meaning to be disrespectful, she was just trying to cope with the intense emotions caused by the yelling.

Consider some of the behaviors we are seeing in our classrooms. Could they be caused by anxiety? How can we work with those students so as to not make it worse? It’s a difficult subject for sure, but one worth reflection.

Activities and tools for creating an engaging and effective math classroom: https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Store/Math-Lab-Classroom

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