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The ABCs of School Anxiety and How Parents Can Help

School anxiety symptoms are nothing new. Is there an adult alive that didn’t try to skip school to delay a test, sleep in or avoid an unpleasant social situation? We hid under the covers, faked an illness, begged and even threw tantrums depending on our level of desperation. And on occasion, our ploys worked, at least for the day.

Every child experiences dread regarding school at one point or another and COVID-19 has given them one more reason to worry. Today’s new normal can be tough on even the most well-adapted kids.

Of course, some anxiety is a normal part of growing up, but anxiety disorders are among the most common mental health condition in kids. And they are on the rise. Studies show that over seven percent of children ages three to 17 have a current anxiety issue.

So how do parents know when normal school anxiety rises to a clinical level that requires intervention?

Mental health experts suggest that when children develop physical ailments related to school; struggle to develop relationships with their peers; experience episodes that impede their ability to learn and participate in the classroom; and exhibit changes in behaviors at home that pertain to sleep, eating and social behaviors, it may be time to seek help.

School can be challenging for even the most resilient kids but for children with chronic anxiety, the emotional, behavioral and physical symptoms are even more profound.

  • Physical symptoms can include headache, nausea, rapid heartbeat, intestinal distress
  • Behavioral symptoms can include tantrums, social isolation, avoidance behaviors, impaired concentration
  • Emotional symptoms can include depression, fear, nervousness, low confidence, self-loathing

It’s instinctive for parents to want to help and protect their kids; unfortunately, many well-meaning efforts only worsen symptoms. This blog will discuss some of the productive ways that parents can help their child manage school anxiety and encourage full participation and engagement in the classroom.

Sources of School Anxiety

Merriam-Webster defines anxiety as an abnormal and overwhelming sense of apprehension and fears often marked by physical signs (such as tension, sweating, and increased pulse rate), by doubt concerning the reality and nature of the threat, and by self-doubt about one's capacity to cope with it.

We all know from first-hand experience what anxiety feels like and we often can recognize it in someone else, but we may not know the actual source of the distress.

Here are a few of the conditions that can elicit or exacerbate school anxiety:

Separation Anxiety is a normal part of development that typically passes by the age of three. But five percent of children between the ages of 7-11 still struggle with it, as do a small percentage of older students. What drives their anxiety is feeling unsafe or an excessive and unreasonable fear that some harm may come to those closest to them.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder is characterized by anxiety over a wide range of things and situations. In school, it is often exhibited with perfectionism and obsessing over grades. This intense worry that is not proportional to reality, can lead to struggles both inside and outside the classroom.

Children with Social Anxiety, also known as social phobia, are self-conscious about their performance in social situations with excessive fears of embarrassment, humiliation, judgment or scrutiny. Signs in the classroom of social phobia include an unwillingness to answer questions or stand in front of the class and difficulties speaking to adults and classmates. The condition is often mistaken for extreme shyness.


Test Anxiety, often related to fear of failure, is a form of performance anxiety. Test anxiety is exacerbated by inadequate preparation and poor test history, often resulting in a self-defeating negative mindset.


Obsession-Compulsive Disorder can make classroom participation difficult with distressing ruminations and the need to engage in rituals like handwashing, which can impact focus, attention and participation.

 

Anxiety in School 

Parents with children who suffer from anxiety often report changes in sleep, eating and social behaviors, as well as an increase in nightmares, tantrums and sadness.

For teachers, school anxiety may not be easy to identify as it can resemble illness, ADHD, anger issues or even a learning disability. Students who suffer from school anxiety can exhibit a wide range of symptoms:

  • Lack of eye contact and avoidance when called upon
  • Squirming and fidgeting
  • Selective mutism (a refusal to speak)
  • Sleepiness
  • Poor attendance, truancy
  • Acting out, disruptive behaviors
  • Repetitive questions or seeking reassurance to reduce worry
  • Frequent requests to visit the nurse
  • Incomplete homework, missed assignments
  • Excessive worry over upcoming tests
  • Refusal to participate in activities and projects

 

 

School Refusal and Anxiety 

No discussion of school anxiety would be complete without mentioning one of the most common, troubling signs—school refusal. It impacts two to five percent of school-age children and is among the most challenging behaviors for parents to address.

Of course, some reluctance to attend school is normal.  But some children experience a level of distress that may be driven by a more significant mental health problem.

School refusal is more common between the ages of five and six and ten and 11, especially during times of transition. While these children tend to be average or above average in intelligence, academics can—and do often—suffer.

Of course, school refusal isn’t a diagnosis in and of itself, but a symptom of an underlying issue. Bullying, bad grades, trouble making friends and anxiety can all be contributing factors. Parents and teachers need to uncover and address the source.

Risks of Unchecked School Anxiety 

School anxiety can have detrimental consequences if left unabated. Colleges are reporting a generation of depressed, stressed and anxiety-riddled students.

Left unchecked, the condition can lead to low self-esteem, social isolation and limited opportunities due to poor academic achievement.

But the good news is that the effects of anxiety in the classroom are not chiseled in stone but can be improved or eliminated through treatment. Children who receive therapy for school-related anxiety lower their adult risk of depression and anxiety.

One of the most widely utilized treatment methods is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

CBT for Anxiety in School 

Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a well-established and effective form of talk therapy that was developed to help people understand the connection between thoughts, emotions and behaviors.

Here is a simple example of how they are intertwined:

Negative thought: I suck at baseball

Emotion: sadness, frustration, anger

Behavior: quitting, refusing to practice or play, loss of motivation


Children with anxiety often react to situations based on their instinctive feelings, instead of reality. Through CBT, kids learn to replace negative, harmful thoughts with more positive ones. The result? Better emotional control, problem solving and confidence.


While there are numerous CBT techniques, here are three of the most common:

 

Cognitive Restructuring is simply challenging negative thoughts. Instead of focusing on a bad game or test, children learn to reframe the situation and focus on strengths and successes. Kids with anxiety tend to overgeneralize, assume the worst or give outsized importance to minor setbacks. CBT helps to offset these tendencies and keep fears in perspective.

 

Exposure Therapy or Systematic Desensitization involves gradual exposure to fear and anxiety-provoking situations by working slowly through a fear hierarchy. Over time, kids become desensitized to the stressful stimuli, ultimately lowering anxiety, increasing confidence and giving them the courage to face their fears.

 

Relaxation techniques allow a person to self-calm and self-soothe to alleviate tension and anxiety. Common methods include deep breathing and muscle relaxation techniques.

 

Parent Tips for Helping Anxious Kids

No parent wants to see their child unhappy and anxious. But the best way to help isn’t to remove stressors but to help them tolerate anxiety and function despite it.

Here are some ways that parents can help:

Talk to your school about a 504 plan that can provide extra test-taking time, modifications to tests and homework and even preferred seating.

Teach your children ways to self-soothe to reduce anxiety, including deep breathing, imagery and tools like stress balls or bands.

Be a positive example by modeling healthy coping behaviors during times of stress.

Encourage children to face their fears. Avoiding situations may feel good in the short run but it only reinforces long-term distress. By tolerating anxiety and letting it run its natural course, children gain confidence, independence and are more likely to attend and fully participate in school.  

Teach children that perfection is not required. Encourage hard work and progress but accept and embrace the times when they fall short.

Validate and respect the child’s feelings without amplifying their fears. Parents should listen with empathy and understanding while reassuring them that they are there to help and support them through the challenge.

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