Anxiety in the classroom

Anxiety in your classroom. What we need to know – and we can help.

It is worth remembering that the heavy hand of anxiety will be a presence for some of the children in every class, in every session we teach. In most teaching groups there will be the ’known knowns’ where anxiety is concerned – and there will most certainly be a number of unknowns – to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld. 

One of the leading expressions of anxiety is that of avoidance. The amygdala, the fight-flight-freeze survival urge is small but potent. It stores emotional experiences of threat and fear – not as words or images, but directly as experiences. These lay deep tracks in memory to identify danger and steer us away from trouble. The amygdala is designed to keep us safe from harm. It is our inner warrior.  

However, as this potent picture (by a 16 year old) shows…anxiety and threat can stalk and distort the lived experience of children, teens and adults. Their responses to really quite ordinary and unexpected activities can be driven by these deep-seated, fast-tracked memories of danger. They can drive behaviour without us realising. 

And these memories are not just linked to real trauma, feelings of pain, helplessness and vulnerability, they can be triggered by vicariously experienced traumas – other people’s stories, news events, films, cartoons, gaming sequences that can get right under the skin…stay there and become present as intrusive thoughts.

These memories are not just about life-and-death situations – they also link to belonging – that primal need that Brene Brown writes and speaks about so eloquently. https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_listening_to_shame?utm_campaign=tedspread&utm_medium=referral&utm_source=ted share

 The amygdala, stores information about humiliation, grief, guilt, shame, getting it wrong, social risks which are often quite disproportionate – but strong nevertheless. Our cognitive capacity can be our biggest strength, but also our worst enemy, teaching us to take fewer and fewer risks, and play small. 

These anxieties love secrecy or privacy. They love territory too – and they are greedy to expand that sense of safety by expanding the no-go areas of a young person’s life. However, anxiety can never truly be satisfied. It is vigilant, scanning the horizon for problems, ‘what if’s’ – which often aren’t truly there, and 70% of the time don’t come true. Causing plenty of unnecessary suffering. This is where that ‘Warrior’ portion of the brain goes WAY beyond its remit of signalling danger turns into a ‘Worrier’, where fears and fantasies of threat become like the wallpaper – the background to life. 

Once triggered, the amygdala is taking us on a bumpy ride. It is the accelerator. Flooding the brain with the stress hormone, cortisol, flooding the body with adrenaline. Life today is fast-paced, stimulus rich, calm and sleep poor. The ability to slow down, tune in and pay attention to the feelings that are causing the brain and heart to race, is a superpower. This superpower, kids learn from the quality contact they have with the caring adults in their lives who can show up for them and help give them strength, calm and perspective in their hour of need.

The potency with which we experience our triggers is worth going back to remind us of the intensity of what anxious children are working with when we trigger them…routinely…

What do you feel? Imagine you’ve lost your phone, or you’re about to have a job interview…or see a consultant about nagging physical symptoms…Feel into the rise in blood pressure, the pressure headache, the clenched jaw, hands, leg muscles, the tension in the shoulders. 

Now try to transfer the intensity of those feelings to the everyday things we ask kids to do all the time in class. We need to remember that what is a psychologically safe space for us (the person directing the ‘theatre’ of the classroom) is not a safe space for everyone.

Psychological safety is crucial to learning and growth. So it’s something well worth taking seriously.


Common spikes of anxiety in school life:

• Speaking out in class (fear of getting it wrong, being humiliated, shamed).
• Getting into pairs or groups – social anxiety-  mismatches confirming negative scripts of not belonging.
• Asking questions (fear of judgment of others, being exposed as being stupid)
• Being spotlighted to answer a question (impostor syndrome, fear of getting it wrong)
• Being singled out in any way – whether good or bad. (Wanting to be seen and heard – but hate being the centre of attention and the potential threat of envy or negative peer judgment) 
• Being inarticulate or overcomplicating written or spoken expression (fear of not being intelligent enough, being unmasked as not belonging)
• Change of routine (Fear of being caught out. Needing to ask lots of questions, To regain control, discombobulated.) 
• Test anxiety, panic attacks. 

To empower an anxious child or teen, when you’ve run out of ideas in the ‘just-do-this’ line, consider these ideas…if they aren’t able to ‘just try this’, chances are you are communicating ‘head to head’ and not differentiating for the strong feelings that are at the bottom of the iceberg of the anxious presenting behaviour…

NB this isn’t about being a therapist. It is about meeting them where they are at…



  1. Know that anxious fears are often difficult to put into words… they can feel too big. Don’t be afraid of letting the silence do the work. Provide a little space and time for them to describe what’s going on. Speak to the feeling not the fear-driven behaviour…


  2. Connect first – help get the thoughts and feelings from inside to outside. It connects the emotional right side of the brain to the logical left side, starting to give context and definition to the feelings. Drawing can also give an insight into the feeling – look at the quality of mark making.
  3. Be wary of colluding with the anxiety. You will never satisfy that beast. The goal is to empower the child to tackle the anxiety. Listen and give choices. Or better still, help the child generate choices for action.


  4. Analysis without action fuels worry and rumination. What CAN they do…Action starts to bind anxiety and start an upward spiral of reality testing the fear.


  5. Do anything you can that will help grow AGENCY – that they can experiment with their independent will. Identify their goals – what they want to change, make the vision of improvement as tangible as possible in terms of positive feeling and impact to wire in the motivation. 


  6. Work together about ways to differentiate for their anxiety – but be progressive – the targets should grow after plenty of recognition of the small steps. 

Practical ideas:

    1. Give a minute or two’s thinking time so that more anxious kids can have time to prepare their ideas before speaking out. Layer activities – time to think, reflect, write down and then read out.


    2. Find out which 3-5 other people in the class they feel more comfortable working with and make sure they are always in groupings that include some of those people – seek to expand their ‘secure base’ by giving rehearsal time.


    3. When asking harder questions, scaffold between anxious thoughts and brave behaviour – with reluctant participants. Eg ask the question, give 2 minutes silent thinking and noting ideas, discuss in a pair, then share pair to pair. Groups can nominate the best idea. If the child or teen doesn’t want to speak it aloud, a peer can. Give lots of active, constructive praise, talk about what is interesting about that idea.


    4. Checking in with them more subtly – eg while group work is going on. Have they understood instructions? Do they have any questions?
    5. Make it easier to ask questions, by having a ritualised ‘Question time’ so that the anxious student isn’t crowded out by worrying if it’s the right time to ask…


    6. Get peers to provide constructive criticism and affirmation of each other’s contributions, especially helpful in the teenage years.
       

    7. If they freeze in a public part of the lesson, normalise it, downplay it, help them get back to safety and give the opportunity to start again when ready. Help them feel understood, less alone, and more OK with where they are at. Show you get it – and others in the class get it too…eg when a really confident kid is showing signs of nerves- that can be a great moment to discuss how to handle performance anxiety. 


    8. Take the time to get to know a little more about your invisible students so you can be let into their world. Take some time to see them in action in other contexts where they might be more confident – so you can catch them doing something right and link it to their work with your subject. 


    9. Help them take in the good – every microstep of development and growth. Remember we are like Velcro for bad things and non-stick pans for good. Use Rick Hanson’s HEAL acronym. Have a good experience…help them recognise and identify with it. Extend the good experience (eg using active, constructive praise), Absorb the good experience – get them to reflect on how it really feels, link it with other little victories or aspects of their signature strength.

    10. 
Always remember that anxious kids are easy to overlook because they are often playing safe. It is easy to make assumptions about their ability. Stay curious about their potential and keep gently pushing at their comfort zone. Like everyone else, they are here in our classrooms to learn and grow. 

 

Kids and teens with anxiety are pushing themselves all the time. They are really brave – but rarely get to feel that they are. It takes the right support, the right people to discover their remarkable, hidden capabilities. So many stories of great lives have inspirational teachers who noticed and asked at the route of an amazing journey to transform personal struggles into strengths. We teachers have these superpowers. And these super opportunities to make a difference. Greatness is built bit by bit, on strong foundations. We can’t force independence, friendship, confidence and resilience, but we can nurture the soil around those states and help a child build and grow from moments of capability into traits of strength. Liked this article? Is this a conversation you’d like to take further as part of a training session in your school? I have delivered uplifting and empowering sessions on this topic both for EYFS, primary and secondary settings. Also sessions for parents who often can feel intensely disempowered around their child and teen’s anxieties. What are your teaching challenges and concerns?

Get in touch…coachingandtraining@emmagleadhill.com

With love and gratitude, Emma

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