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Educators who strive to understand the nature of student anxiety can profoundly impact their students' lives

How to identify student anxiety in the classroom

Educators who strive to understand the nature of student anxiety can profoundly impact their students' lives

Issues stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic continue to pop up as educators devote more time to student anxiety issues in the classroom. Frustrations mount as they attempt to manage both instructional requirements and a decrease in achievement from at-risk students.

In particular, teachers report escalating anxiety symptoms since the pandemic lockdowns, and data is now available to support their conclusions. The CDC recently declared a student mental health crisis, with 44 percent of high school students reporting sadness or hopelessness.

Dealing with struggling students can overwhelm teachers as they report spending more time attempting to support individuals while shortchanging the rest of the class. Diagnosing and remedying problems is essential.

Every teacher knows that certain cognitive functions must be present for students to learn. Students need:

  • Concentration
  • Motivation
  • Initiative
  • Interest
  • Self-esteem/efficacy

When students battle the effects of anxiety, all learning pathways shut down, leaving students cognitively drained and consumed with negative thoughts.

Anxiety is not necessarily bad. Everyone experiences it occasionally. It’s common for students to feel a little anxious before a test or presentation. This excitable state can enhance performance. A high anxiety level–one that zaps a student’s concentration, motivation, and initiative–can result in a student shutting down. There are ways to break up an anxious cycle, starting with identifying negative behavior.

5 ways to help special education students manage testing anxiety
Effective ways to help students reduce stress and anxiety

Telling the difference between mild, transitory anxiety and anxiety that blocks learning over time is a little tricky. It can manifest in several ways. Here are a few common anxiety symptoms noticeable in class.

Identifying anxious behavior

Change in behavior

Have you noticed a student whose mood, energy, or demeanor has changed over time? Perhaps their academic performance dropped off for no apparent reason. This behavior change may be the beginning of an anxiety cycle, and it’s essential to address it as soon as possible before habits are ingrained.


Low participation in class or complete withdrawal can be a sign of student anxiety. Frequent somatic complaints like stomach issues or headaches may be an avoidance strategy. A student who often excuses himself for a bathroom break or asks to visit the nurse may exhibit avoidance. First, before labeling it as an anxiety tactic to get out of schoolwork, ensure the student has a medical checkup to alleviate other sources for the behavior.

Concentration or organizational issues

Difficulties with concentration, organization, or missed assignments may indicate a student is more focused on their feelings of anxiety than the work. The student is overwhelmed, and test anxiety is often a trigger.

Physical signs

Students who bite their nails, pull on their hair, shake their legs, etc., may be experiencing anxiety. Some may even go so far as self-injury, like digging a nail or a pushpin into their skin. Distractions like these provide them with a soothing sensory input, alleviating feelings of anxiety.

Oppositional behavior

Do you have a student that acts out in class? What may look like defiance might be an avoidance tactic. Acting out creates chaos in the classroom, setting up a diversion that gets them out of doing the work. If successful the first time, the student will continue this disruptive behavior.

Effective strategies to support anxious students

Identifying behaviors that block the learning process is the first step to helping students cope. A wide variety of stressors often trigger anxious behaviors. Problems at home can cause sadness or hopelessness, unrealistic expectations can lead to perfectionism and hidden disabilities can cause shame as students fall behind in class. All these factors can provoke undue stress and lead to problematic behaviors.

In the case of the Randolph School District in New Jersey, 40 percent of the students experienced severe anxiety and depression—many being high-achieving students. This prompted the school to launch a comprehensive mental health program to support at-risk students. Because of the overwhelming problems, the district opted for a more comprehensive support system and implemented student mental health workshops and training. The student success rate increased.

Connect with your students

A simple first step is to get to know your students. When questionable behaviors manifest, teachers need to determine what’s behind them before intervening effectively. Students who struggle are often unwilling to talk. Building trust can go a long way to opening a line of communication.

An effective strategy is “2/20.” If a student is disengaged or acting out, spend just two minutes a day for at least 20 days focusing on them. Start a conversation on anything but school and begin to build trust. As the student becomes more comfortable talking with you, they may eventually open up and talk about their issues. Once this is established, you can collaboratively create strategies to manage stressors.

Self-awareness exercises

Teaching students how to recognize anxiety symptoms goes a long way in preventing or diffusing an anxiety attack and helps the teacher manage the situation. If students learn to recognize that a stomachache, sweaty palms, or a racing heart are the start of an impending episode, they can take the next step and learn to self-regulate. A helpful technique is “How Does Your Engine Run?” This strategy helps them effectively identify their feelings and then teaches them to regulate their behavior.

Accommodations and the nature of anxiety (IEP)

If a student’s anxiety is overwhelming and an IEP is called for, teachers need to understand why the adjustments are important. Other students may view accommodations as unfair, like a decreased workload, a special seating assignment or an agreement to come to class late and leave early.

Understanding the changes and advocating for struggling students can go a long way in clearing a path to success. It’s about giving students what they need. It’s equitable, not equal.

With the recent increase in at-risk students, teachers are the first line of defense. Educators who strive to understand the nature of anxiety, how to spot the symptoms and learn a few strategies to support these students can change student lives profoundly. Being observant and proactive in mitigating student anxiety is essential for all teachers.

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