There are a number of anxiety disorders that affect children, and anxiety can interfere with social, occupational (school in the case of children), and other areas of functioning. Anxiety can also negatively affect physical health. Kids can and do worry themselves sick.

Anxiety presents in a variety of contexts within the classroom setting, but is often “silent”. Many anxious children struggle internally without actually seeking help from the classroom teacher. They might appear to be “quiet” or “disengaged”, but really their brains are consumed with worry.

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How anxiety interferes with learning

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, impacting an estimated one in eight children.1 Left untreated, childhood anxiety can result in poor school performance, poor social functioning, and even substance abuse.

The following anxiety disorders can make it difficult for children and adolescents to attend school, focus at school, and thrive within the classroom setting:

  • Separation Anxiety Disorder
  • Selective Mutism
  • Social Anxiety Disorder
  • Panic Disorder (increases in adolescence)
  • Agoraphobia (peaks in late adolescence)
  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder

There are a number of symptoms consistent with anxiety disorders that can interfere with learning. One study found that anxious individuals find it difficult to avoid distractions and require more time to turn their attention from one task to the next.2 In fact, anxious children and adolescents are often considered “inattentive” because they appear off-task within the classroom setting. For this reason, it is important to get an accurate diagnosis to reduce the confusion between “inattention” and “anxiety”. A worried brain is a distracted brain.

Watch for these symptoms of anxiety that can negatively affect your child’s ability to learn:

  • Difficulty focusing or mind going blank
  • Fatigue from sleep disturbance
  • Feeling restless or on edge
  • Irritability (sometimes referred to as “acting out”)
  • Fear of talking in front of a group
  • Fear of scrutiny or judgment
  • Difficulty separating from care givers
  • Avoidance behaviors
  • Tantrums or meltdowns
  • Psychosomatic complaints (headaches, stomachaches, muscle pains, etc.)
  • Panic attacks
  • Excessive worry.

Accommodations to help the anxious student

Children and adolescents diagnosed with anxiety disorders may be eligible for services, accommodations, or modifications under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or Section 504 of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Given the wide range of symptoms experienced by children and adolescents with anxiety disorders, it’s important to meet with your treatment team to get a baseline on your child and establish accommodations and modifications specific to your child’s needs. The following list of suggested accommodations will help you get started:

  • Extra time and warnings before transitions
  • Preferential seating (near the door, near the front of the room, near the teacher’s desk)
  • Clearly stated and written expectations (behavioral and academic)
  • Frequent check-ins for understanding
  • Not requiring to read aloud or work at the board in front of the class
  • Video taped presentations or presenting in front of the teacher (instead of the whole class)
  • Extended time for tests
  • Tests taken in a separate, quiet environment (to reduce performance pressure and distraction)
  • Word banks and equation sheets: These are useful for children with test anxiety, who tend to “go blank” when taking a test. Using one notecard for important facts, dates, etc. can also be helpful.
  • “Cool down passes” to take a break from the classroom. This should be clearly explained to the student. Examples might include a walk down the hallway, getting water, standing outside the classroom door for a few minutes, completing coloring pages in the back of the room, or using a mindfulness app with headphones.
  • Breaking down assignments into smaller pieces
  • Modified tests and homework
  • Set reasonable time limits for homework
  • Record class lectures or use a scribe for notes
  • Preferential group (teacher or adult child knows well) for field trips
  • Preferential seating in large assemblies (near the back of the room)
  • Identify one adult at school to seek help from when feeling anxious (school counselor, if available)
  • Buddy system: Pair student with a peer to assist with transitions to lunch and recess (these less structured situations can trigger anxious feelings)
  • Help after illness: Missed work can spike anxious feelings. Providing class notes and exempting students from missed homework can help.
  • Substitute teachers: Letting the child or family know when a substitute will be in the classroom can help the child prepare.

Children and adolescents with anxiety disorders don’t always ask for help. Many struggle through the day, only to experience tantrums and meltdowns at home. It’s essential to establish a positive relationship with the classroom teacher and have regular check-ins with the treatment team to evaluate what helps and what doesn’t. It can take time to develop the strategies that best help your child, but with a solid plan in place anxious children can thrive in the classroom setting and learn to manage their symptoms throughout the day.

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Last Updated: Sep 26, 2018