Anxiety in Children: What You Need to Know

Michele Snoke
Michele Snoke
Elementary school principal; M.S.E. in Educational Leadership
A little girl in an orange shirt sits on a window sill, crying with her face buried in her knees.

Children commonly have worries, usually about the unknown within situations they may be facing. When children cannot visualize or understand the outcome of a new situation, the result can cause worry. When worries build up and turn to panic and anxiety in children, they can experience a disruption in certain social situations, sleep patterns, or daily functions in their day.

What Does Anxiety in Children Look Like? What Causes Anxiety in Children?

There are physical, emotional, and behavioral signs of anxiety in children.

Physical Signs

The physical signs may include complaints of headaches or stomach aches, or refusal to use the bathroom at school. Other physical signs can mimic ADHD characteristics, such as restlessness, and trouble falling or staying asleep.

Emotional and Behavioral Signs

Emotional signs can involve:

  • Tears
  • Feeling overly sensitive
  • Inability to regulate basic emotions
  • Anger and irritability
  • Vivid nightmares

When children demonstrate behavioral signs of anxiety, they may:

Causes of Anxiety

The causes of the generalized anxiety disorder in children can stem from being abused or neglected, or hearing and seeing parents and guardians argue. A variety of issues occurring at school with peers or academic pressures can result in children of all ages to develop anxiety. Any home life issues that create a movement to different homes within or out of a child’s hometown can also cause issues.

How can Anxiety in Children Impact Student Learning?

When children bring anxiety to school, daily learning can be more challenging. The anxiety may impact:

  • Paying attention
  • Unfinished work
  • Lack of preparation for assessments
  • Wanting to avoid school
  • Trouble engaging in the lessons

Anxiety affects memory and the ability to process information in a child’s brain. When a child’s memory and processing ability are interrupted or blocked, it can inhibit learning and long-term retention of academic material. Academic struggles or social discomfort in school can be upsetting for the student and, as a result, can create a sense of avoidance in children.

Social anxiety in children can make them feel extremely nervous or uncomfortable in social situations. For example, in a school environment around many people, the child may feel fidgety and distracted, which can lead to behavioral issues.

How did the Pandemic Impact Children?

The COVID-19 pandemic altered the daily life of children by taking away a typical school day. The pandemic drove closures of businesses, forcing many parents to work at home or seek other employment.

Children were forced to learn from home when schools were closed. This new way of life for both parents and children may have started smooth, but remote school would not be able to mimic a regular academic schedule as it would eliminate social interactions with peers and create uncertainty for children.

When the classroom went virtual, students lost the ability to create and sustain a relationship with an adult teacher and student peers. The virtual classroom created an environment giving students a choice to decline involvement by simply not turning on the video screen; students hiding behind a video screen fed into a the desire to avoid school altogether.

The virtual classroom made cooperative learning extremely difficult and social interaction among classmates nonexistent. Many older students felt ill-prepared for the next grade level after the initial shutdowns.

When some schools reopened, many children felt anxious about returning to the classroom or entering the classroom for the first time. The stress of the pandemic also created anxiety over getting sick for students and adults. As a result of their stress, the children felt the fear experienced by the adults around them.

Strategies to Utilize in the Classroom

Schools must create an environment that provides emotional support. A school counselor should be available at all school levels, from elementary to high school, for treating anxiety in children. The school counselor can assist students with calming techniques when feeling anxious, seeking further therapy, and more.

Create a Safe Space

Classroom teachers should have the opportunity to arrange the learning space to be comfortable and non-threatening for all students. Try to set up areas in the room that would allow preferential seating for students with anxiety.

Student Support

When organizing cooperative learning groups, consider creating student groups that will support those who suffer from anxiety. Classroom instructors must always be prepared to allow an anxious student to take a break from the classroom setting when the situation becomes overwhelming. Teachers should also be prepared to set a plan for a student to make up classwork that creates a doable process for when they need those breaks.

Instructions and Assignments

It is the responsibility of teachers to deliver clear instructions and assignments for all students, especially students suffering from anxiety. The classroom should eliminate any chance for a child to feel embarrassed and humiliated. Students feeling anxious may not want to read aloud or present a project in front of a classroom for this reason, and the teacher should have an alternate option for a child with anxiety.

Further Accommodations

Students with anxiety may need extra time on assessments or have test anxiety specifically. These students require a separate or small group setting while taking a test. Many additional accommodations can be arranged for students at all levels with anxiety in the classroom.

Some recommendations for further accommodations includes:

  • Extra copies of notes for a test
  • Limited homework during traumatic times
  • Ample notice before a test or quiz
  • Providing helpful study tools

The teachers and administrators of all schools should create a school culture that students are proud of and eager to attend every day. When students have something to look forward to, it makes it easier to leave a parent and eliminates any sense of separation anxiety a student may feel.

More than one in three children have anxiety and the percentage of anxiety in children has doubled over the past two years. School closures and abrupt lockdowns of businesses, libraries, parks, and more has caused anxiety in our children that will continue to impact their learning and social skills for the foreseeable future.

Do you have an interest and passion for student mental health? If so, check out our available school counseling or special education graduate programs to advance your career today!

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