As educators struggle to understand anxiety and its implications for student success in schools, so too do the parents of these students. Whether it’s failing to complete work at home, not turning in assignments, or avoiding school altogether, students with anxiety display an affect often confused with disinterest and complacency. Anxiety, however, couldn’t be more different than the conclusions we often make about those students diagnosed. Anxiety is an illness associated with general fear and worry; it is not nervousness and it most certainly is not complacency.
For students with anxiety, the fear of the unknown, of potential judgement, and/or of failure is so intense that the solution is often to pull the pendulum as far back in the opposite direction as possible. Because there is so much an anxiety sufferer cannot control, he/she tries to control anything possible: the neatness of his/her notes, the direction of a conversation, his/her score on an English test. If perfection is not a possibility, then a student with anxiety doesn’t see the risk as worth taking. The anxiety that comes from messy notes, getting a wrong answer on a homework assignment, or not getting a 100 on a quiz is so debilitating that the next best option is to disengage.
The imprecision of labels
We have a tendency to identify ourselves with an “all or nothing” mentality. We are either smart or stupid, social or antisocial, funny or boring, athletic or uncoordinated. It’s very rare for us to pare down our abilities or inabilities with specificity. I’ve never heard an educator or parent describe a student in the top 5 percent as anything other than smart, but the story of that student goes much deeper. Perhaps math and science came easy; the time spent on those subjects was significantly less than his or her peers in the top half of the class. However, for the ease with which math and science came to him/her, English and history did not. The student had a tutor and put in countless hours of studying. Do we label this student as “stupid” or smart? We use labels on individual outcomes, rather than journeys. A student in the top 5 percent is smart no matter how he/she got there. Therefore, a student who avoids school is disinterested and complacent.
Related: Why students’ emotional well-being in school is tied to their success
Students with anxiety fall victim to the societal labels we place on each other more so than students who do not. No one wants to be considered stupid or antisocial, but if certain subjects or situations lead a student toward such a label, it is easier to avoid than to submit. Avoidance is an effective strategy in some instances—a fear of heights is easy to manage by just keeping your feet on the ground. But avoidance exacerbates the mental illness we inevitably encounter on a daily basis. Similar to learning to deal with losing or disappointment, dealing with challenges and imperfections are lessons that come from experience and exposure.
How to help children with anxiety
For the parents of students with anxiety, the instinctual solution is to remove the triggers from their students’ lives; no parent wants to see their student in anguish. Whether it is to request a schedule change or to advocate on behalf of their student, parents often make decisions they think will eliminate student anxiety. In reality, they exaggerate the problem.
If students are going to successfully overcome their anxiety and parents and educators are going to work in conjunction with each other to do so, schools must find practical ways to support not just students suffering, but parents struggling too.
Here are five ways educators can do just that.
1. Change approaches, not schedules.
A common request from the parents of students with anxiety is a schedule change. Rarely are the changes because of misleveling, such as when a student is in a college prep class but should be in an honors section. Changes in schedules are typically requested because of anxiety, i.e., work avoidance and/or teacher conflict. Maybe the teacher questioned why the student failed to complete the last three homework assignments or explained that the test had to be made up after school the day of return. Either situation increases the student’s anxiety and results in him/her being unable to work because of what is deemed judgement.
Changing a student’s schedule is not the answer. Removing triggers is not going to teach the student coping skills. Educators should do everything possible to put off a schedule change. The student’s anxiety is not going to be resolved; it will present itself in a new scenario.
Instead of changing schedules, change the approach. Ask the student questions about how he/she felt when asked about their homework and/or were told the test needed to be made up that day. Anxiety is an illness of identity and “all or nones.” Getting students to express their struggles will empower them to control their illness rather than avoid it.
2. Celebrate effort, not smarts.
From a very young age, we celebrate intelligence. When a toddler is told to throw out their trash and proceeds to walk to the barrel and throw out his/her wrapper, we gush at how smart he/she is. This is the case for so many new milestones.
But what happens the first time the child runs into adversity and doesn’t understand the expectations? The student is apt to believe he or she is no longer smart. The “all or none” approach to intelligence leads many students to believe they are not smart and instead are stupid. Rather than pump up our children with how smart we believe they are, celebrate how hard they work. When we ask our toddler to throw out a wrapper and they figure out the request, express excitement by saying, “You’re working so hard”—not “You’re so smart.”
Related: 5 things to say to students suffering from anxiety
Celebrating the effort that leads to success will instill perseverance in our students rather than intelligence. Believing in hard work will indirectly impact the request for schedule changes; students who work hard once and succeed are more likely to work hard again through subsequent adversity.
3. Encourage self-advocacy.
Molding students into self-advocates does not mean parents cannot reach out to teachers on behalf of their student(s). Educators must encourage parents to facilitate student interaction with teachers. Educators should ask that as much communication as possible come directly from the student for the purposes of self-advocacy. When students contact teachers via email, educators should ask that they copy their parents on the correspondence. An approach like this supports parent communication without sacrificing student self-advocacy.
4. Encourage extracurriculars.
Parents want to experience the sense of pride associated with seeing their student(s) participate in extracurricular activities, and doing so provides students with a healthy outlet known to reduce anxiety. Support parents in encouraging student involvement outside of the classroom by getting involved yourself or by creating incentives for student participation. Design assignments that require students to engage in activities outside of academia but be sure to suggest alternative assignments for students unable to attend extracurricular activities due to employment, lack of transportation, or other issues.
5. Implement routine.
From a young age, students benefit from routine. Even a one-hour time change can send students into days or weeks of upset and adversity. Just as parents are trying to implement routine in the household, educators should be implementing routine in the classroom. Classrooms with no secrets feel safe for students. Safe learning environments will result in a reduction in student anxiety and an increase in student success. They will also support parents in their attempts to create expectations and routines at home. Make all homework checks predictable and makeup policies non-negotiable. Doing so eliminates the risk of upsetting students and increasing anxiety due to judgement calls and last-minute decisions.
Perfection is an endless, uphill climb. Students with anxiety are unable to convince themselves that striving for perfection is as fruitless as attempting to walk up an escalator that’s going down. Couple this with the “all or none” identities we assign to ourselves and students’ sensitivity to adult tone and school can be a recipe for avoidance for a majority of anxiety sufferers.
Parents want to protect their children from stressors and societal expectations, but doing so is not teaching our students anything. Instead, supporting such a mind frame only serves to hurt students further. Help parents help their children by slowly exposing students to their own triggers, challenging their own labels, and celebrating their hard work. After years of consistent support and counseling, our students will not only be successful in school, they will be resilient members of our greater school communities.