Anxiety and the Classroom:

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1 Anxiety and the Classroom: Anxiety: a feeling of apprehension, often related to a past event, or a potential future one. Often accompanied by physiological or cognitive arousal and distress. Anxiety is a response to a perceived threat i.e. I could make a mistake. Thus it is internal to the person with anxiety and as a result difficult for an observer to spot. Fear is a response to an external threat, such as a close call while driving your car. The behaviour of children who have anxiety is often misunderstood by supportive adults in their lives. Children who are experiencing intense anxiety will often use avoidance strategies to avoid the situation that triggers their anxiety (i.e. gym class, social dance, group situations, fire drills, reading out loud etec). Thus they are at danger as being viewed as angry, defiant, rude, ADHD, unmotivated, or spoiled. Statistics vary, but between 3-8% of children experience some type of anxiety disorder at some point in their development. Another way to look at in is that in a class of 20 children, odds are that one is struggling with some level and type of anxiety. Anxiety can come in many forms: fear of social humiliation, of unpredictable potentially harmful events, intense perceived needs for rituals or comforting routines, a phobia of a specific situation or object, fear of failure, fear of being separated from the support of loved ones or flash backs to past traumatic experiences. To one degree or another everybody has anxiety. The criterion of a disorder is when it begins to prevent children from having normal life experiences. Signs of Anxiety: Physiological. Cognitive. Experiential. Behavioural. -Stomach aches. -Nausea. -Sweating. -Muscle tension. -Restlessness. -Shaking. -Head aches. -Eye or facial tics. -Gastrointestinal distress. -Startle response. -Dizziness. -Shortness of breath. -Mindset of expecting the worst. -Perfectionist. -Distracted, trouble concentrating. -Over attends to threatening stimuli. -Worried about competition. -Personalizes. -Worries about future events. -Misinterprets social cues and situations. -Feels afraid. -Feels inferior -Feels that they are always negatively evaluated. -Have trouble recognizing their successes. -Constantly on guard. -Avoids attention. -Endures situations with dread. -Feels paralyzed when making decisions. -Avoidance behaviours. -Behavioural outbursts. -Poor eye contact. -Chews nails, licks lips, chews clothing. -Shy and withdrawn. -May need constant reassurance. -May need rituals or repetitive routines. -Work and school avoidance and refusal.

2 Class room interventions. 1) Help the anxious child plan/anticipate and rehearse for future events and unstructured situations. -Give warnings about transitions and schedule changes. -Praise the child for a brave approach i.e. putting their hand up, asking a questions (with younger children you can use a points system or sticker chart to reward this behaviour). -Provide coaching for social situations and give them a script for social problem solving. -Help reassure the child as to what are things are an adult s job to worry about, and what are theirs to worry about. -Provide external structure i.e. organization aids for desk, back packs etec. -Help the student plan for how they will handle anxiety causing situations i.e. unstructured time, group projects etec. 2) Provide the child with safety, security and reassurance in the event that they become overwhelmed by anxiety. -Be aware that no child chooses to be anxious. Approach the situation in a calm nonconfrontational manner offering to help. -Distraction aids, such as MP3 players, white noise generators, or head phones can at times help ground and anxious child. -Become aware of the child s anxiety escalation patterns (i.e. physical responses) and intervene early by asking the child if they need (or giving them permission to ask for) help. Distract them and help them break the escalation pattern. -Avoid criticism. -Use clear and simple language, as an anxious child is often not processing data well. -Be aware of the fight or flight response ; anxious children can at times flee a situation and close supervision can be needed. Ask your support system i.e. administrative staff, support staff, additional school programming for help providing this. -Have a pre arranged safe spot in the school that the child can go to if they feel overwhelmed. Pre arranged breaks for a child can also be useful. -Encourage the child to verbalize their feelings when they are anxious.

3 -Be aware that a child may have a lot of fear of giving up power and control strategies that they use to avoid their anxiety until they trust you to support them with their anxiety. 3) Help the child to deal with excessively high expectation and fear of negative evaluation. -Give the child feedback privately. -Avoid excessive attention to grades and outcomes. -Pay as much attention to effort and the learning process as to grades; the learning process is something the child has control over. -Set realistic goals based upon what the child has shown you they are capable of. -Don t assume that resistance is a child being difficult; they could be anxious. Attempt to avoid a power struggle. -Normalize mistakes or the need for corrections. Provide support to the child when they have to make corrections. -Encourage a child to have positive self talk. If they say they could never do that ask them if that is a positive thought, and what would be a more helpful thought. -If the child has a success with regards to their academics, or their social life, talk with them about it. Help them see their own strength. -If the child has unrealistically high social fears discuss with them the difference between the social self i.e. the mask of norms and behaviours that people wear in social situations and the real self, the person that we are with are closest friends and family. This can help normalize their social fear. -Challenge unrealistic expectations. Ask them Is it possible to be perfect in everything you do? Are you expecting the worst? How do you know this bad thing will happen? What is another explanation for this situation? (i.e. why he/she did not call you back). -Help the child engage in fixing the problem; Rather than telling them what to do help the child define what the problem is. Brainstorm solutions, anticipate consequences for proposed solutions, have the kid pick the solution, and evaluate if the solution worked. -Sometimes more structured writing tasks can be useful. Anxious students often have difficulty with open ended creative tasks, as they get anxious without parameters. -Accommodate for timed tests where the student has to keep up with the class.

4 4) Model anxiety management. -Kids learn how to behave by watching how others respond. So when trying to support an anxious child avoid showing anxiety. -Within appropriate limits talk about your own anxiety management strategies (when I m worried embarrassed I etec) 5) Further resources for the anxious child; there are several common techniques that have been found to be helpful to an anxious child. -Measured breathing exercises. -The tracing or colouring in of Mandela (see attached). -Physical grounding exercises (i.e. pushing the heels firmly into the ground one at a time) -Muscle relaxation exercises. Closing Thoughts: As teachers you see you students more than most other adults see them. A school can at times have a very accurate reading on how a child is doing. If you have doubts compare observations with other teachers; is this child having global academic problems that could be related to anxiety? Is it getting better or worse? Does the child need additional support i.e. therapy? Few children or teens say to themselves: I m feeling scared and as a result I am avoiding things. Continuing this could have a long term impact upon my scholastic and life development. Even though I m absolutely terrified right now I need to push through and do the thing that scares me so that it won t affect me or limit my options in my 20s. This sort of thought process is not developmentally normal for people who haven t completed adolescence. Children with anxiety do best when they have systemic and unified support from as many concerned adults in their lives as possible, to provide encouragement and gentle firm motivation to move forward against their fears.

5 Resources for Parents and Teachers: Alberta Learning Teaching Students with Emotional Disorders and/or Mental Illnesses. Edmonton, Alberta. Bourne, E The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc. Feiner, J & Yost, G Taming Monsters, Slaying Dragons: The Revolutionary Family Approach to Overcoming childhood Fears and Anxieties. New York: Arbour House. Garber, S., Garber M., & Spizman, R Monsters Under the Bed: Helping Your Child Overcome Anxieties, Fears and Phobias. New York: Villard Books. Goldstein, S., Hagar, K., & Brooks, R Seven Steps to Help Your Child Worry Less. Specialty Press. Greenberger, D. & Padesky, C Mind Over Mood: Change How you Feel By Changing the Way You Think. New York: The Guilford Press. Manassis, K Keys to Parenting Your Anxious Child. Hauppage, New York: Barron s Educational Series. Rapee, R, et al Helping Your Anxious Child: A Step by Step Guide for Parents. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications Inc.

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