Anxiety in students is probably the biggest issue in our classrooms at the moment.
With 1 in 3 of our teenagers diagnosed with anxiety disorders and 7% of 3-17 year olds struggling with anxiety this is not something we can ignore.
That means that if you teach primary aged children (3-11yrs) statistically our of a class of 30 you will have at least 2 children in your class with anxiety. If you teach secondary (11-18yrs) that increases to 10 in every class of 30!
Just take a moment to let that sink in.
Do you know which of the children in your class might be struggling?
Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate that as a teacher you are already juggling so many observations and responsibilities that the last thing you need is to be adding mental health officer or counsellor to your job description.
Here’s the problem though.
We can’t learn when we are feeling anxious.
If we don’t identify the students who are feeling anxious we may be sabotaging those all important results as well as letting down our vulnerable young people.
Why is anxiety on the rise?
There are many reasons, I’m going to list the biggest in my opinion:
- Greater access to information
- Inability to escape from peers due to social media and mobiles
- Too much screen time
- Not enough time outside
- Academic pressures
- Sleep deprivation
I’m not going to go into these in detail but rest assured all these factors increase anxiety levels dramatically in most people and a combination of all of them is truly toxic.
There is precious little, as teachers, that we can do about these causes of anxiety. What we need to do is to spot the signs, and of course give our students strategies to reduce their stress levels and anxiety.
What are the signs of anxiety?
- Feeling sick and light headed
- Needing the toilet more frequently than usual
- Sore or upset stomach
- Headaches and tense muscles
- Teeth grinding
- Loss of appetite or over eating
- Trouble sleeping
I know what you’re thinking. Most of these symptoms are either impossible or difficult to spot as a teacher. When you then factor in the fact that many children become incredibly skilled at hiding their symptoms, because having people knowing that they are struggling may add to their anxiety, it becomes almost impossible.
Many children develop elaborate coping mechanisms, for example “acting”. A child may create an elaborate character who is a competent student who is confident and calm and act that way at school so as not to draw attention to themselves.
Often a child will make themselves “invisible” so that they aren’t called on to speak or demonstrate anything in class.
Ultimately our mind is very accomplished at protecting us from anything that is threatening or scary. It keeps us safe.
We could be crying inside with every muscle in our body so tight it feels like it might snap but we can often still paint on a smile and convince the world that we are fine.
How can we spot those students who may be struggling with anxiety?
Keep an eye out for students who are resistant to being seen. Those who really don’t want to read aloud, shy away from any tasks that involve being seen or scrutinised.
Be aware of the perfectionists. Those children who always want to re-start work because something didn’t quite go as planned. Who are never happy with their finished work (if they ever finish).
Look out for the children who appear to be daydreaming a lot. They may be daydreaming (which can be an escape mechanism) but they may also be feeling lightheaded with the pressure of all the learning going on.
Spot the very physically tense children if you can. The ones who clench their jaw or who have very tight, high shoulders.
Notice patterns in behaviour: those who ask to go to the toilet more often than average, the ones who complain of a headache or stomach ache a lot.
The children who are always tired, despite seemingly having sensible bedtime routines.
None of these are exclusively symptoms of anxiety, but they may be, and if those same children are then underperforming in tests or bursting into tears unexpectedly or over reacting to seemingly small situations, you may do well to check on them.
Most young people won’t tell you that they are feeling anxious or scared. They will communicate their need for help in other ways; they may act out, ask you to play with them, tell you their tummy/head hurts, they are tired. They may constantly ask for help understanding things. This can be a combination of struggling to focus due to the anxiety, tiredness and wanting to let you know that they are struggling.
I appreciate that this is a lot to look out for and a lot to take in. So I am going to break this blog into two parts, the next part will be giving you more advice and giving practical ways to help your students who may be struggling with anxiety.
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