Anxiety is one of those hidden illnesses and at times, as an adult, it is difficult to explain how anxiety affects me. Imagine how much more difficult it must be for a child to articulate how anxiety is making them feel.
O, for most of the time, is able to “hold it together” while she is at school. But in saying that, her anxiety levels would be rising throughout the school day and there would be tell-tale signs that she needs assistance to calm herself down. Helping O to learn how to manage her anxiety has, in turn, helped me to manage mine.
So in the scheme of paying it forward, here is a list of things that I hope will help educators to understand how anxiety may affect their students. I will add that I am not claiming to be an expert on anxiety disorders, these are just observations that I have made over the years!
1. Anxiety is more than just being worried, stressed, nervous or being a sensitive child.
Anxiety is a biochemical reaction that occurs in the body as a result of environmental factors or to put it in simpler terms, anxiety is simply the body’s reaction to brain stress. Anxiety is more than just feeling stressed or worried. Stress and anxious feelings are a very common response when we feel under pressure and these feelings will usually pass once the stressful situation is removed. You might feel stressed leading up to a job interview or an exam but once the job interview or exam is over, the stressful feeling passes.
The term anxiety is used when these anxious feelings that an individual may have, simply don’t go away. The anxious feelings are more frequent and ongoing and often will present without any particular rhyme or reason. Anxiety doesn't discriminate and it does not care when it chooses to raise its ugly head.
O has become anxious over leaving a pencil at school in her school desk. She has worried about forgetting where she left her school hat. O has worried about forgetting to take her library book to school. O has become anxious because we forgot a step in her bedtime ritual. For some people, these worries may seem insignificant, to a child with an anxiety disorder, these are major worries.
At times, O has not been able to tell us what she is worried about, only that she has an immense feeling of worry and fear. At one point last year, O was in tears at school and when she was asked by her teacher why she was crying, O replied "I don't know."
And yes O can be a sensitive child, but she is sensitive because of her anxiety. Her anxiety causes her to overthink situations, experiences and conversations. Please do not dismiss a child simply because you think that they are being a sooky la la.
It is important not to dismiss a child’s anxious feelings as this will only make the situation worse. Their feelings need to be acknowledged. Let them know that their anxiety is real and that with your help, they can get through it. Acknowledge that they may need help from time to time and that this is perfectly okay. We all need a helping hand, it isn’t a sign of weakness, it is a sign of strength.
Being understood and not judged can make all the difference to a child.
2. Parents need to be heard and listened to.I have lost count of the number of times that we have been told “but O can’t suffer from anxiety, I’ve never seen that in her."
Parents who express concern over their child, whether it be to teachers, medical professionals, friends, they need to be heard and listened to. Many children, O included, are able to hold it together all day, only to crumble the minute they step inside their home, their safe haven.
Teachers and educators may never see this side of the child but that's not to say it doesn't happen. Yes, students are in your care for 6 hours, or there about, 5 days a week but you do not see the child when they are at their most vulnerable. You don't see them when they are shaking and in tears because they didn't understand their friends. You don't see them when they have no energy left to hold it together. You don't see the emotional and mental destruction that anxiety can cause.
Speaking from experience, anxiety can be a crippling experience. Anxiety can make it incredibly difficult to cope with day to day functioning. Anxiety can impact on an individuals quality of life. If not watched and managed, anxiety can manifest into larger mental health problems.
3. Anxiety requires understanding, it is not something that can be turned on and off like a running tap.Everyone feels anxious from time to time and when we feel anxious we may be able to reason with our thoughts to assist us to cope in stressful situations. This is not the case for a child suffering from anxiety issues. Their anxious feelings are not easily controlled and they may not be able to reason with their thoughts.
Telling a child who suffers from anxiety to stop worrying is not going to help. The only thing that the statement “stop worrying” will do is make the situation worse, ten-fold.
A child suffering from anxiety is most likely going to a huge massive ball of turmoil on the inside and even the simple act of breathing can pose a challenge to them. Any individual suffering from an anxiety disorder doesn’t want to be in that situation. They don’t want to be feeling the way that they are and in all honesty they probably wish that they could just snap their fingers and calm down.
But it isn’t that simple. Telling a child to calm down or stop worrying may make them feel shame, anger and frustration, which then adds extra anxiety as they try to deal with those emotions on top of the anxiety.
Please understand that an anxious child needs you to be patient, they may need your help to get them to calm down. They may need to escape from the stressful situation to assist themselves to come back to a calm state.
4. Anxiety doesn’t look like one thing.Everyone is different and it can often be a combination of factors that contribute to developing an anxiety disorder. At times, the symptoms of anxiety is not all that obvious. Anxiety may be a sudden onset in some and a gradual process in others.
Every individual that suffers from anxiety would have different triggers. Anxiety can present as different levels of intensity. Some individuals may be able to cope with high levels of anxiety, others may not.
One child may have completely different coping mechanisms to another.
And as with ASD, anxiety generally presents differently in girls and boys. Boys reactions to anxiety may tend to be more behavioural driven. Girls on the other hand may tend to internalise their reactions to anxiety. Both reactions require different strategies to manage the anxiety and also to teach effective coping strategies to the child.
As the ASD saying goes, so you've met one child with anxiety! No two are alike.
5. Build a relationship with an anxious child.If you get to know an anxious child, if you develop a good rapport with them it may mean the difference between being able to pick up on their triggers or not being able to.
Building a rapport with your students means that they are going to trust you enough to come to you for help.
You are then going to be able to pick up on their tell-tale signs throughout the day and perhaps assist in preventing them from getting to the edge of the anxiety precipice. This will make a huge different to a child.
6. Odd behaviours often come about as a result of stress.As a result of her anxiety O has developed some self-calming rituals. O will start chewing on things - clothes, pencils, books, anything really. O will start to rock on her chair. O will start to fidget with pencils, clothes, toys, again anything really. These are all her little cues that her anxiety is starting to become too much for her.
Telling a child to stop chewing on their shirt or to stop bouncing on their chair, is not going to help. The child has developed those self-calming rituals for a reason. Let them use them.
If the self-calming ritual is distracting for the rest of the students in your class, sit down with the child and their parents and discuss what other self-calming rituals can be employed instead.
7. Develop strategiesOnce you become aware of a child's anxiety issues perhaps you could meet with the child and their parents and draft a plan of strategies that the child can use when they feel their anxiety levels rising.
You could pre-plan and come up with your own strategies to help students in your class. Have a list of jokes to distract your students. Even a funny thought is sometimes enough of a distraction for children.
I have been using breathing exercises with my kindy children at work when they need a brain break and we're at the point now that the children are able to recognise when they need time out. They will walk away from the situation, take some deep breaths and walk back in a lot calmer.
There are a number of wonderful books available that can assist children to deal with anxiety and worry. We love the book "I have a Worry" and "The Angry Octopus.'
Keep in mind that older children may not want to be singled out in front of the peers. Perhaps you and the student come up with a secret signal so that they can discretely communicate with you when they need a brain break.
8. Remain calmHave you ever noticed that a calm teacher somehow magically ends up with a classroom of calm students?
An anxious child craves quiet and calm. If you speak with an anxious child in a quiet and calm voice, they are more than likely going to respond to you and listen to what you are saying. It is much easier to come back down to a calm state when the person who you are talking to is also calm.
O responds so much better when we remain calm. She is obviously still very much in an anxious state, but she is able to come down much easier.
9. Anxiety can be difficult.Please remember that anxiety can be difficult not only for the child, but also for their family members who are in the firing line once the child gets home school.
Anxiety can make it incredibly difficult to focus and pay attention in the classroom. Imagine being overly worried about leaving the oven on a home and then having to go to work and put all your efforts into doing your job for the day. All the while with the thought "did I turn the oven off" running through your mind. That is what it is like with anxiety.
Anxiety may cause an A-grade student to fidget and want to move around. They're not doing this deliberately.
I remind myself regularly that behaviour is not done on purpose, it is done for a purpose. Why is your normally well behaved well mannered student misbehaving?
10. Anxiety is a part of the child, not the whole child.Lastly the anxiety is part of the child, but it is not the whole child. I read somewhere, and at the moment I simply can’t recall where, that at times anxiety is part of a child like freckles are a part of another child.
Anxiety should never be looked at as a flaw. A child with anxiety has enough self-confidence issues, pointing out anxiety as a flaw is not going to help their self-esteem.
Focus on the positive aspects of the child. O is smart, she is kind and caring. Acknowledging those aspects are important as those are what make her the loving intelligent girl that she is.
O's anxiety does not define her, it is simply part of her being.