Anxious to Learn

The likelihood of having students struggling with anxiety in the classroom is higher than ever. What can educators do to help students cope?

For many of us, anxiety has been a ubiquitous cloud hovering overhead as we’ve navigated life during a pandemic. Our levels of concern are high. Our sleep is disturbed. And worry, once limited to specific situations, is a constant companion.

Anxiety is a normal emotion—one that can put us on high alert in situations that warrant it. Too much anxiety, however, is not adaptive, but rather the complete opposite. And when anxiety is excessive and inescapable, it can be classified as an anxiety disorder. 

Although anxiety disorders have names and constellations of symptoms that differentiate one from the other in diagnostic circles (generalized anxiety disorder vs. panic disorder vs. social anxiety disorder), the line that differentiates “normal” anxiety from diagnosed disorders is always the same: when anxiety interferes with the ability to function in everyday life. Not surprisingly, JAMA Pediatrics reported in August of 2021 that, during the COVID-19 pandemic, clinically elevated anxiety and depression (the kind that interferes with daily functioning) have doubled in children and adolescents. 

Mental health needs are as real and worthy of accommodation as physical or learning needs.

For educators, this means that the likelihood of having students struggling with anxiety (diagnosed or otherwise) in the classroom is higher than ever. While our students’ diagnostics and treatments are better left to medical professionals, their learning is our job. And because anxiety can hamper learning, we need to understand how it might look in the classroom and what we can do to help our students cope.

Students struggling with anxiety may be:

  • Quiet and withdrawn. This is especially true if they also struggle with depression. Lost in their own worries, they may struggle to pay attention and, as a result, miss instruction.
  • Absent. Panic attacks and fear of classroom interactions may lead to higher rates of school absence. Missed school means missed instruction, creating potential gaps in learning.
  • Fidgety. The nervous energy that sometimes accompanies anxiety can make it difficult for students to sit still. Fidgeting (jiggling legs, tapping fingers, squirming in seats) offers students the ability to release some of this nervous energy. Strangely enough, these students may actually learn better if they’re allowed to fidget because sitting still can make them more anxious. 
  • Defiant. “I won’t and you can’t make me” might mean “I’m afraid to do this, and I don’t want you to know that.” Students who refuse to do what is asked of them miss out on learning and also can become discipline concerns if we are not savvy enough to recognize what is behind their refusals.
  • Erratic. Because all forms of anxiety ebb and flow, students with anxiety can be the life of the party one day and quiet and withdrawn the next. This is as frustrating to them as it is to us because they too struggle to understand how they can keep things under control one day only to have anxiety knock them flat the next. These types of erratic emotions make concentration—and therefore learning—a challenge.
  • Fearful. Anxiety, no matter its form or duration, can be all-consuming. It can cause our students to approach new and even familiar situations with fear at the helm, resulting in elevated levels of stress that hamper learning.

If you think this sounds challenging, you are right. If you think the descriptions above are not unique to children who struggle with anxiety disorders, you are right again. But it’s important to note that armchair therapy is not what students need from their teachers. While therapy and medication play a role in the treatment of anxiety disorders, they are beyond the scope of the classroom teacher. When our students are battling anxiety—whether it’s situational or a diagnosed disorder—what they need most from us is understanding and reassurance that this feeling will not last forever. We can’t promise them that tomorrow will be better, but we can promise them there is a light at the end of the tunnel. And as educators, we can help our students create the pathway through that tunnel by doing things we already know how to do...

  1. Create a safe, predictable learning space. Unpredictability exacerbates anxiety. Creating a routine helps all of our students know what to expect in the classroom each day. In addition, advising students in advance of schedule changes (such as assemblies and fire drills) can provide them with time to adjust. 
  2. Listen and accept. As previously described, anxiety presents in a wide variety of ways. If you can listen to your students non-judgmentally, not only will you get insight into what they are thinking and feeling, but they might, too. You don’t always have to provide answers or strategies. Simply listening with an open heart and validating their feelings is helpful by itself.
  3. Remember that “fair” is not always “equal.” Mental health needs are as real and worthy of accommodation as physical or learning needs. You wouldn’t deny a child with her arm in a cast the accommodation of writing with her opposite hand, despite the fact that it is more work for you to decipher her handwriting. And you certainly wouldn’t use the argument that no one else in the class is allowed to write with their non-dominant hand to deny the accommodation. Likewise, when an anxious child needs to take a moment or is too fearful to respond in front of the whole class, she is similarly entitled to an accommodation or “bending of the rules” in order to make her comfortable enough to learn. 
  4. Marshal your resources. Anxiety can be unpredictable, and this can be hard on the adults who surround the child as well as the child himself. Educators don’t always know what to do and may get frustrated when a student is suddenly unable to do something that didn’t previously pose a challenge. Speaking with the school counselor, the child’s parents and, if you have permission, professionals who are working with the child (as well as the child, of course) can be helpful. Not only can the other members of the child’s team give you ideas and strategies, but, together you can provide the consistency that helps a child feel less anxious and more ready to learn.
  5. Take care of yourself. Anxiety may not be contagious like the flu, but it can spread just as easily. Stressed-out adults pass their stress onto the children around them. Managing your own stress will not only make it easier for you to give your students what they need, but it will make you feel better as well, enabling you to be a model of calm for your students.
  6. Find strategies to assist anxious students. Medication is not always a cure. While medication may play a role in the treatment of anxiety, not all families opt in. And even when medication is part of the treatment plan, it usually takes weeks for medication to reach a level where it makes a difference, and often the first dosage or type of medication is not the one that works best. Because anxiety can be a lifelong struggle, finding strategies that work in the classroom is part of the prescription. 
  7. Teach them to breathe through challenges. Simple breathing exercises can help children relax, focus, and become more aware of their bodies. You can start by simply setting aside five minutes for students to close their eyes and pay attention to their breathing. You can use an app, search Google, or look through YouTube for additional exercises and directions to guide you and your class through the process. Once they become skilled at noticing their breathing, they can use breathing techniques to regain calm, focus, or relaxation at will. 
  8. Pray for them. If anxiety is scary for adults, imagine how terrifying it must be in a child’s small body. Prayers for guidance and compassion for yourself and your students can be some of the best therapy available.

The universal nature of anxiety can lead us to believe that we understand it. We all worry, right? But diagnosable anxiety is more than just our average, run-of-the-mill concern, and, unless we’ve been down that road ourselves, we can’t possibly know how our anxious students feel. While authenticity, warmth, and patience from the adults that surround them will not cure our students, these traits can help reduce their fears as they work to get their anxiety under control so they can be a part of everything that school has to offer.

A retired school counselor, Lisa Lawmaster Hess teaches psychology at York College of Pennsylvania. Lisa is the author of Acting Assertively, Diverse Divorce, and three novels. Her latest book is Know Thyself: The Imperfectionist’s Guide to Sorting Your Stuff.


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