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, ADHD, or even a learning disorder.
There are many different kinds of anxiety, which is one of the reasons it can be hard to detect in the classroom. What they all have in common, says neurologist and former teacher Ken Schuster, PsyD, is that anxiety “tends to lock up the brain,” making school hard for anxious kids.
Children can struggle with:
- Separation anxiety: When children are worried about being separated from caregivers. These kids can have a hard time at school drop-offs and throughout the day.
- Social anxiety: When children are excessively self-conscious, making it difficult for them to participate in class and socialize with peers.
- Selective mutism: When children have a hard time speaking in some settings, like at school around the teacher.
- Generalized anxiety: When children worry about a wide variety of everyday things. Kids with generalized anxiety often worry particularly about school performance and can struggle with perfectionism.
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder: When children’s minds are filled with unwanted and stressful thoughts. Kids with OCD try to alleviate their anxiety by performing compulsive rituals like counting or washing their hands.
- Specific phobias: When children have an excessive and irrational fear of particular things, like being afraid of animals or storms.
Here are some tips for recognizing anxiety in kids at school, and what might be causing it.
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. “Some kids might appear really ‘on’ at one point but then they can suddenly drift away, depending on what they’re feeling anxious about,” says Dr. Schuster. “That looks like inattention, and it is, but it’s triggered by anxiety.”
Attendance problems and clingy kids
It might look like truancy, but 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.
Going to school can also be a problem for kids who have trouble separating from their parents. Some amount of separation anxiety is normal, but when kids don’t adjust to separation over time and their anxiety makes going to school difficult or even impossible, it becomes a real problem. Kids with separation anxiety may also feel compelled to use their phones throughout the day to check in with their parents.
Acting out is another thing we might not associate with anxiety. But when a student is compulsively kicking the chair of the kid in front of him, or throws a tantrum whenever the schedule is ignored or a classmate isn’t following the rules, anxiety may well be the cause. Similarly, kids who are feeling anxious might ask a lot of questions, including repetitive ones, because they are feeling worried and want reassurance.
Anxiety can also make kids aggressive. When children are feeling upset or threatened and don’t know how to handle their feelings, their fight or flight response to protect themselves can kick in — and some kids are more likely to fight. They might attack another child or a teacher, throw things, or push over a desk because they’re feeling out of control.
Trouble answering questions in class
Sometimes kids will do perfectly well on tests and homework, but when they’re called on in class teachers hit a wall. There are several different reasons why this might happen.
“Back when I was teaching, I would notice that when I had to call on someone, or had to figure out who’s turn it was to speak, it was like the anxious kid always tended to disappear,” says Dr. Schuster. “The eager child is making eye contact, they’re giving you some kind of physical presence in the room like ‘Call on me, call on me!’ ” But when kids are anxious about answering questions in class, “they’re going to break eye contact, they might look down, they might start writing something even though they’re not really writing something. They’re trying to break the connection with the teacher in order to avoid what’s making them feel anxious.”
If they do get called on, sometimes kids get so anxious that they freeze. They might have been paying attention to the lesson and they might even know the answer, but when they’re called on their anxiety level becomes so heightened that they can’t respond.
Frequent trips to the nurse
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. So can a racing heart, sweaty palms, tense muscles, and being out of breath.
Problems in certain subjects
When a child starts doubting her abilities in a subject, anxiety can become a factor that gets in the way of her learning or showing what she knows. Sometimes this can be mistaken for a learning disorder when it’s really just anxiety.
However anxiety can also go hand in hand with learning disorders. When kids start noticing that something is harder for them than the other kids, and that they are falling behind, they can understandably get anxious. The period before a learning disorder is diagnosed can be particularly stressful for kids.
Not turning in homework
When a student doesn’t turn in her homework, it could be because she didn’t do it, but it could also be because she is worried that it isn’t good enough. Likewise, anxiety can lead to second guessing — an anxious child might erase his work over and over until there’s a hole in the paper — and spending so much time on something that it never gets finished. We tend to think of perfectionism as a good thing, but when children are overly self-critical it can sabotage even the things they are trying their hardest at, like school work.
You might also notice that some anxious kids will start worrying about tests much earlier than their classmates and may begin dreading certain assignments, subjects, or even school itself.
Avoiding socializing or group work
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.
When kids start skipping things it might look to their teachers and peers like they are uninterested or underachieving, but the opposite might be true. Sometimes kids avoid things because they are afraid of making a mistake or being judged.
Dr. Schuster notes that 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.
This article was last reviewed or updated on August 5, 2022.
Left untreated, anxiety disorders can make it hard for students to get schoolwork done or study. It may affect their relationships with peers and teachers, too. In some cases, students with anxiety disorders miss a lot of school days. Or they may avoid school altogether.How does my anxiety affect my child? ›
Genetic studies show a heritability rate of 30-67% for anxiety disorders. If a first degree relative of a child has an anxiety disorder, there is a chance that the child will also develop anxiety over the course of his or her lifetime.Why do kids get anxiety in school? ›
For some children, the fear and worry associated with school anxiety are related to a specific cause, such as being bullied or having a bad experience at school. For others, the anxiety may be more general and related to social or performance anxiety.How does anxiety affect your daily life? ›
Anxiety makes it harder to try new things, to take risks in your work or personal life, or sometimes to even leave your house. Many people with anxiety feel caged in. They see things they want to do in life but their anxiety keeps them from trying. This can lead to loss of income and unfulfilled potential.How social anxiety affects students? ›
Students with social anxiety feel overly concerned with how others see them. They feel extremely self-conscious and fear being embarrassed, making mistakes, or looking foolish. As a result, they may feel anxious about participating in social and performance-based situations.What is anxiety explained to a child? ›
Anxiety can be a thought (mental) or feeling (physical) that can feel very scary. Anxiety is actually not dangerous and can sometimes be helpful in certain situations. Everybody experiences anxious feelings sometimes, it is a normal.How do you help a child with anxiety? ›
- Breathe slowly and deeply together. ...
- Sit with them and offer calm physical reassurance. ...
- Try using all five senses together. ...
- Reassure them that the anxiety will pass and that they will be okay. ...
- Ask them to think of a safe and relaxing place or person in their mind.
Anxiety disorders in children are persistent fears, worries or anxiety that disrupt their ability to participate in play, school or typical age-appropriate social situations. Diagnoses include social anxiety, generalized anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders. Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).What can schools do to help students with anxiety? ›
- Start with a Student Meeting. According to Fagell, students who are experiencing anxiety may not fully understand their actions or responses. ...
- Create a Coping Toolbox. ...
- Validate Student Feelings. ...
- Use Mindfulness. ...
- Teach Competence. ...
- Refer Students for Additional Help.
Providing emotional support
Encourage the student to use self-calming or anxiety-reducing techniques that were taught by a counselor or therapist. Allow the student to have a self-calming object or family pictures on hand. Build in “call home” breaks (for students with separation anxiety).
Anxiety may present as fear or worry, but can also make children irritable and angry. Anxiety symptoms can also include trouble sleeping, as well as physical symptoms like fatigue, headaches, or stomachaches. Some anxious children keep their worries to themselves and, thus, the symptoms can be missed.What is school anxiety called? ›
Scolionophobia is an overwhelming fear of school. It is not a clinical diagnosis, but it's often a symptom of other anxiety disorders. School refusal is more likely to affect children during times of transition, such as starting middle school or high school.Why is anxiety so common in students? ›
Many factors contribute to the heightened risk for anxiety among college students. For example, sleep disruption caused by drinking excess caffeine and pulling all-nighters is associated with increased anxiety among college students. Loneliness also predicts mental health problems, including anxiety.How many students are affected by anxiety? ›
A recent study found that 1 in 3 college students experiences significant depression and anxiety. For parents and students, being aware of the risk factors and symptoms can help with the early identification and treatment of depression.How anxiety affects the mind? ›
Summary: Pathological anxiety and chronic stress lead to structural degeneration and impaired functioning of the hippocampus and the PFC, which may account for the increased risk of developing neuropsychiatric disorders, including depression and dementia.How does anxiety affect you mentally? ›
Effects of anxiety on your mind
feeling tense, nervous or unable to relax. having a sense of dread, or fearing the worst. feeling like the world is speeding up or slowing down. feeling like other people can see you're anxious and are looking at you.
Anxiety happens when a part of the brain, the amygdala, senses trouble. When it senses threat, real or imagined, it surges the body with hormones (including cortisol, the stress hormone) and adrenaline to make the body strong, fast and powerful.Does anxiety affect social skills? ›
Anxiety plays an important role in social behavior. For instance, high-anxious individuals are more likely to avoid such social interactions as communicating with strangers.How does anxiety affect a child's social life? ›
Their anxiety could make them feel isolated or estranged from other children. This could adversely affect their social life, which could further dampen their education. Anxiety can make children engage less in their education and learning (not wanting to answer a teacher or speak in front of others).How does anxiety affect social? ›
The fear of embarrassment and of being judged causes people with social anxiety disorder to avoid or limit social situations, which may then impact their personal relationships, lead to loneliness, reduced success at school or work, depression and substance abuse.
Common anxiety signs and symptoms include: Feeling nervous, restless or tense. Having a sense of impending danger, panic or doom. Having an increased heart rate.Why is child anxiety important? ›
Anxiety disorders have the potential to affect every part of a young person's life, including their physical health, emotional well-being and social skill development. The combined impact can lead to kids feeling socially isolated, stigmatized, and incapable of being active members of their community.What is the most common anxiety disorder in children? ›
Generalized anxiety disorder typically affects school-aged children and adolescents.What age is anxiety most common children? ›
The median age of onset for childhood anxiety is about 11, according to Kessler's data. Some of the most significant risk factors for anxiety appear to be family-related. "We know children whose parents struggle with anxiety are at elevated risk," Ginsburg says.What are the 5 most common mental disorders in children? ›
ADHD, anxiety problems, behavior problems, and depression are the most commonly diagnosed mental disorders in children.What should you not say to a student with anxiety? ›
- Don't worry. You can't will away your child's anxiety by telling him not to worry. ...
- It's no big deal. ...
- You'll be fine. ...
- There's nothing to be afraid of. ...
- You just need to sleep more! ...
- I'll do it. ...
- It's all in your head. ...
- Hurry up!
Anxiety Signs/Symptoms in School
Anxiety may make a student appear to be cautious, nervous, shy, or fearful. Anxious students may express their fears by crying or throwing tantrums, and it may be very difficult for them to calm down. Some students may seek constant approval or reassurance from others.
- Take their concerns seriously. ...
- Offer validation and acceptance. ...
- Avoid shaming. ...
- Do not “call out” your student in front of the entire class. ...
- Encourage your student to tell you if they are struggling. ...
- Develop a game plan with your student. ...
- Be mindful of how you communicate.
Difficult experiences in childhood, adolescence or adulthood are a common trigger for anxiety problems. Going through stress and trauma when you're very young is likely to have a particularly big impact. Experiences which can trigger anxiety problems include things like: physical or emotional abuse.When do kids show signs of anxiety? ›
Stranger anxiety beginning at 7 to 9 months of age and resolving around age 31. Fear of the dark, monsters, insects, and animals in preschoolers. Fear of heights or storms in younger school-age children.
Be aware of the signs of anxiety.
Changes in behavior, such as irritability. Avoiding activities, school, or social interactions. Dropping grades or school avoidance. Trouble sleeping or concentrating.
Anxious students miss school for many reasons, including not wanting to be separated from their parents/caregivers, wanting to avoid social situations, or because of physical illness related to anxiety, such as a stomachache or headache.How many children are affected by anxiety? ›
By 2020, 5.6 million kids (9.2%) had been diagnosed with anxiety problems and 2.4 million (4.0%) had been diagnosed with depression.How does stress affect student? ›
Research indicates that when we feel overwhelming stress related to school it not only demotivates us to do the work, it reduces our overall academic achievement and can lead to increased dropout rates. Not to mention the negative health implications, including depression, poor sleep, substance abuse, and anxiety.Who is affected by anxiety? ›
Anxiety disorders affect about 40 million American adults every year. Anxiety disorders also affect children and teens. About 8% of teens ages 13 to 18 have an anxiety disorder, with symptoms starting around age 6. Women are more than twice as likely as men to get an anxiety disorder in their lifetime.Why are kids more anxious now? ›
They are “growing up in an environment of volatility, where schools have lockdowns, where there are wars across borders. We used to have high confidence in our environment — now we have an environment that anticipates catastrophe.” The data on anxiety among 18- and 19-year-olds is even starker.How can I prevent anxiety? ›
- Behavioral therapy.
- Deep breathing.
- Socializing, following pandemic guidelines of social distancing, masking and hand hygiene)
- Speaking with your health care provider.
Anxiety may make a child uncomfortable in the school environment. It gets in the way of their concentration, and their ability to learn. 2. Anxiety affects working memory — our ability to hold information in our minds for short periods, in order to do something with it.How does anxiety affect your studies? ›
Students with anxiety disorder display a passive attitude in their studies such as lack of interest in learning, poor performance in exams, and on assignments.How does anxiety present in the classroom? ›
- Inattention and restlessness. ...
- Attendance problems and clingy kids. ...
- Disruptive behavior. ...
- Trouble answering questions in class. ...
- Frequent trips to the nurse. ...
- Problems in certain subjects. ...
- Not turning in homework.
Worry can hinder your working memory, causing you to forget important tasks or appointments. You may make more mistakes at work or have trouble juggling everything you need to do at home. You might experience lapses such as: Not remembering where you parked your car in a parking lot.What factors affect anxiety? ›
- work stress or job change.
- change in living arrangements.
- pregnancy and giving birth.
- family and relationship problems.
- major emotional shock following a stressful or traumatic event.
- verbal, sexual, physical or emotional abuse or trauma.
- death or loss of a loved one.
Anxiety has other effects, like releasing adrenaline (since anxiety is related to the fight/flight system), but it also leads to stress, and stress leads to trouble with emotional control and happiness.What are the signs of anxiety in a child? ›
- finding it hard to concentrate.
- not sleeping, or waking in the night with bad dreams.
- not eating properly.
- quickly getting angry or irritable, and being out of control during outbursts.
- constantly worrying or having negative thoughts.
- feeling tense and fidgety, or using the toilet often.