How to handle a student overcome with anxiety

27th November 2015 at 00:00
When pupils get to breaking point, approaching them without judgement is key

Sam thought she was going to fail her sociology mock GCSE before her teacher, Ruth Harrison, even circulated the revision papers. Convinced she wouldn’t pass however hard she studied, she started to sweat, cry and panic, voicing her concerns to Harrison and the rest of her class.

A pupil like Sam showing stress, anxiety, negativity and emotional instability might once have been described as neurotic. However, the term is no longer deemed appropriate.

“It’s fallen out of favour professionally because it’s no longer specific enough and is rather pejorative,” explains Gregg Henriques, professor of graduate psychology at James Madison University in Virginia, US.

Andrew Sabisky, a member of the educational psychology department at UCL Institute of Education, agrees. “I would suggest using ‘negative emotionality’ or even just ‘emotionality’,” he says. “If we wanted a positive phrasing, perhaps we could talk about ‘emotional stability’. Maybe it would be more acceptable to talk about those low in stability rather than those high in neuroticism.”

However you phrase it, supporting students who are displaying signs of low emotional stability is a challenge that teachers are facing more and more frequently (see panel, below).

Look out for the signs

And Henriques argues that it is not an issue we should look for only in students already known to need help.

His 2012 article “(When) are you neurotic?” ( establishes the difference between neuroticism as a personality trait and neurotic character adaptations, when people react in unhelpful ways to stressful events.

“Even those of us who have very low trait neuroticism will experience neurotic character adaptations such as biting nails or rationalising our failures to protect our pride,” Henriques says.

Sabisky explains that anxiety can affect test scores and attainment. So how can teachers help students who are overly anxious?

Ultimately, if anxiety and stress cannot be brought under control, they will eventually involve referral, be it to a special educational needs and disability co-ordinator (SENDCO), pastoral leader or GP. But what can be done before it gets to this point?

Teacher and author Sue Cowley says her personal techniques include demystifying what makes the student nervous, confirming that results are not an indicator of how they will be judged and teaching time-management.

In Harrison’s case, she removed Sam from the classroom and took her for a walk to discuss her anxieties, before returning to the class and devoting the lesson to setting Smart (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and timely) goals. Her belief is that students should always know that a teacher’s door is open to them.

Another way to reduce anxiety about a particular topic is suggested by Colchester-based SEND teacher Rhys Crookes, who suggests using peer-learning. “If you can partner up a child who is anxious or not confident about a subject with a student who understands it, then peer-learning can reduce stress,” he says. “Teachers are visible when walking around the class talking to students. This can create stress.”

Teacher Sarah Crookes believes that, most of all, teachers need to be better at putting themselves in anxious children’s shoes.

“It’s a big mind-shift for teachers,” she says. “Most teachers are school succeeders and may not have experienced failure so they need to understand what it’s like when learning is hard.”

Teenage stress: what worries young adults?

The YoungMinds charity’s State of Mind survey in December 2014 revealed that teenagers felt under extreme pressure from exam stress, social media, bullying and body image (

Around 68 per cent felt very stressed about not doing well in their exams and how this would affect their futures.

Of those questioned, 81 per cent said they felt under pressure to have the perfect body.

Almost half, 42 per cent, said they wouldn’t talk to anyone if the stress or pressure became too much for them.

One in three parents has visited a doctor with concerns over their teenager’s mental health.

Some 31 per cent of parents with a teenager found it difficult to get help and support for their child when they needed it.

Around 61 per cent of parents with a teenager said their child or children had been bullied.

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