Students struggling with anxiety need support
Toni Marie Wilson, LMSW
It’s fall in the Pee Dee. For many students, the school year often means anxiety. Busy schedules, changes in weather and social or academic apprehension all contribute to student anxiety.
So, what is anxiety?
Anxiety is a feeling of worry or nervousness about a particular situation and is a normal part of the school experience. Anxiety in students might look differently based on developmental age.
The following information is a guide for what anxiety might look like based on the student’s age.
Preschool to fifth grade
Some students in this stage might experience school for the first time, and others are still learning how to balance homework, tests and environmental stressors. Students in this age group are concrete thinkers and might have trouble identifying or naming abstract feelings such as anxiety. Although they feel the anxiety, they often do not have emotional or verbal skills to communicate what they are feeling. Students in this age group might display symptoms such as:
- Thumb sucking or other self-soothing behaviors.
- Easily distracted.
- Sickness (stomach issues).
- Difficulty with separation from caregiver.
- Bedwetting or daytime accidents.
Sixth to 12th grade
Students in this stage have been in school for a few years and usually have the ability to think abstractly and understand more complex emotions such as anxiety. They might be aware of the symptoms but often lack the necessary skills to cope. Some might feel embarrassed due to peer pressure or the stigma associated with mental health concerns.
Symptoms of anxiety in this age group might include:
- Poor grades.
- Concentration issues.
- Trouble sitting still.
- Sleep issues.
According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 7 children will have a behavioral, mental or emotional challenge at some point in their childhood and experience anxiety. It is important for caregivers to observe, listen and be available for students. Simply being present and available can provide a forum for students to share their experiences. Caregivers must avoid simply dismissing those feelings by saying things like, “There’s nothing to be nervous about,” or, “You shouldn’t feel scared.” Instead, caregivers need to acknowledge that the student’s feelings are valid, and that they will be OK. Reassurance and understanding can go a long way.
The following recommendations also might help students navigate the experience and learn to cope with environmental stressors.
First, consult your pediatrician or primary care provider. Many children are misdiagnosed as a result of improper evaluation. It is good practice to consult with a medical professional for an initial assessment.
Be patient. Students struggling with anxiety need support and evaluation. Give students space to express feelings without fear of judgment. Practicing patience and listening to students’ concerns might provide an effective outlet for the student.
Contact the school. Students might be struggling in school and coordinating with the school is another layer of support. In order for your student to excel, multiple layers of support are necessary. Your student might have access to an individual education plan (IEP), 504b plans and even school counselors as additional layers of support if deemed necessary.
Seek professional help. Students experiencing ongoing anxiety might benefit from counseling or behavior intervention. A counselor or other mental health professional might be able to assist students in developing healthy coping skills to handle anxiety related symptoms. Please consult with a medical provider or contact the school for recommendations.
Have fun! Anxiety can be draining; schedule time with students to have fun and do something enjoyable. Scheduling time to offset the pressures of school can reduce overall feelings of anxiety.
Remember that anxiety is a natural reaction to experiencing a significant change in environment. Anxiety is the body’s way of preparing for change. However, just like ice cream, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. Assisting students with normalizing anxious feelings, seeking medical advice, listening, practicing patience and developing an open line of communication can help caregivers recognize whether symptoms are being managed appropriately or if further attention is needed.
Last but not least, spending time with students without any expectations will help quell school anxiety, so be sure to allow for unstructured play, together time, and downtime as well.
Toni Marie Wilson is a behavioral health counselor at HopeHealth.