FEATURE — With nearly 20% of adults and approximately 8% of children and teenagers in the United States experiencing clinical anxiety, it is the most common mental health concern today. Unfortunately, nearly 66% of individuals struggling with clinical anxiety do not receive treatment.
As a school psychologist in the Washington County School District, I know that everyone feels anxiety; it’s a way that our bodies alert us to potential danger. Healthy anxiety can drive us to change our environment for the better, push us to perform well and HELP US problem solve. However, anxiety that is so pervasive that it is overwhelming – unhealthy anxiety – can be incapacitating for children.
In a classroom, children who are experiencing anxiety often behave in ways that help them avoid situations that cause concern. They may withdraw, choose to avoid interactions, select easier activities and escape situations that may lead to failure. They may feel uncomfortable with new experiences and avoid social interactions.
So how can school psychologists help?
Because they work directly in schools, school psychologists are in a unique position to help support both the students with anxiety as well as the teachers who instruct those students. Some of the ways school psychologists can help include the following:
- Consulting with teachers to implement best practices in their classroom that help all students, including establishing routines, setting clear and reasonable expectations, providing opportunities for practice, pairing anxious students with supportive peers, noticing when students become anxious and allowing them time to cool down, providing warnings for any change in routine and reducing unexpected situations.
- Consulting with parents who have concerns and discuss what can be done together to produce the best outcomes for children.
- With parent permission, working directly with students to build anxiety-management skills or coping strategies. This could include helping students identify when they are anxious at school and how to self-regulate.
- Assisting school teams in creating a 504 plan, a document that ensures the student has access to accommodations based on a known health impairment, when necessary for a student with anxiety.
- Collaborating to develop specific behavior intervention plans that help teachers know how to help students with anxiety be successful at school.
In the Washington County School District, elementary schools have access to a program called “Move This World,” where students participate in brief classroom lessons to promote self-management and social awareness as well as practicing “emogers,” or simple problem-solving and anxiety-reducing strategies that are appropriate for kids.
If you have an elementary-age student, try asking them about their favorite “emoger” and see what strategies they are learning about to reduce their anxiety and stress at school.
But beyond this specific program, what else can parents do at home?
If a child is feeling anxiety at school, they are also most likely feeling anxiety at home. Parents can help children to notice, control and cope with anxiety. Parents can support children with anxiety by trying the following:
- Be consistent, especially when handling problems and discipline. Less guesswork for the child means less worry about what may or may not happen.
- Praise effort rather than achievement. “You must have studied hard for that spelling test,” rather than “Alright, 100 percent!”
- Be patient and prepared to be a good listener.
- Avoid being overly critical, impatient or cynical.
- Practice simple strategies that can help with anxiety, such as organizing materials; creating small self-talk scripts like “I can do hard things” or “I will do better next time”; and using deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation strategies.
- Keep realistic, attainable goals for your child.
- Keep consistent but flexible routines for things like homework, chores, activities, et cetera.
- Accept and communicate that mistakes are a normal part of growing up and no one does everything perfectly.
- Rehearse upcoming events that are anxiety-provoking for your child like speeches or performances.
- Seek outside help if the problem is persistent and interferes with daily life.
Anxiety is a common problem affecting children and adolescents today. It can frequently be mistaken for other issues such as attention deficits, lack of motivation or low ability. If left untreated and unidentified, it can increase over time, creating more problems as the child ages.
With appropriate support, children with anxiety can be successful, healthy and happy. They can discover the skills they need to control anxiety early and be better self-advocates for their own learning. School psychologists and other school-based mental health providers are here to help. Please reach out to your child’s school if you think they struggle with anxiety.
Written by STERLING STAUFFER. Sterling has been a school psychologist in Washington County School District for the past nine years. He currently serves on the board of the Utah Association of School Psychologists. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.