Mental health in school is a unique textbook that was published in 2016 and which deals with how the school can meet students with various forms of mental difficulties and life challenges. In this article, we take a closer look at the chapter on students with anxiety.

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The authors of the chapter on anxiety are Klara Øverland and Edvin Bru. They write:

Anxiety is the most common mental health problem among children and adolescents. It is estimated that 20 per cent of children and young people struggle with symptoms of anxiety, while for 10 per cent the problems are so great that it affects their ability to function in an optimal way.

In the chapter, they provide in-depth information about both the signs that a child has anxiety, what types of anxiety exist, and how the teacher can help anxious students.

 

Signs of anxiety in children and adolescents

Øverland and Bru mention, among other things, the following characteristics of anxiety in children and young people:

  1. Is constantly worried about something, eg if homework is done well enough, friends, classroom, news, family
  2. Has problems leaving mother or father and must be accompanied to and from school
  3. Is awake for a long time and has sleep problems at home that go beyond school work
  4. May seem irritated, get angry quickly and have outbursts of aggression at school
  5. Feels outside and uncomfortable with classmates
  6. Withdraws from other students and isolates himself
  7. Finds it difficult to participate in class discussions or conduct presentations
  8. Finds it difficult with new people, places and activities, from having a substitute, joining companies or transitions to new classrooms
  9. Am afraid to go to school or will not go
  10. Have negative thoughts about the possibility of mastering the learning process
  11. Avoid people, places or activities that can trigger discomfort

Anxiety can become a serious problem for children and young people once they have developed this type of problem. The authors write:

Anxiety is a very unpleasant feeling that creates avoidance behavior, and causes someone to adopt their own security strategies, which in the long run can be bad solutions. Anxiety can inhibit children's development and can affect school refusal.

 

Common with additional difficulties

Øverland and Bru emphasize that children who suffer from anxiety at school can have additional problems such as difficulty concentrating and learning difficulties if they do not receive the right help. In addition, they can develop social problems, as isolation and avoidance often follow this type of problem.

They refer to various conditions in school that can either make the anxiety worse, or that can help counteract the anxiety:

When it comes to the development of anxiety, there are a number of factors in school that can contribute to creating anxiety, such as an environment characterized by competition and performance culture, where the child's results are constantly compared with others.

Bullying and weak structure in school and classroom management can be very destructive, and can also contribute to anxiety problems. 

Thus, a number of measures that contribute to a safer psychosocial environment at school can be helpful. Anxiety is not just something "in the child", but develops in the interplay between the student's vulnerability and conditions in his or her environment.

 

The teacher can provide invaluable help to the anxious student

A central part of the chapter deals with what help the teacher can give to an anxious student. The fact that the school offers these pupils help with the worries at an early age can be of great importance with a view to preventing the further development of both anxiety disorders and any additional difficulties that result from the anxiety, Øverland and Bru emphasize.

By giving students who struggle with anxiety good follow-up in school - in collaboration with the student, the home and help agencies - the teacher can be a good support agency in reducing and treating the child's anxiety problems.

Key elements in this follow-up deal with how the teacher can build a safe learning environment, where the relationship with fellow students and the teacher-student relationship has a lot to say. The specific management of anxiety episodes can also be important, as such experiences can provide an opportunity for the ailments to worsen or can provide a breeding ground for growth and coping if they are handled well.

The co-operation between school, home and the support system is also emphasized.

 

A learning environment that counteracts anxiety

The authors provide the following list of advice on how the school can build a learning environment that counteracts anxiety in students:

 

  1. Get to know the student well, and show warmth
  2. Create a trusting relationship that gives greater confidence to be able to solve the learning tasks
  3. Facilitate good relations with fellow students
  4. Avoide too much open comparison of students performance
  5. Check if bullying occurs, and intervene resolutely if this is the case
  6. Have regular conversations that give the student a sense of inner control over what is going to happen
  7. Provide good information for activities that do not follow the usual pattern
  8. Prepare a plan for when various tests and evaluations are to be carried out, and make the students well acquainted with this plan
  9. In situations that calls for making choices, it is important that the choices are not too many, as the need to choose is a challenge in itself
  10. Provide extra support in physical activity classes
  11. For some students it can be useful to visualize situations in school that one may be anxious about, as it can be difficult to talk about it
  12. Encourage more constructive self-instructions by discussing or giving students suggestions for more realistic thoughts - as opposed to his/her automatic negative thoughts and self-evaluations
  13. Make it easy for students to challenge their own limits - in other words, promote exposure to anxiety-provoking situations
  14. Do not push the child beyond what he / she masters, as it is important that the child feels in control. Progress gradually
  15. Feel free to use relaxation techniques or singing / playing during class, to break thoughts of worry
  16. If possible, have an extra room to go to if the anxiety takes over. However, remember that the optimal situation is that the student learn to cope with the anxiety within classroom situations.
  17. Show understanding of the student's feelings, opinions and previous experiences and help the student with constructive problem solving

 

Source:

  • Øverland K. & Bru E. (2016). Anxiety. In E. Bru, EC Idsøe & K. Øverland (Eds.), Mental health in school, (pp.45-65). Oslo: Universitetsforlaget 

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Written by

ove heradstveit

Ove Heradstveit

Psychologist, specialist in clinical community psychology. PhD.
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