Column: How school psychologists can help students cope with unhealthy anxiety
Anxiety is a normal and very common adaptive reaction that both adults and children feel in order to alert our bodies to danger and the need for arousal. Healthy anxiety can drive us to change our environment for the better, push us to perform well and problem solve. Unhealthy anxiety, or anxiety that is so pervasive that it’s overwhelming and illogical, can be debilitating for adults and especially children.
Worry, the fear that future events will be negative, is the primary characteristic of anxiety. Children who experience anxiety are much more likely to see small daily events as threatening. For example, giving a small book report presentation to the class might cause minor anxiety feelings for most children, however the anxious child will believe his/her performance will be a total failure. There may be valid bases for worry in any situation; anxiety occurs when the fear is out of proportion to the situation and is unrealistic. Imagined and real threats are capable of triggering anxious reactions and feelings.
In a classroom, children who are experiencing anxiety are likely to engage in behaviors that help them avoid situations that are threatening. They may be withdrawn, not initiate interactions, select easier tasks and avoid situations that may lead to failure. They may feel uncomfortable with new situations and avoid social interactions like group conversations.
Signs of anxiety for parents to know
There are three main areas of focus when seeking to identify signs of anxiety in a child — thinking and learning, behavioral and physical. The following are specific traits parents can look for.
Thinking and Learning:
Difficulty remembering things
Difficulty paying attention
Difficulty with problem solving
Fast heart rate
Sleeping problems (getting to sleep or staying asleep)
How can school psychologists help?
School psychologists are in a unique position to help support students with anxiety, as are teachers in instructing those students. For a full list of how school psychologists can help, visit NASPOnline.org and search “anxiety disorders.” In the meantime, here is a sampling of some ways they can help:
They can help teachers understand and implement some best practices in their classroom that help all students, but particularly students with anxiety. This may include establishing predictable routines, setting clear and reasonable expectations, breaking tasks in manageable units, providing opportunities for practice/rehearsal, pairing anxious students with supportive peers, giving special responsibilities, noticing when students become anxious and allowing them time to relax, reducing/avoiding unexpected situations, and moving students to less distracting areas of the room.
With parent permission, school psychologists also can work directly with students to build anxiety-coping and management skills. This could include helping students identify when they are anxious at school and how to self-regulate.
School psychologists can help school teams create 504 plans when necessary for a student with anxiety.
School psychologists can help school teams create environments and school cultures that are positive, predictable and help reduce anxiety-inducing situations for students.
They can develop specific behavior intervention plans that direct teachers how to help students with anxiety participate in school appropriately and successfully.
They can consult with parents who have concerns.
Please call your school’s psychologist and discuss what you are noticing in your child and what you can do together to produce best outcomes for your child.
What can parents do at home?
Anxiety does not discriminate across settings. If a child is feeling anxiety at school, they are likely feeling anxiety at home. Parents can be a critical force in the child’s life to help them notice, control and cope with anxiety. Suggestions include:
Be consistent, especially when handling problems and discipline. Less guesswork for the child means less worry about what may or may not happen.
Be patient and prepared to be a good listener.
Avoid being overly critical, impatient or cynical.
Remember to keep realistic, doable goals for your child.
Make sure you aren’t communicating that perfection is expected.
Keep consistent but flexible routines for things like homework, chores, activities, bedtimes, etc.
Accept mistakes. Normalize mistakes for your child as part of growing up and reaffirm that no one does everything perfectly.
Praise and reinforce effort, even if they succeeded less than expected.
Practice upcoming events that are causing anxiety for your child, like speeches/performances.
Practice and teach simple strategies that can help with anxiety. Some of these include organizing materials, creating small self-talk scripts (i.e. “I can do hard things,” “I can control my body”) they can use in stressful situations, and learning how to relax in stressful conditions.
Reasoning is often not effective in reducing anxiety, do not criticize your child for not being able to respond to rational approaches.
Seek outside help if the problem is persistent and interferes with daily life.
Anxiety is a common issue that impacts children and adolescents today. It can frequently be mistaken for other issues such as attention deficits, lack of motivation or low ability. When untreated and unidentified, it can increase over time, creating more problems as the child ages. In the Davis County School District, we frequently see high-achieving, motivated students whose anxiety often flies under the radar because they are still succeeding in school. This anxiety, paired with the drive for high achievement, can be harmful for students and often leads to burn out and unhealthy coping skills. With appropriate support, children with anxiety can be successful, healthy and happy. School psychologists are here to help; please get to know your child’s school psychologist and reach out to them for assistance.