School Health and Wellness//
August 31, 2023
As an educator, it's important to understand student mental health. To learn and grow, students need to feel safe and valued, both in the classroom and outside it. Some of the most common student mental health conditions are stress and anxiety. And most people experience stress and anxiety at some point in their lives.
A certain level of stress can be beneficial for learning. For example, the stress of trying something new in an uncontrolled situation can put learners in their “Zone of Proximal Development,” which is when people can learn. But if there's too much or not enough stress, learning is not possible. The goal is the right amount of stress in the classroom.
Anxiety in the classroom is generally debilitating. This is because anxiety is the body’s response to anything that needs immediate attention. If not managed, anxiety can cause physical, emotional, and psychological strain. “Anxiety works like a smoke alarm,” said Gabriella Pelosi, a licensed mental health counselor and co-founder of D&G Wellness Consulting. “Anxiety is there to keep us safe, like a smoke alarm. When a smoke alarm goes off at school, people evacuate the building as quickly as possible.”
A similar scenario happens in the body when anxiety takes hold. Although, instead of ‘evacuating,’ anxiety creates physical symptoms as a result of a real or perceived threat. “When our body perceives something is off, not right, or dangerous, it sounds an alarm. That’s our fight-flight-freeze response going off—it’s innate and it’s there to keep us safe from potential threats,” Pelosi said. “But the problem is, not everything we see, feel, or experience is actually dangerous. Our brains get tricked into thinking it is. So if the “smoke alarm” goes off two or three times during the day, or in this case, our anxiety gets triggered often, it is not much help and often very disruptive.”
Incorporate Lessons About Limiting Anxiety
Talking to students about anxiety in the classroom will not make them more anxious. If you’re in a student-facing role or willing to host a school assembly, Pelosi said, “Teach students about anxiety and how to identify it. Saying, ‘I’m anxious,’ gives them a voice and lets them know they need to pay attention to that voice.”
Pelosi also recommends teaching students to recognize the physical symptoms of anxiety such as knots in their stomach, sweating, racing heart beat, and quickened breathing and behavioral reactions like avoidance. “Teach students to recognize anxious thoughts like, ‘What if I fail my test?’ and ‘What if I can’t finish?’ And to pay attention to what happens next. Students experiencing anxiety may avoid a certain situation like evading a social situation, their homework, or trying out for the play,” Pelosi said.
Overcoming anxiety in the classroom and beyond requires imagining a world without it. “Ask students if they woke up tomorrow morning and all their anxiety magically disappeared, what would they do? How would they act? How would their family, friends, and teachers know they weren’t anxious?” Pelosi said. “This helps students understand the impact anxiety has on their lives.”
How to Help a Child with Anxiety in the Classroom
And if you work directly with students experiencing anxiety, communication is key for overcoming it. “Conversations can be small interactions, check-ins in the hall or at lunch—they don’t have to be a one-on-one meeting in a classroom,” Pelosi said. “Ask open-ended questions about what worries them most. Let them know you believe them and show acceptance of worrisome thoughts and anxious feelings.”
“When you listen to hear versus listen to fix, you validate student feelings,” Pelosi added. “Tell them it’s okay to be upset, let them know you hear them, and reassure them you understand how they feel right now and that those feelings won’t last forever. Nonverbal feedback and eye contact matter because it encourages students to open up.”
Anxiety can significantly affect a student’s classroom behavior and their ability to learn. Using these flexible, practical strategies with compassion and understanding helps your students feel supported and validated.