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How to Ease Students’ Academic Anxieties When Learning Speeds Up

by Staff

Rates of anxiety have spiked among school-age children in recent years, and this chronic stress can hamstring students’ efforts to recover lost academic ground.

As part of the Teacher Anxiety Program for Elementary Students (TAPES) pilot program, educators learn and role-play ways to identify students who are experiencing anxiety in class and intervene to help them.

Golda Ginsberg, a professor in child psychiatry at the University of Connecticut who developed the program, spoke with Education Week about how anxiety affects student learning and how teachers can help their students become more resilient.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Teachers aren’t therapists. What role do they have in addressing student anxiety in the classroom?

If we relegate mental health interventions only to the school psychologist or social worker, then there are so many students who are going to go on without help. The school psychologists and social workers just don’t have the capacity. Even if a student is receiving psychotherapy and medication from an outside provider or from a school based mental health provider, still there are things that the teacher can do in the classroom to reduce anxiety among all her or his students.

How can a teacher recognize when a student is anxious rather than bored or misbehaving?

Teachers often pay attention to the students who are acting out. Often teachers think [anxiety-driven behavior] is ADHD, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. For school clinicians, those are the kids who get referred.

Some teachers are good at identifying when [anxiety] is manifested behaviorally, but a lot of times students with anxiety fly under the radar: They sit in the back, they’re quiet. They might be teary-eyed, but they don’t ask questions, they don’t raise their hands. So they get ignored; they get overlooked.

With academic performance, there seems to be a chicken and-egg problem of whether students fail because they are anxious or are anxious because they struggle with a subject, like math. How can teachers break that cycle?

We know that anxiety has a negative impact on academic performance and academic functioning. There’s often a reciprocal relationship between academics and anxiety. But we know that anxiety doesn’t have to be related to their [initial] academic performance to interfere with learning.

There are kids more likely to have generalized anxiety disorder who are perfectionistic; if they begin to fail, or even have poor performance in their own minds, that increases their anxiety. So they’re spending hours and hours and hours every night, making sure there’s not one mistake on their homework and they are getting straight A’s. But they’re so preoccupied during the day by their worries that they can’t pay attention.

If a student with separation or social anxiety is in the classroom, and is preoccupied with their anxiety—like ‘what’s happening to my parent,’ or ‘are kids laughing at me’—they can’t really engage in learning. They might not raise their hand because they’re afraid of making a mistake, or they might refuse to go on a field trip.

Any intervention for students struggling with anxiety who have poor academic performance has to be a multiple-component treatment. So they might need academic skills—tutoring, for instance—and an intervention to reduce anxiety.

What is the most common mistake teachers make when dealing with a student experiencing anxiety?

Teachers have a whole classroom of students to manage, and so typically they might say, ‘Yes, go to the school nurse,’ if the student says, ‘Oh, my heart’s racing,’ or ‘I have a stomachache’—when it’s really anxiety and not a medical condition. They’ll accommodate the anxiety, meaning they’ll allow the students to avoid anxiety-provoking situations.

The teachers’ intention is well-meaning, in that they don’t want to trigger anxiety in the student. However, what we know from the psychological treatment literature is that, if we avoid what we’re afraid of, and we allow students or our children to avoid what they’re afraid of, that maintains anxiety as opposed to reducing it. In the long run, the children never learn that they can handle that anxiety, and they never get a chance to develop the skills they need to do the task at hand, whether it’s presenting in front of a class, working with a group of kids, whatever it might be.

What, then, is the proper way to help students who show anxiety in the classroom?

We do teach methods for supporting the students to face their fears and also teaching them other coping skills. Because SEL, or social-emotional-learning programs, have infiltrated so many classrooms across the country, lots of teachers actually have been getting training around how to do, say, mindfulness, or relaxation strategies, or meditation strategies. All of these strategies are usually part of treatment programs to reduce anxiety.

There’s another kind of set of strategies related to growth mindset. Teachers are learning, how do I adjust my and my students’ thinking about failure and potential? That’s part of anxiety-treatment programs as well.

In order to help the student actually reduce anxiety, [the teacher is] going to have them answer the question in class, present in front of the class, using a gradual approach. It’s not as if the student on the first day is going to be expected to stand on the stage and recite poetry. It’s just one step at a time to gradually face your fears, so that you develop confidence and a sense of competence. And ultimately, that reduces your anxiety.

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