Helping Students With Anxiety in School—A Guide for Educators

Since anxiety in high school students is prevalent, you must ask yourself what you can do to help. Even the youth is aware that student anxiety and depression are major issues in their generation today.

The reasons why high school students experience an unprecedented amount of worry, stress, and anxiety are many, and the price of neglecting those issues is too high. Anxiety disorders can lead your students to:

  • Isolate themselves from their surroundings
  • Develop other mental health issues, like depression
  • Look for solutions in addictive substances
  • Drop out of school
  • Give up on their chosen careers

It may seem you can’t do much to help your students with anxiety—since it’s such a broad and multifaceted issue—but that’s not true. Although seeing an expert is the best path toward healing, you can also help your students deal with anxiety in the classroom and their lives outside school.

How To Help Students With Anxiety—Recognize Anxiety Disorders

Credit: Alex McCarthy

When you ask your student a question in class, they may be unresponsive, stutter while answering, and fail to get to the point. They may not understand the question, or they have an anxiety disorder that’s preventing them from expressing themselves clearly.

Since anxiety can be occasional—short-lasting and brought on by a stressful life circumstance—or clinical—persistent and rooted in your student’s deeper emotional and psychological issues—it is a challenge to recognize which of your students may need help.

To understand whether your students are struggling with anxiety, take a look at the most common anxiety disorders and how they manifest in the classroom:

  1. Social anxiety disorder (SAD)
  2. Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
  3. Test anxiety
  4. Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  5. Panic disorder

Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD)

Social anxiety disorder (SAD) affects around 15 million American adults. The symptoms develop at an early age—which is why social anxiety in teens is widespread.

Social anxiety is the fear of being judged and embarrassed in front of others. Shy people can exhibit some SAD symptoms, making it difficult to differentiate between a reserved student and one who suffers from a social anxiety disorder.

To help you do that, check out how differently being shy and having SAD manifest in the classroom:

A Shy Student A Student With SAD
  • Has stage fright when they start a speech in a school competition but goes through with the assignment and easies into it eventually
  • Blushes and stutters in an oral exam but manages to look you in the eye from time to time and present their knowledge
  • Sits quietly in class, talks to their close friends primarily, and doesn’t usually raise a hand in class
  • Dreads being the center of attention and avoids assignments that put them in that situation
  • Can’t go through with an oral exam due to extreme blushing, stuttering, and constant breaks in speech
  • Avoids eye contact and isn’t able to display their knowledge even when it’s clear they have prepared for the exam
  • Fidgets in their chair, takes out a mirror to check their appearance, or looks away or at their phone constantly 

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is a prolonged period of acute fear, stress, and anxiety due to all sorts of reasons. For example, a student can feel embarrassed when they arrive late to class. If they realize on their way to school that they would be late and return home rather than risk getting in the spotlight, they may have an anxiety disorder.

Since GAD can stem from another mental health disorder, you can never be sure whether a student has it. You should watch out for common signs that suggest your students may be suffering from a generalized anxiety disorder, including:

  • Lack of concentration
  • A sudden drop in grades
  • Inability to hand in assignments within the deadline
  • Isolation from their peers
  • Tiredness and other signs of sleep deprivation
  • Obvious nervousness
  • Frequent outbursts
  • Rapid note-taking
  • Tendency to ask the same questions multiple times

Test Anxiety

Credit: MChe Lee

Most students experience some stress or nervousness before taking a test at school. Psychologists argue that a healthy amount of stress is good for achieving success. When the fear of failure is so strong that it overtakes your student’s test prep, sleep patterns, and performance in the exam, it’s time to consider whether they have a test anxiety disorder.

Test anxiety is extreme worry and fear over being assessed by others, whether it’s a school exam or a job interview. If your students are suffering from test anxiety, they can get overwhelmed by this worry to such an extent that they aren’t able to prepare properly. Even when they study thoroughly, their anxiety can take over during the test, resulting in:

  • Clouded thoughts
  • Forgotten subject material 
  • Extreme nervousness, expressed by sweating, fidgeting, and stuttering
  • The decision to leave the site before completing the test

If your students don’t want to deal with their test anxiety, they can decide not to sit the test at all. This, in turn, makes them feel even worse about themselves, making their anxiety that much more difficult to bear.

Since test anxiety can impact your student’s performance in college and future careers, it must be recognized and dealt with while your students are still in high school.

Closely related to test anxiety is performance anxiety, which students can feel before:

  • Oral exams
  • Presentations
  • Sports events
  • Theatre performances

Students with performance anxiety disorder avoid extracurricular activities that require some kind of a performative act from them. This can be detrimental to their personal and professional growth. Due to their anxiety, your students won’t:

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is the illogical fear of something seemingly random. It causes your students to think about what they fear relentlessly, obsessing over it. Students deal with their thoughts by developing compulsive behavior patterns, such as cleaning objects excessively. Your students don’t have much control over their obsessions, and this is true for their compulsive behavior too.

Since any fixation can result in developing OCD, here are some of the most common obsessions and the behavior patterns that accompany them:

Obsession Compulsive Behavior

The need for perfection

  • Writing something down multiple times before it looks just right
  • Getting up and sitting down repeatedly until the student feels everything is in its place
  • Going over actions many times for no apparent reason

The fear of contamination

  • Not touching any object that was touched by others
  • Avoiding the school bathroom
  • Washing hands excessively
  • Avoiding eating in a cafeteria
  • Not sharing objects

The attachment to numbers

  • Skipping the book pages that contain ‘unlucky’ numbers
  • Counting or saying only the numbers that are believed to be lucky
  • Needing everything to be done a certain number of times; for example, repeating a sentence two times or walking through doorways four times

The fear of danger

  • Checking excessively whether the doors are locked, windows closed, or the stove turned off
  • Seeking reassurance from someone about their safety
  • Avoiding to leave the classroom for an outdoor activity

The need to hoard objects

  • Keeping possessions that are of no use
  • Cluttering physical spaces, bedrooms, or school desks
  • Inability to part with material possessions that serve no purpose

If your student has OCD, they aren’t able to resist their compulsions, which is how you can recognize the disorder. Students can also seem unfocused in class due to their obsessive thoughts.

Panic Disorder

Panic disorder is an anxiety disorder characterized by sudden, frequent, and unexplained panic attacks. It can be developed as a consequence of suffering from another anxiety disorder, like SAD or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Students with panic disorder feel ashamed of themselves and may avoid the places and situations in which they experienced a panic attack. This can lead to skipping school often and withdrawing from extracurricular activities.

Some physical symptoms of panic disorder are:

  • Rapid breathing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating
  • Hand trembling

Students with panic disorder can also experience nausea and dizziness, leaving them unable to focus in class. Like with any anxiety disorder, it’s hard to determine the severity of your student’s condition.

You should always be on guard for common anxiety disorders symptoms, including:

  • The tendency to skip classes
  • Inability to complete assignments
  • Aggressiveness
  • Inability to sit still at a school desk
  • Putting pressure on oneself for everything to be done perfectly

Teaching Students With Anxiety Disorders

Credit: Kelly Sikkema

As a teacher, you have to help your students acknowledge their anxiety issues and encourage them to seek help if they need it.

If you’re teaching students with anxiety disorders, you should:

  1. Read up on anxiety disorders
  2. Educate your students about anxiety
  3. Organize anxiety screenings in the classroom

Resources for Teachers

Only when you learn about anxiety disorders and understand all the ways they manifest and impact your student’s lives can you take conscious action to help them.

Luckily, there are many resources for teachers that you can use to educate yourself on anxiety disorders, such as:

  • Anxiety workbooks for teens—you can find many workbooks to learn about anxiety disorders adolescents suffer from and find out what strategies you can employ in the classroom to help students deal with their issues
  • Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) books—ADAA has published plenty of useful anxiety and depression books you can read to understand the disorders better. You can also find additional online resources on the ADAA website to use in the classroom
  • Anxiety in the Classroom—the website equips you with a handful of neat resources you need to help your students battle anxiety disorders. The resources are intended for teachers, principals, and school counselors 

Teach Your Students About Anxiety

Make use of all the resources you uncovered and plan a lesson dedicated to anxiety disorders. One of the toughest challenges students with anxiety have to face is the myth that anxiety is a made-up issue. The misconception is harmful both for students with diagnosed disorders and their peers who struggle with occasional anxiety.

One way you can break the social stigma surrounding mental health illnesses is by bringing the discussion about it into the classroom. Find relevant statistics, blog articles, podcasts, and YouTube videos and share them with your students.

All your students need to realize that anxiety is real and affects a large number of the population. Learning about anxiety disorders together will also make your students who battle anxiety feel included, understood, and less ashamed of themselves. 

Take Anxiety Tests as a Class

Anxiety tests for teens are great because you can find them online easily. Your students can do them in under 10 minutes. The tests are designed as questionnaires that assess your students’ anxiety symptoms. Your students can check whether their anxiety is mild, moderate, or severe.

If you believe your students might be nervous at the prospect of ‘exposing’ themselves to their peers, they don’t have to show and discuss the results among themselves. Another way to ease them into taking anxiety tests is by doing one yourself and discussing your results openly. You can tell them what implications certain scores have, for example:

  • Moderate anxiety—taking care of yourself more
  • Severe anxiety—going for a check-up

You can find anxiety tests related to specific anxiety disorders—like social anxiety tests for teenagers—and do them as a class or distribute them to the students you think may need them.

Helping Students With Anxiety in the Classroom—Strategies

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Conducting one lecture about anxiety disorders and doing tests as a class won’t cut it when it comes to helping your students in the long run. Here’s what you can do to make your students’ cope with anxiety efficiently:

  1. Implement breathing exercises in the class
  2. Talk with your students individually
  3. Create safe zones for the diagnosed students
  4. Show your students that school isn’t about perfection
  5. Encourage your students to take time off

Get Students To Take a Deep Breath

When you’re teaching and notice that one of your students is struggling with anxiety, pause the lesson, and get all your students to take a deep breath. Implementing breathing exercises in your classroom is a well-known intervention for helping students with anxiety. A cool-down session in which everyone closes their eyes and breathes for several minutes calms all your students down and helps them refocus on the lesson.

You also create a safe school environment overall when you make it clear to your students that you are paying attention to their emotions and are there for them.

Befriend Your Students

The students who struggle with anxiety need to feel accepted. If you make an effort to get to know them better, you will make them see they are noticed. Make sure your students aren’t ashamed to tell you of any struggles they are going through.

Implement Cue Signals

If you want to help your students who are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, create a safe signal they can use when they want to be excused from the classroom or activity. For example, a student with panic disorder should use this signal—that you have previously established together—when they feel the threat of an attack or that their symptoms may overcome them.

Another example can be students who have a social anxiety disorder. They can signal you that they’re not comfortable with a group activity you’re assigning. You can then divide students into pairs or smaller groups so that a student with SAD feels safe and eager to participate.

Approach Test Anxiety Mindfully

To minimize test anxiety in your students, you must take time to prepare them for it properly. Give out mock tests and suggest improvement areas. Rehearse oral exams in advance and identify challenging points. Ultimately, make your students realize assessments are progress trackers, not scales by which they should evaluate their worth as human beings.

Another strategy to employ if you want to help a student with test anxiety is to accommodate the test-taking to their needs. If they mind doing an oral exam in front of all their peers, for example, see whether you can have the test in the presence of a smaller number of people. 

Show Your Students Some Good Time

Anxious students can benefit from taking some downtime. They are probably either snowed under with their school responsibilities or have their eyes glued to their phone screens. 

If possible, organize a field trip and take your students out in nature. You can tell them that it’s your way of giving them time off from sitting in the classroom, taking notes, and doing homework.

You should also encourage your students to be physically active, spend time with books, and write about their issues in their journals. Physical exercise, reading for leisure, and journal-writing reduce stress levels and help your students recharge. Use fun ways to teach them reading and different writing strategies to encourage your students to take up these activities in their spare time.

Anxiety Interventions for Students in a Nutshell

Some of the best classroom interventions for students with anxiety are:

  • Implementing positive self-talk before lessons
  • Including breathing exercises when students are stressed
  • Talking with students about their disorder individually
  • Creating safe areas in the school that students with a disorder can visit when they need to calm their anxiety
  • Playing soothing music when students are working on an assignment individually
  • Letting students come to school only for a portion of the day instead of the entire day when they are not feeling well 

Anxiety Strategies for Students—Let’s All Contribute

The anxiety interventions will only work when we join forces to make every school in the country encourage and make these interventions feasible.

Maybe you can’t change all the rules, but you can write to us about how anxiety manifests in your classroom and what strategies you use to help students battle their anxiety.

We’ll share your text on our blog to get educators all over the country talking, brainstorming, and exchanging strategies to employ in the classroom!