Anxiety in the Classroom – A Teacher’s Story

After having taught in primary schools for the last decade, I have come to realise that there are countless ways that children display signs of anxiety at school. Some of these, of course, are more obvious than others. For example, a young child might scream, shout, cry or kick as they come into school out of anxiety over leaving parents or carers. Similarly, this might happen at the end of the day if a child’s parent is a few minutes late.  Often, children crave constant reassurance, which might display itself through persistent calling out during whole class inputs, or through always getting out of their seat to come and speak to you – both of which might sometimes just be called ‘bad behaviour.’  

I once taught a child who needed to bring a toy from home everyday and would always need it within his eye line, even during PE lessons when it would sit on the hall piano. Every day he would also claim to feel ill in the hope that he would be sent home. It turned out that his parents were going through a difficult break-up and he was worried about his mum. I know that any teacher will be familiar with children who pretend to be ill – a classic sign of anxiety.  This year I have taught a child with selective mutism. Although she would happily talk to her good friends, she was extremely uncomfortable in groups with unfamiliar children and would completely freeze if asked a direct, personal question by an adult or asked to contribute to class discussions. We had to ensure we didn’t make eye contact with her when trying to have a conversation and removed any expectation for her to join in large group discussions. She was still able to make good progress, without the anxiety always hanging over her that I was about to pick on her. Children with other mental health issues such as ASD (Autism spectrum disorder) or PDA ( Pathological demand avoidance) also demonstrate their anxiety over school expectations through a wide range of behaviours – refusal to complete work, running away from the classroom, playing on their own, playing too physically, curling into a ball etc. 

Some children’s anxieties are displayed in much more subtle ways. For example, they might display their concern over what other children think of them by using a silly voice to try and seek approval.  They might ask to use the toilet frequently during a lesson in an attempt to avoid the learning. I have sometimes caught children sneaking ‘pretty things,’ pieces of blu tack or shreds of paper into their pockets that they then use to play with later in the day during whole-class learning. This gives them the opportunity to distract themselves from lessons they might otherwise find stressful, or gives them something to do with their hands.  

There is no single way to help children who are suffering from anxiety, just as there is no single reason for their anxiety or one single way that their anxiety manifests itself.  My biggest tip would always be to build a strong relationship with every member of your class. Without this, you won’t be able to spot the subtle signs children often show that they have worries. On the last day of term, I caught a boy in my class looking for a spare sunhat over lunch and fretting that he hadn’t brought his own hat. A sociable boy who would never normally care about such things, I knew that he had come inside because something else was worrying him. This child was clearly worried about the holidays and about not having the continuity of school. I wouldn’t have picked up on this if I hadn’t known him and his personality well. But instead, I was able to have a reassuring chat with him.  It is also imperative that you build strong relationships with the children’s families and make sure that they know how to contact you. Otherwise, you will often be left unaware of any external issues that may be causing anxiety for your class.

Strong relationships, of course, benefit all children, as do any measures you put in place to support anxious children. Using a visual timetable will help prepare all children for the day ahead, but particularly helps any anxious children who may feel concern about the unexpected nature of school. Building routines into the school day will have the same effect. My recent class all insisted that we looked at the timetable, worked out the date, chose the children for class jobs and talked about how we were feeling every single morning and would correct me if I missed anything out. A routine in the morning really helps create a secure start to the day for any children that struggle coming in. 

Finally, staying calm no matter what is happening is a difficult skill to master, but it is so important that you try as much as possible not to let an anxious child feel that you have lost control of a situation. A few years ago, I taught a child who was eventually diagnosed with PDA. One day, we had to evacuate the classroom when he started throwing chairs. The deputy head stayed in the classroom with him, with my Learning Support Assistant watching on. She later reported to me that the deputy head stayed completely calm even as the boy destroyed the classroom around her, throwing tables at the electronic whiteboard and hurling objects at her. After he calmed down, she then became the person that he always elected to spend time with when he was too distressed to be in class. Clearly, her calm approach helped him realise that no matter what he did, she would always be in control.

By Jess (Key Stage 1 Teacher)

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