How to identify and manage anxiety in students

Posted on 09/12/18 01:24:pm Managing student anxiety


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“We’re in a moment where anxiety is running rampant, spreading like an epidemic among adolescents. The rise of anxiety is burdening schools and counselors, scaring parents, and harming kids, creating dangerous pathways to depression and substance abuse.”  

~ Harvard Graduate School of Education

Teachers, guidance counselors, school social workers, and administrators can attest to this startling phenomenon. Every day they encounter students struggling with anxiety, the most common emotional disorder among children across the nation.

One elementary school teacher says he’s noticed a significant increase over the past two decades with a higher prevalence of separation anxiety, panic, phobias and generalized anxiety disorder in his students. And he’s found the severity has increased, too. “Learners used to come to school with anxiety issues that a regular classroom teacher could begin to help solve, but now the challenges are often serious enough to require school counselors, psychologists or administration.”

In our Anxiety in Schools podcast series, Dr. Stephanie Eken offers expert guidance on the cause of anxiety in the educational setting, along with specific tips for helping students—and their families—overcome barriers caused by anxiety.

Dr. Eken explains that one personality trait can start as a positive and motivating characteristic but can evolve into a troubling condition. “Some people use perfectionism to their advantage, but if it becomes over-the-top and you become very anxious, people will perhaps avoid school or procrastinate because they can’t do something perfectly.”

Educators and parents can be vigilant to specific warning signs for anxiety and seek out tools to support at-risk students. For example, when debilitating stress accompanies test taking, there are documented benefits for offering accommodations such as additional time for completing an exam or providing a room free of distractions.

There’s value in educators and parents working together, giving parents guidance on how to best interact with a child suffering from anxiety. When strategies in the school and home settings aren’t working, Dr. Eken explains that educators are in a good position to suggest that the child may need counseling from a clinician.

No one likes feeling anxious, and being able to prevent an anxiety attack can help individuals build confidence and resilience. Here are some strategies and tactics you can deploy to help your students manage anxiety in the classroom:

  • Teach children how to slow their breathing when they feel anxious. Show them how to breathe in through their nose for a count of two and breathe out through their nose for a count of four. They can practice lengthening the break to a count of four on the inhale and six on the exhale.
  • Encourage them to do slow breathing and other individual strategies in “preparation” and not in “desperation.” If a student is prone to anxiety about gym or music class, remind the student to take 10 slow breaths to prepare the mind shortly before the start of the class.
  • The most effective and humane way to help someone overcome an environment that creates fear is to expose the person to the new setting in a graduated fashion. If a child performs well in a large classroom but becomes highly anxious in a group of four, integrate the student into a group of 10, later a group of six, and finally the desired four-student setting. This approach can yield benefits for all members of a classroom through a more calm and productive environment.

In addition, Dr. Eken reminds us of the importance of schools and parents working together to help kids find balance. “Kids need to play; they need to be off of their computers; they need to be off of screens,” urged Dr. Eken.  “So, even just helping kids think about and problem solve for themselves about how they can complete work for school and have balance. And that balance is what’s so critical for all of us as human beings in terms of managing stress,” she adds.

To learn more, listen to our Anxiety in Schools podcast series.

If you do not feel your child needs treatment right away, but may be concerned, we offer online quizzes to possibly provide some relief. While these quizzes do not provide a diagnosis, it could be the first step in finding the treatment your child may need. Take our online Anxiety or OCD Quiz today.

Call 800-767-4411 or go to to request a free screening.