Anxiety in the Classroom

Anxiety is normal. We all experience some level of anxiety at some point in our lives. It’s that kind of worry or nervousness, perhaps you get fidgety or have extra energy. Anxiety in children can present in a similar way, but anxiety in children seems to have a different impact. Especially when we are talking about how it affects kids in the classroom.

The Anxiety Response

Let’s take a moment to talk a little bit about the anxiety response so that you can understand what is happening in the brain and body of a child who is experiencing anxiety at any given moment. Human beings are animals and as animals, we have built within us certain survival instincts, certain ways we do things and certain things that happen within us to help us survive and face threats when they occur.

One of the best examples I’ve ever heard is to think of the brain as a peach. You have the pit of the peach or lower brain centers and the fleshy soft part that sits on top of the lower brain centers. The lower brain centers and higher brain centers are necessary but for very different reasons. The lower brain centers are geared toward survival. They mediate or control things like digestion, pupil dilation, heart rate and other aspects of human functioning that are basic life functions. On top of that, we have the fleshy tissue and this tissue is more responsible for things like memory, problem solving, organization and planning.

How Our Brains Respond to a Threat

When we feel threatened or as though something that is happening is going to be a threat to our well-being, our body goes through a series of very predictable events. We often think of this as fight-or-flight. Our brains have a very predictable and understandable process that they go through. The lower brain centers hijack the fuel of the brain so that the higher brain centers don’t get the fuel that they might have gotten otherwise. In a threat, the lower brain centers take precedence over the higher order thinking, reasoning, planning, organization, language and judgement. When a child is stressed, those lower brain centers are mobilized and are very active. The higher brain areas are not as active right now because the child is in survival mode. The child is in fight-or-flight. That stress response as just described is adaptive and very important when a person is experiencing a physical threat.

However nowadays, most of the “threats” that we feel we are experiencing are of the psychological or emotional nature. Our physical well-being is not threatened but out emotional and psychological well-being is feeling threatened. Our brain does not distinguish between a threat that is legitimately life threatening and a threat that is for all intensive purposes, not life threatening. In other words, our brain responds the same way if we are being chased by a tiger or if someone said something horribly mean on the playground and we are hurting. The stresses still create the same series of events in the brain. The brain is then geared to the survival of that event.

That stress response was never designed to be implemented and used and called upon daily. It is a very exhausting response for the body to go through. And for a child to be stressed on a near chronic level can have a significant impact over time. Their body is filled with stress hormones and their brain is not coming to school prepared to engage those higher brain centers for thinking, reasoning and language. This is what some people call “brain ready”. The child who is anxious comes to your class and is not “brain ready” to learn.

How Might an Anxious Child Look in the Classroom?

There are certain signs and symptoms that we can keep an eye out for to tell whether a child is suffering from anxiety or not while in our classroom. A child who is anxious may be nervous, may be worried, but anxiety doesn’t always look like a scared, nervous child.

Anxiety May Present Itself As

• Difficulty Focusing and Paying Attention
• Problems with Attendance
• Disruptive Behavior
• Frequent Visits to the Nurse

Difficulty Focusing and Paying Attention in the Classroom

So a child with anxiety is often concentrating on something else and not following along with the class for a larger lecture period or while reading at their desk. That student may appear inattentive or disinterested when in fact the student is really dealing with anxiety.

Problems with Attendance

The student may be coming to school late or the student may not be coming to school at all from time to time. Those can be motivated by either an avoidance of going to school or not wanting to go to school for some reason driven by anxiety or not wanting to leave home. There may be things at home that if the child leaves home, he or she becomes anxious. In other words, wanting to be where mom is or wanting to still be where grandma is.

Disruptive Behavior

Another set of symptoms that may be indicative of anxiety is disruptive behaviors. A child may be acting out or doing things that we might consider “bad behavior” because the child in fact is anxious. That bad behaviour may well be allowing the child to avoid something that causes anxiety. In other words, say a child is struggling with reading. We may see disruptive behavior and acting out before reading class pretty consistently so that the student is reprimanded or sent out of the classroom or somehow gets out of reading. We may also see that at home with homework. If homework is difficult, for example math might be a difficult area for the child. The child may engage in all sort of what we call escape behaviors. Escape behaviors are behaviors that “get the child out of” having to do the math homework. This may be by complaining of a stomach ache or headache, needing to sharpen a pencil, or refusing to sit at the table to get the work done. In older children it may be forgetting the math homework or math textbook. Many of these behaviors are in fact red flags of an underlying anxiety condition.

Frequent Visits to the Nurse

Another underlying symptom or sign that a child may be suffering from an anxiety is frequent trips to the nurse. The student may be uncomfortable with a situation and that’s showing itself up in some body ache or discomfort. So in other words stomach aches, headaches, frequent complaints about their health or their well-being. Anxiety in the classroom is an extremely important thing to be able to detect and to address so that your students can learn and perform at their best. The biggest key is understanding, recognizing, realizing that the behaviors that you’re seeing are in fact due to underlying anxiety and not really due to lack of motivation, disruptive, oppositional behaviors that the student is in fact experiencing anxiety.


Is your family having a hard time settling into a routine? Read the helpful advice from Dr. Chase and the Lawrence School here »

Learn more about anxiety in the classroom from the videos below.

 Reference Videos About Anxiety In The Classroom