Your Anxious Child’s Teachers and School: Their Role and Your Rights

To an outside observer, the life of a child may seem carefree; however, appearances can be deceiving. Many children, in fact, struggle from anxiety. If your child commonly experiences bouts of anxiety, you aren’t alone. In fact anxiety is exceptionally common, particularly during adolescence when the carefree years of childhood give way to days full of more responsibility and rigor. According to research performed by the National Institute of Mental Health, 1 in every 4 children will suffer from anxiety at some point in time between the ages of 13 and 18. While anxiety may not be preventable, you can do much to lessen the anxiety-related struggles your child must fact by striving to better understand your child’s unique anxiety and working in tandem with his school to help tackle the problem.

Symptoms of Anxiety

Anxiety or, as the National Association of School Psychologists defines it, “apprehension or excessive fear of real or imagined circumstances,” can be hard to spot as the malady consists primarily of internal emotional upset, not something that parents can readily see. There are, however, some common signs of anxiety. If you suspect that your child’s upset is the result of diagnosable anxiety, be on the lookout for these common anxiety indicators cataloged by the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry:

  • Refusal to go to school – Children suffering from acute anxiety will often tell their parents that they are ill or make up some other form of excuse regularly in an attempt to avoid going to school. This is particularly common if the source of the child’s anxiety is school-related.
  • Clinging to parents – If your child seems uneager to go places without you, he may be suffering from anxiety. Children that avoid leaving parents’ sides even when offered activities that are generally considered fun – such as sleepovers at friends’ houses – are even more likely suffered of anxiety.
  • Excessive nightmares – While every child has a nightmare from time-to-time, if your child’s sleep seems to be disrupted by a nightmare more than once every several months, these nighttime fears are likely the result of built up anxiety seeking a release.
  • Avoidance of new settings – Children are natural explorers. If your child is uneager to venture off to new places, there is likely an anxiety issue holding him back.
  • Lack of self-confidence – If your child is constantly belittling her own skills, verbally stating that she isn’t good at anything or demonstrating a disinterest in trying new things for fear of failing, so may be the victim of an anxiety disorder.

Anxiety is a real, diagnosable medical disorder. If you see these signs in your child and suspect that she may be an anxiety sufferer, it is important for you to share your concerns with your child’s physician. Your child’s doctor can refer you to a mental health professional who can provide you with a definitive answer as to whether your child suffers from excessive anxiety. Because many of the rights your child may have as a diagnosed anxiety suffered aren’t present if the disorder isn’t diagnosed, receiving this medical validation of your fears is a necessary step.

Special Education Laws

If your fears prove to be founded and your child is diagnosed with anxiety by a medical professional, you and your child become entitled to rights. The Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act ensures that children who have special needs are provided with specialized services in the education setting. After your child receives his diagnosis, it is vital that you share this with your child’s school, as they must write an Individualized Education Plan (IEP).

An IEP is a document that outlines the specialized services that a child with a diagnosed disability will receive within the school environment. This document provides legal protection for you and your child as, upon completion, it will detail the specific things the school must do to accommodate your child’s special need. This ensures that, regardless of where your child goes to school, he is provided with the specialized attention he needs to be optimally successful despite the challenges he may face as a result of his anxiety.

Anxiety Triggers

Though children with anxiety disorders are naturally more prone to feeling anxious than their peers, there are still commonly triggers that lead to the anxiety a child feels. One of the first things you must do in seeking to fight your child’s anxiety is determine what is at the root of most of his feelings of mental unease. Particularly if your child’s anxiety levels have recently spiked, there is likely an anxiety trigger to blame. Though the particular trigger of every child’s anxiety varies slightly, some common triggers, reports upon by, include:

  • Bullying – To receiving a warm reception from peers can be upsetting for any child, but for a child who struggles from anxiety it can be profoundly problematic. Bullying is an exceptionally common anxiety trigger as being bullied makes the anxiety suffered, who already feels singled out and stressed as a result of his mental struggles, feel even more isolated from his peers and alone in the world.
  • Socialization Struggles – Some children make friends with ease, while others struggle to break out of their bubbles and socialize with same-age peers. If your child isn’t adept at going up to new people and forming the intial bonds of friendship, his anxiety may be particularly high when he is in a situation where socialization skills prove vital, such as when he starts a new school, as he will likely the skills necessary to integrate himself into the new environment into which he has been thrust.
  • Test Anxiety – Particularly if your child also exhibits perfectionism, test-taking time can prove particularly anxiety-inducing. For children with perfectionistic tendencies, taking a test means the possibility of failing exists, something that can be exceptionally scary to these desperate-to-succeed youngsters.
  • Separation Anxiety – Some children who suffer from anxiety maintain an overly close bond with their parents or with trusted friends. If your child is of this variety and is placed in a situation where he must break these bonds, stepping away from the parents or friends he is so close to, he will likely experience enhanced anxiety levels.
  • Participation Anxiety – For a child with anxiety, being the center of attention isn’t a good thing. If your child is naturally nervous, just the simple task of participating in a class discussion can be fraught with drama, as participating means drawing attention to yourself, something that children who suffer from anxiety are often loathe to do.
  • Negative Previous Experiences – The experiences your child has had previously shade his expectations of the future. If your child has had a bad experience with something in the past his anxiety may spike if he is forced to face a similar situation again. For example, if your child’s first foyer into schooling was negative, with him struggling to make new friends or having to sit in the class of a particularly mean teacher, he may experience a resurgence of his feelings of anxiety the next time he is thrust into a new school setting as he will have a preconceived idea that the situation will be a negative one.

At-Home Help

For a parent, watching a child suffer through symptoms of anxiety can be tremendously taxing. While it may feel as if there is little you can do, in truth you can play a part in easing your child’s mental anguish. Try some of these simple techniques at home to make your child’s anxiety easy to handle:

  • Teach your child relaxation techniques – For a child trying to beat anxiety, focusing on maintaining a cool head is a must. Teach your child to take deep breaths when he starts to feel anxiety rising inside of him. Provide him an object on which he can focus his energy when he gets nervous, such as a smooth button he can keep in his pocket and discretely palm when he needs some subtle soothing. Also consider teaching your child a mantra, as many anxiety suffering children find repeating phrases a simple and effective way to focus their energy and best their anxiety.
  • Preview upcoming anxiety sources – After a while, you will become skilled at guessing what situations will cause anxiety within your child. Once you are able to predict in this fashion, help your child by discussing these upcoming events before they occur and thus allowing him to prepare himself for them.
  • Listen to you child – Having an outlet for his anxious feelings can prove exceptionally helpful to a childhood anxiety sufferer. Make it a point to ask your child about his feelings nightly and listen, supportively, as he recounts his struggles. Avoid saying anything that could leave him feeling marginalized such as, “you just have to get over it.” Instead, tell him you are sorry he had to go through that and remind him of the strategies he can use to ease his feelings of unease.
  • Praise your child – For a child with anxiety, things that are easy for other youngsters may be particularly challenging. Going to crowded amusement park, for example, may be more fear-inducing than fun. If your child faces a particularly major challenge and prevails, praise him profusely for doing so. This may encourage him to put effort into beating his anxiety in the future.

Approaching the Teacher

You can’t act as your child’s only helper in fighting his anxiety. Because school can be a mine-zone for a child anxiety sufferer, it is vital that you get your child’s teacher on your side as well. With the help of this educator, you can ensure that your child receives the anxiety-fighting help he needs both at home and at school. Because the way in which you approach your child’s teach can make a major difference, keep these principles of the perfect approach in mind:

Pick the right time – If you attempt to go up to our child’s teacher in the middle of the day, when she is busy preparing for her next class or trying to divide her attention between your conversation and the misbehaving brood of students over which she is responsible you won’t get the best response. Instead, set up a meeting before or after school or attend a parent-teacher conference to ensure you have her undivided attention.

  • Don’t point out negatives – You likely won’t succeed in getting on the teacher’s good side if all you do is focus on what she hasn’t done. Don’t, for example, say “Timmy feels tremendous anxiety in your class because you make the tests seem so important.” Cut her some slack. After all, until this conversation she likely didn’t know that your child suffered from anxiety, so she can’t fairly be held accountable for not properly responding to his needs.
  • Consider her challenges – If your child’s teacher voices concerns as to how she can balance helping your child with his anxiety issues and dealing with the rest of the rigors associated with her job, don’t immediately think her un-helpful. She does have 25 students over which to watch. This means that she won’t likely be able to give tending to your child’s needs the same attention you do.
  • Brainstorm workable solutions – You know what works best for your child. When you meet with your child’s teacher, share these things with her. Explain to her what you have done at home. By doing so, you can make it easier for her to come up with things that she can do in the classroom that mirror these effective-at-home techniques you have so dutifully honed.
  • Listen to her suggestions – If your child’s teacher suggests something that you haven’t yet tried, don’t immediately dismiss it. Remember, your child’s teacher did go to school specifically to learn about child development. It is possible that she has some ideas that you have never thought of that could be workable. If you fail to give her ideas a fair shot you may ultimately be hurting your child as these potential solutions could have proven highly effective if you had allowed her to try them.

The Teacher’s Role

Teachers traditionally enter the field of education because they want to help children – all children. While sometimes this help includes simply imparting important academic lessons, in some cases children need much more tailor assistance. To help your child, who has a highly specialized need as a result of his anxiety, your child’s teacher will likely do a host of things that she doesn’t normally do when helping children who don’t suffer from this mental malady. Some common interventions for children with anxiety that you may see this teach employ include:

  • Specialized behavioral interventions – If your child experiences anxiety when his behavior is corrected, his teacher may have to modify the way in which she deals with his misbehavior. For example, if the teacher traditionally writes the names of misbehaving students on the board and this action will trigger exceptional levels of anxiety in your child, the teacher may have to do something differently to alert your child to his misconduct.
  • Seating preferences – Some students with anxiety do better in certain sections of the classroom than in others. If your child exhibits a seating preference, his teacher will likely consciously try not to assign him a seat outside of his preferred zone.
  • Extended time on tests – If test anxiety is a particular problem for your child, his teacher may allow him more time to complete the test than she allows his peers as often the time constants that are often placed on tests make them even more emotionally taxing for the test taker.
  • Cool down time – Children with anxiety often need time to decompress. Your child’s teacher may allow for this time by giving your child cool down breaks when he begins to exhibit signs of anxiety.
  • Journaling – Journaling can be an effective way to handle difficult emotions – including anxiety. Your child’s teacher may ask him to take out a notebook and write a journal about how he is feeling when he appears to be particularly anxious. This task will not only allow him time to relax and give him a medium through which to better understand his emotions, it will also help him building his composition skills.

School Administrator Assistance

While the administrators at your child’s school do not have constant contact with your child like the teacher does, they can still do much to assist your child. Administrators have the ultimate say over what goes on within a school building, this means that they are ultimately in control of what services your anxiety-stricken child does or does not receive. Some key things that they can do to assist your child in learning to the best of his ability include:

  • Zero tolerance bullying policy – If your child’s anxiety has been exasterbated by the presence of bullies within his school it is the administration that can stem this tide, not the classroom teacher. Administrators can – and in increasing numbers, do – create zero tolerance bullying policies. A policy of this type won’t just help your child but will actually assist all children impacted by bullying as students constantly exhibiting bullying behaviors will no longer be able to do so without recourse.
  • Financial support for education aides or tools – If your child’s anxiety is so severe that he needs an in-class aide or some type of stress-reducing tool, your child’s administrator will be the one who will lead the charge in getting these tools for him. Administrators hold the purse strings, so they alone can allocate the funds necessary to provide these tools for your child.
  • School counselor acquisition – Often children with anxiety are helped by engaging in regular meetings with a school counselor. Members of administration are the ones who hire counselors and create the schedules for school counselors. A school counselor can be a particularly vital tool to children with anxiety – as this individual can assist them in processing their emotions skillfully.
  • Compliance checks – Administration is also responsible for ensuring that children’s IEPs are being followed. If your child has an IEP for a diagnosed case of anxiety and some of the services to which he is entitled are not being provided, you should report this to administration as they are the ones who will need to remedy this situation or they may find themselves settled with steep fines.

Parental Recourse for Failures to Act

If your child suffered from diagnosed anxiety providing services for your child is the legal responsibility of the school your child attends. This right, protected under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA), is one that you should fight for if you feel that your child isn’t being adequately serviced. If your attempts at partnering with your child’s school have gone unanswered, escalate your concerns to the superintendent, explaining your situation and making it clear that you are aware of your rights as a parent of a child with a disability.

If, after an adequate amount of time to respond, this district-level official does nothing, contact the Office of Exceptional Children in your state. Officials at this subsection of the state Department of Education can advise you as to what you must do to file a formal complaint against your child’s school. Because escalation to this level can result in a lengthy period of litigation, it is advisable for you not to wait for response before doing what is educationally advantageous for your child, but instead for you to seek out another private or charter school more sensitive to your child’s needs and transferring your child.

As a parent of a child with anxiety, you have an obligation to your child to help him wage war against this mental challenge. By working as your child’s ally and ensuring that he receives the help that he needs, you can ensure that his anxiety doesn’t hold him back from success in school but, instead, that he is able to thrive in spite of this could-be-debilitating mental challenge.