Anxiety can be incredibly tricky to deal with at school, because it can look like so many different things. Anxiety can appear like perfectionism, work avoidance, the child that deliberately distracts the classroom, aggression, agitation, and even the “perfect” student who is quiet and does not call any attention to themselves.
So what can we do to support anxiety in the classroom? What kinds of supports can be helpful in IEPs or even in 504 plans? This week we are going to dive a bit into anxiety and how you can best support your child, or those that you work with in a school setting.
First, we need to understand that anxiety is often trauma related and fear based. So, when the anxiety is triggered the student will have the same reactions as the fight/flight response. This means that there will be a decrease in blood flow to the “thinking” part of the brain, as well as a decrease in ability of the hippocampus or the “memory” part of the brain. Also, the brain reduces some vision and hearing, so they may not be able to pay attention or focus as well. This can lead to a student looking like they are avoiding work, refusing to answer questions, or simply “freezing”.
The best way you can support this behavior is to be aware of it, and supportive. If a student freezes on an answer or refuses to give one, it may be best to come back to them after their brain and body has time to process some of the chemicals and reactions that are happening.
In addition, it can be incredibly helpful to have written directions for each task. Some students get overwhelmed and anxious when assignments are given, and this leads to them not processing all of the directions that are given. Allowing for written directions can help support the student so that they can refer to the directions when they have regulated a bit.
Allowing anxious students to take work home to complete may be another accommodation that works well. This is because they may “freeze” and it may take them longer to complete the assignment as they regulate from the fight/flight mode.
Some students may have a fear of being called on, and they may spend a large part of the class worrying about this and therefore they are not as focused as they could be. If you have an IEP, having the child only be called on when they raise their hand can be a way to help build confidence and increase focus as they can focus on the material and not be worried or anxious about being embarrassed if called upon to answer.
Anxious students may also be nervous to ask for help. One simple method may be to have each student have a paper that is red on one side, and green on the other. If they need help, have them flip their paper to red. This can alert their neighbor (for older students) and the teacher that the student may need some extra support without them having to use words or raise their hand.
Giving an anxious student a set schedule and keeping the routine in the classroom can help. As well as giving notice before transitions as these can be overwhelming to the sensory system.
Teaching regulation skills can be key for all students, but especially those with anxiety. This may include spending a short amount of time each day doing simple breathwork exercises, movements, and mindfulness activities. For younger students having a classroom “regulation station” where they can access materials to regulate themselves is key. For older students starting the class with a group exercise is a great way to encourage all students to manage their regulation. You can use short breathing videos from youtube, or even some of the exercises in the Play on Purpose membership. Simple movements such as marching, or cross taps, or even gentle twisting can help get the mind ready to learn and calm the body.
I hope that gave you some good information about anxiety and school support! This week over on instagram we are talking more about supplements as well as endocrine disruptors and the role environmental toxins play in behavior. Head on over to check it out!