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The quick Q&A: How to support and challenge students with anxiety

It can be difficult to find the right balance of support and challenge for children with anxiety, but this teacher insists it can be done

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It can be difficult to find the right balance of support and challenge for children with anxiety, but this teacher insists it can be done

What’s the problem?

Trying to challenge children with moderate to severe anxiety within a mainstream class, without exacerbating their condition.

When you say challenge, what are we talking about here?

That’s the thing – it’s different from child to child. Some are anxious about completing tests; others really worry that their work won’t be completed in time, or won’t be good enough and a few react very badly when they make a mistake. Generally, they’re very fearful of speaking situations, too.

So they all fear being judged in some way, especially publicly?

Yes. They’re all deeply afraid that they’re "not good enough" and that everyone will find out. 

Maybe this is about talking to the class directly?

Come on, now – if I churned out any more growth mindset or cheesy-one liners about the "awesomeness of failure", people might start to suspect that I’m actually a robot. 

What if you supported these children in the same way that you would support a struggling reader in English?

Mmmm…I would probably allow extra time in writing activities and tests to ease up the pressure, throwing in a few words of encouragement along the way. Plus, there’s nothing to stop these children using help sheets and word banks, just as they build up self-confidence. But this still doesn’t solve the problem of how I encourage them to speak in class. 

They don’t participate in class discussion at all?

Some will, with a lot of encouragement, while others completely refuse. In some cases, I’ve been up against parents and school leaders who tell me to "drop it", but letting them sit there in silence feels like letting them down. How will they learn that they are good enough if they don’t even try?

Agreed – allowing them to ‘opt out’ feels like compliance with their anxiety. How could you enable them to feel more at ease when speaking in class? 

I think it boils down to preparation time. Before a discussion, most children would benefit from a few minutes practising and discussing their answers in pairs or small groups. There’s no harm in them jotting down a few notes either. It causes much less panic to read out a pre-prepared answer than to come up with something on the spot.

Great! But this sounds like a whole ‘thing’ and sometimes you just don’t have time...

Of course not, but if you make "thinking time" and preparation part of the daily routine, you’ll find that a lot more children feel able to speak up. 

Do they know that they’re expected to speak up?

Only if that’s realistic. If a child is battling serious anxiety, you’ll have to be patient as they build up their confidence. In general, though, yes. Make it clear that if they’ve been given preparation time – they need to be ready to speak.

High expectations?

Yes, but set at their individual level. Maybe even with an individual target of answering one question per half-term, week, day or lesson – even better if this is rewarded in some way. 

Sounds like a plan. But what of the ones who are still worryingly anxious?

Keep trying new things. Keep showing your students – through your words, actions and efforts – that you believe in them, even if they don’t.

Jo Steer is a teacher and experienced leader of SEND interventions

Do we really need to worry about an anxiety epidemic? Science author and broadcaster Dr Kat Arney investigates in the 11 May issue of Tes. Pick up a copy from your local newsagent or subscribe to read online.

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