How to Reduce Classroom Anxiety

What you need to know about how students process anxiety.
By Julie Bloss
July 2018, Volume 41, Issue 11

When I signed up to attend NAESP’s 2018 annual conference, several colleagues asked me to seek information about addressing students with challenging behaviors. Over the course of my 29 years in education, I have certainly seen a change in the students that I serve and am also seeking knowledge in this area. So when I saw that Jessica Minahan was offering a session on reducing anxiety in students, I immediately circled it in my program. Minahan is a well-respected behavior analyst who has written books and blogs for the Huffington Post about supporting students with challenging behavior.

At the beginning of her presentation, Minahan shared that one out of three students is now being diagnosed with anxiety. And, 22-25 percent of preschoolers are now being identified as having clinical anxiety. We are now serving “Generation Anxiety.” However, anxiety and ADHD often have some of the same traits. How can we tell the difference? As we all agree, educators are not physicians and should never diagnose. However, gathering helpful information for families to share with their physicians is appropriate.

Here’s a quick guide to understand the difference between the two: ADHD behaviors are the same behaviors across environments. On the other hand, behavior for students with anxiety exhibit changes across different environments. My mind began to reel with the faces of students I had known in the past … students who had difficulty in more chaotic settings such as the loud PE room or in the cafeteria, but seemed to behave just fine in quiet classrooms. With this one quick tip, I was hooked listening intently to the speaker.

Anxiety 101
Did you know that students who have learning differences are more likely to have anxiety due to negative self-talk? And, when anxiety goes up, work memory goes down? A student can lose 13 to 20 IQ points in a moment of anxiety. Consider this for example, a student may be able to write two paragraphs beautifully on one day, and on the next day can barely write one sentence. It might be easy to assume that the student is simply lazy, tired, or not focusing on the assignment. However, perhaps the issue is something else entirely such as an emotional concern tied to anxiety. 

After hearing this example, it became clear to me and the audience that motivational incentives are not effective tools for students with anxiety. Sticker charts, rewards, and treats cannot help a student with anxiety perform a task. Also, proximity is not helpful for many students with anxiety. It may raise the state of anxiousness.

Near the end of her presentation, Minahan offered helpful advice for educators who have students with anxiety. As most in the room already knew, anxious students may be misbehaving to remove themselves from situations that are uncomfortable. The first and foremost factor in effectively assisting an anxious student is building a strong, trusting relationship. Predictability, reassurance, and knowing the student are important factors that must begin being built on or before the student enters the school/classroom on the first day. The principal (or applicable educator) must remember that misbehavior is simply a form of communication.

For more information on this topic, Minahan recommends reading The Behavior Code: A Practical Guide to Understanding and Teaching the Most Challenging Students and The Behavior Code Companion: Strategies, Tools, and Interventions Supporting Students with Anxiety-Related or Oppositional Behaviors.

Julie Bloss is principal of Grove Early Childhood Center in Grove, Oklahoma.

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