Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, impacting an estimated one in eight children. Sometimes anxiety is easy to identify — like when a child is feeling nervous before a test at school. Other times anxiety in the classroom can look like something else entirely — an upset stomach, disruptive or angry behavior or even ADHD. For this reason, it is important to get an accurate diagnosis to reduce the confusion between “inattention” and “anxiety”. Here are a few symptoms of anxiety to look for that can negatively affect your child’s ability to learn:
Inattention and restlessness
When a child is squirming in his seat and not paying attention, we tend to think of ADHD, but anxiety could also be the cause. When kids are anxious in the classroom, they might have a hard time focusing on the lesson and ignoring the worried thoughts overtaking their brains
Acting out is another thing we might not associate with anxiety. But when a student is throws a tantrum whenever the schedule is ignored or a classmate isn’t following the rules, anxiety may well be the cause.
Anxiety can also make kids aggressive. When children are feeling upset or threatened and don’t know how to handle their feelings, they might attack another child or a teacher, throw things, or push over a desk because they’re feeling out of control.
Frequent trips to the nurse or Truancy
Anxiety can manifest in physical complaints, too. If a student is having unexplained headaches, nausea, stomachaches, or even vomiting, those could be symptoms of anxiety.
For kids for whom school is a big source of anxiety, refusing to go to school is also pretty common. School refusal rates tend to be higher after vacations or sick days, because kids have a harder time coming back after a few days away.
Lack of Participation
Some kids will avoid or even refuse to participate in the things that make them anxious. This includes obvious anxiety triggers like giving presentations, but also things like gym class, eating in the cafeteria, and doing group work. Sometimes kids avoid things because they are afraid of making a mistake or being judged. When kids get anxious in social situations, sometimes they have a much easier time showing what they know when teachers engage them one-to-one, away from the group.
Accommodations to help the anxious student
Children and adolescents diagnosed with anxiety disorders may be eligible for services, accommodations, or modifications under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or Section 504 of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
Given the wide range of symptoms experienced by children and adolescents with anxiety disorders, it’s important to meet with your treatment team to get a baseline on your child and establish accommodations and modifications specific to your child’s needs. It can take time to develop the strategies that best help your child, but with a solid plan in place anxious children can thrive in the classroom setting and learn to manage their symptoms throughout the day.