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Supporting Students with Anxiety

Updated: Mar 5, 2023

1 in 6 children are currently experiencing mental health difficulties, and anxiety is one of the most common conditions, affecting between 5-19% of all children and young people. How can we support students who are feeling anxious?

Mental Health is a hot topic in schools at the moment - and so it should be! We've all been through a tough couple of years with the pandemic, having our worlds turned upside down and we are now slowly returning to 'normal'. Something many children have reported feeling heightened feelings of anxiety around academic performance, how they are going to make new friends, how to navigate having structure again and many, many other things!

Understanding Anxiety

Anxiety is a natural feeling and we all feel anxious during various stages of home and school/work life. There is a difference between feeling anxious and having an anxiety disorder - think of it like having a cold and having pneumonia. Anxiety is a feeling of panic experienced by many in situations that warrant such a response such as exam periods or transitioning between schools. However, it becomes a problem when that anxious feeling persists even after the situation has passed. Persistent anxiety can have an adverse effect on academic performance and engagement, peer relationships, tolerance to stress and self-esteem.

Spot the Signs

We all know that early intervention is one of the keys to ensuring children receive adequate support with their mental health and the first step to early intervention is identification. So what are the signs that a child might be struggling with anxiety?

  • Constantly feeling and behaving panicky, nervous and frightened

  • Inability to focus

  • Lack of appetite

  • Tired (from lack of sleep)

  • Headaches, stomach aches and diarrhoea

  • Fidgeting and frequent use of toilet/asking to leave classroom

  • Outbursts of anger

  • Appearing teary or emotional

  • Avoiding activities, especially ones they previously enjoyed

  • Unable to let go of negative thoughts

As we get older and often have positive influence in our lives, many of us learn coping mechanisms to manage our anxieties but for some, they need a little bit of extra support.

Strategies for In-School Support

School can become a safe place for students who are feeling anxious or have an anxiety disorder. Many schools are now being trained in Mental Health First Aid and there are many simple strategies that you can use today to support students in your classroom.

1. Normalise Anxiety

Feeling anxious is normal and it is important that children understand this so that when they start to feel this way, they don't feel as if something is 'wrong' with them. Talk openly about things that worry you and some of the strategies you use to cope.

2. Identify Pupils at Risk or Already Diagnosed

If you are aware of students who have already been diagnosed as having mental health needs or an anxiety disorder, keep an eye on them and offer frequent additional support. Ensure your TA's are also aware of students who may need additional help. Make sure that if you spot signs of anxiety in other students, you keep a note of what these signals are, how frequently they occur and speak with your SENCO if you are concerned.

3. Keep Pupils in School

This can be easier said than done but it is often better for a student to be in school, even if only for an hour a day, than not at all. That being said, school can be an overwhelming place for students with anxiety, so consider a reduced timetable, a quiet area for them to study/eat/work, regular contact with parents/carers and offering a safe person the student can talk to about their worries without judgement.

4. Encourage Self-Help

Whilst it is vital you offer support to students in school, it is important they learn how to support themselves as well. This is what will help them build resilience. Some things you can try are;

  • Establishing Routine - demonstrate to students how they can implement routines at home that are similar to the structure they have in school. How can they balance homework, hobbies and other healthy habits? Could you illustrate a good night time routine to ensure relaxation?

  • Alternative Communication - not everyone will be able to articulate how they feel. Some may like to draw, others may like to write or even express through music. Explore other avenues for children to express their feelings.

  • Toolbox of Techniques - discuss various coping mechanisms with your class and possibly even have a visual representation of them on a display. Children can try each of these techniques and find ones that work for them when they feel overwhelmed. They may include listening to music, breath work, yoga or a distraction activity like colouring.

5. Look After Yourself!

Kids are sponges and will absorb the emotions of those around them. If you are stressed and anxious, they will pick up on this. Just like when on a plane, you're always told to fix your own oxygen mask before helping others, and this situation is very similar. Teaching is hard and certainly overwhelming at times, so be sure to take time out for yourself, practice self-care and manage your own anxieties.

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