Understanding Anxious Students


Anxiety can look like a kid who refuses to listen or someone who needs a little push to speak up. Once you recognize the signs of this mental health challenge, you can make sure your students get the support they need. If only you could spend your day teaching—just that, not all the other parts that come with the job. Paperwork, meetings, lunchtime supervision. The list keeps growing longer. Classroom teachers are the first line of defense for noticing when kids need outside intervention.

Anxiety is the most common mental health complaint for young people. The Child Mind Institute estimates 31.9% of those age 13 to 18 suffer from anxiety, with almost 8% experiencing significant impairment. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America says one in eight kids will deal with anxiety.

The best thing a teacher can do for young people struggling with anxiety is be informed. Knowing the warning signs of an anxiety problem means you can refer a child to counseling, bring up the issue with parents, and help your student tackle the problem.

One of the best resources around is this article called Anxiety in the Classroom. Whether you are a new teacher or veteran, you are sure to relate to something here. There’s a new report out on schools and mental health that provides a big picture perspective, including ways education is changing in the face of this growing problem.

What It Is

The National Institute of Mental Health defines an anxiety disorder as worry or fear that doesn’t go away and gets worse over time, with effects on other parts of life.

Signs of Anxiety

  • Compulsive behaviors, like hand washing or simply a very precise arrangement of objects on the desk.
  • Clinginess, to parents, friend, or even you.
  • Unwillingness to speak up or answer questions.
  • Lip biting, hair sucking, or other similar behaviors.
  • Fear of failure: wanting to study extra, erasing and rewriting repeatedly to try to make handwriting perfect, etc.

Any of these actions on their own is part of being a kid. When there is a change or when behaviors are getting in the way of other things, that’s when you want to get an outside party involved.

Family therapist Kathleen Mates-Youngman says there are some other behaviors that can be tired to anxiety but don’t look that way. “Uncontrollable restlessness, irritability, fatigue or difficulty concentrating, might appear as fidgeting and lack of seriousness.” This is a time when work with a counselor can give you a heads up to what is going on behind the scenes and leaking into classroom life.

Tips for Day to Day

The ADAA has a list of general strategies to help kids with anxiety. Elementary school teacher Michelle Gomez who has herself struggled with anxiety, says that clarity is key. When kids aren’t sure about classroom procedures or assignment instructions, that’s when anxiety can ramp up.

Worry Wise Kids can provide a framework for conversations, with examples of classroom success stories as well as a parent perspective.

Anxiety is a form of disability and can require accommodations through an IEP. Talking to the special education personnel on your campus is a great idea. Even if a child doesn’t receive services, these folks will have insight into talking to parents or strategies to try.

Youngman has a few other suggestions that can benefit anxious kids and their peers alike.

  • Help children see their anxious thoughts as separate from themselves
  • Encourage youth to take small steps toward facing anxiety-producing tasks and situations
  • Incorporate moments of calm, teaching deep breathing and relaxation techniques

Eliana Osborn lives on the US-Mexico border with her family. She's worked as an English teacher at secondary and post secondary levels for nearly two decades and focuses on education issues in her writing. Follow her on Twitter or contact her through her website.