Anxiety in the Classroom

According to the National Insitute of Health, one third of all teenagers will have an anxiety disorder in their lifetime. While anxiety and stress are normal parts of life, untreated anxiety disorders can have serious consequences and may affect students well into adulthood.

With anxiety disorders on the rise, teachers are being asked to address students’ mental health needs in the classroom. Without training, this may seem like an impossible task. However, there are many strategies for reducing anxiety that do not require a mental health degree to master.

Jessica Minahan, a behavior analyst, explains that creating a classroom that is safe for anxious students is easier than it seems. The first step is recognizing the signs of struggles with mental health. Anxiety can be invisible; teachers may misinterpret the symptoms as avoidance, defiance, or manipulation. By acknowledging that a student’s apparent misbehavior may be due to anxiety, teachers can adjust accordingly.

Many accommodations are simply a shift of routine teacher practices. Students with anxiety often benefit from taking a break, but a typical approach of asking them to take a walk by themselves may only reinforce anxious thinking. Instead, students should be given a game to play or what Minahan calls a “cognitive distraction.” Likewise, if a student with anxiety is acting out, traditional discipline may increase anxiety. Creating predictable systems of support based on positive attention will be much more helpful.

Jessica Minahan will be presenting a talk entitled, “Between a Rock and a Calm Place: Practical Strategies for Reducing Anxiety in the Classroom” at this year’s Learning Differences Conference. Come hear Jessica speak about the impact of anxiety in the classroom and research-based interventions you can easily implement with your students.

  • Michael Greschler, M.Ed., SMARTS Director