Anxious pupils' hidden terrors

12th September 2008 at 01:00
Walking along the corridor, attending a crowded assembly. Such everyday situations can be nightmarish for phobic pupils.

You wake from a nightmare in the middle of the night. You are in a state of abject terror: your heart is pounding, and your skin prickles with sweat.

This is the same feeling of terror some children experience every day at school. Walking down the corridor is a heart-racing trial, reading aloud a test of stamina, assembly a succession of horrors.

But pupils who suffer anxiety often go unnoticed, according to Samantha Cartwright-Hatton, a clinical psychologist at Manchester University. Anxiety can be difficult to spot - even for trained psychologists. For many teachers coping with classroom pressures, the symptoms are indistinguishable from general behavioural difficulties.

Dr Cartwright-Hatton has been presenting workshops around the country, based on her research with anxious pupils. "If an anxious child is threatened by something in the environment, they can really kick out," she said. "By being naughty, they are trying to get out of the situation."

Other children express their anxiety by withdrawing into themselves. They become shy, refuse to speak or find it difficult to make friends. Some cling to their parents, or cry regularly. Most anxious children are distressed by change, so a new teacher or new approach to lessons can be terrifying. And many fear crowds, so noisy lunch and assembly halls can be intimidating.

The trigger for such angst is not always obvious. Psychologists believe that certain children are genetically predisposed to anxiety. "Genetics provide fertile ground," said Dr Cartwright-Hatton, "but something needs to come along and sow seeds."

These triggers can be single events, such as war or displacement. But milder trauma can also trigger anxiety: parents who are inconsistent or refuse to make time for their children, for example. And children can imitate parents' fears.

Because it can be so difficult to identify anxious pupils, Dr Cartwright- Hatton recommends that teachers attempt to minimise potential anxiety- inducing situations. Well-managed schools can provide a stable counterpoint to a volatile, home life.

"Anxious children really need a consistent environment," she said. "Those who have done well tend to be at schools where everybody knows what the rules are. The teacher knows, the caretaker knows, the dinner lady knows."

She also recommends teachers offer regular praise for confident behaviour. So if children attempt something outside their comfort zone, however insignificant, they should be rewarded for the effort.

And teachers should be careful not to let their own anxieties show. "Anxious children are like sponges for threat information," she says. "If someone's talking about something scary, they will hear it at a thousand paces. You have to be extra super-careful about conveying information that the world is dangerous and something bad will happen."

For more about Samantha Cartwright-Hatton's Children and Anxiety workshops T: 08444 775774


- Pair anxious children with friendly, helpful classmates who will encourage them to participate.

- Change can frighten anxious children, so ensure consistency wherever possible.

- Make sure that rules and sanctions are consistent across the school. For example, all teachers should give detentions for swearing, rather than one giving detention and another giving extra homework.

- Appreciate that anxiety can impede academic performance, even in bright pupils.

- Praise or reward those pupils who try something outside their comfort zone.

- Never humiliate pupils for making mistakes.

- If children are unable to take part in an activity, offer an alternative. But ensure this alternative is boring rather than pleasurable.

- Have clear policies about bullying.

- Do not ignore children's fears: allow them to talk about them.

- Avoid speaking about your own fears in class, as this can add to children's anxiety.

- Speak positively to pupils about new situations and people.

- Because anxious pupils are difficult to identify, it is best to ensure that the overall ethos is designed to minimise anxiety.


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