Recognising children’s hidden anxiety in school

Anxiety is a natural physiological response to a perceived threat in the environment, which can take many forms and manifest differently in different people. It’s essential to understand that children who exhibit anxiety may show it in different ways, such as avoiding situations that trigger their fears or feeling an overwhelming urge to escape from uncomfortable situations. Although some degree of anxiety is normal, persistently high levels of anxiety in children may interfere with the child’s everyday life, leading to school avoidance or refusal.

Children who experience anxiety in school often try to hide their struggles and appear composed, even when they are emotionally distressed internally. Masking or camouflaging refers to the behaviours that children may adopt to hide their anxious feelings from others. This could be because they’re trying to avoid negative judgment, don’t understand their emotions, believe they should manage these feelings independently, or internalise their emotions so as not to draw attention to themselves.

This can make it challenging for parents, teachers, or caregivers to recognise the symptoms of anxiety, as the signs may not be apparent or may be misinterpreted as something else.

Environmental factors such as authoritarian parenting, non-restorative behavioural systems in schools, and different forms of abuse can contribute to the development of masking behaviours. People may adopt masking as a coping mechanism or response to trauma, either subconsciously or consciously. Based on my experience working with schools and parents, it is crucial to prioritise the social, emotional, or learning needs that underlie masking or camouflaging behaviours.

Many teachers often report that children with masking behaviours perform well in school, have friends, and do not seem to exhibit any issues, so they do not need additional support. However, parents report that their children’s behaviour changes drastically when these children return home. They may experience meltdowns, display anger and frustration, and show high levels of anxiety. As these children get older, especially when they reach secondary school, they may even turn to self-harm as a way to cope with negative emotions, particularly anxiety.

It is important to recognise that some children within the school system may conceal their worries and conform to social norms and expectations that might not reflect their true selves. Therefore, it is necessary to look beyond the surface and understand their personalities in a holistic way. Masking their feelings can prevent teachers from identifying their actual academic potential or any learning difficulties they might be facing. Identifying anxiety in children can be difficult, particularly when they attempt to hide it.

By recognising the signs of anxiety early on, schools and parents can take proactive steps to provide the necessary support and care.

Behavioural indicators of anxiety in school

• Sudden shyness or withdrawal from participating in class
• Increased irritability or agitation towards peers or teachers
• Frequent requests to visit the bathroom
• Displaying perfectionist tendencies and becoming upset over small mistakes
• Resistance to going to school or significant distress during school mornings
• Expressing negative opinions about school or a reluctance to attend school.

Academic and learning indicators of anxiety in school

Anxiety doesn’t just affect a child emotionally but can also impact their academic performance and engagement. Some academic and learning indicators include:

• A noticeable decline in grades or homework completion
• Difficulty concentrating during lessons or on assignments
• Avoiding asking questions or seeking help due to fear of embarrassment
• Procrastination or an unwillingness to start tasks
• Difficulty with processing high levels of verbal instructions or coping with curriculum demands
• Working memory and sensory issues
• Speech, language, communication difficulties.

Social & Emotional Indicators of anxiety in School

Children who hide their anxiety may struggle to form and maintain friendships or comprehend how friendships work. Social anxiety can appear in various situations, such as feeling isolated in the playground, avoiding interaction with peers, withdrawing themselves during break times or avoiding participating in peer group activities in the classroom, and feeling less capable compared to other peers. Children who conceal their anxiety may experience low self-worth, apprehension of failure, and fear of rejection by peers or being perceived as different or unusual.

Working together and Connecting with the child

To address these issues, parents, school staff, and Educational Psychologists should work collaboratively to identify the underlying problems that lead to masking behaviours. The next step is to connect with the child and understand their perspective on the world, their coping mechanisms, and any underlying learning difficulties they may have. Every child, regardless of any diagnosis, should be treated as a unique individual, taking into account the environmental factors that impact their behaviour.

It is essential to create a support network for these children and to develop interventions that are tailored to their personalities, strengths, and needs.

Increasing awareness and understanding of anxiety

Raising awareness about anxiety in children and its impact is crucial. Schools can organise informative sessions for staff in collaboration with other professionals, such as Educational Psychologists, and highlight the significance of empathy and support. Teachers can learn about the various types of anxiety and how anxiety can affect learning, behaviour, and social interactions. With increased understanding, school staff can approach anxious students with compassion and create an environment that is welcoming and inclusive for all children.

Creating a safe and supportive environment is essential in helping kids feel secure and valued. This involves establishing a classroom that celebrates diversity, encourages kindness, and respects each child’s unique needs. A predictable routine can also be immensely comforting to anxious children, reducing stress by removing the fear of the unknown. Additionally, teachers can designate a quiet, cosy spot in the classroom where a child can go to calm down when feeling overwhelmed.

Encouraging open communication

It’s essential to foster a culture where children feel comfortable sharing their feelings without fear of judgment. Teachers and school staff can model this behaviour by openly discussing emotions and coping strategies, emphasising that it’s okay to feel anxious. Regular check-ins with students can help school staff gauge their emotional state and provide support as needed. Creating an anonymous way (such as nonverbal signals in the classroom ) for students to express their worries or ask for help can also encourage those hesitant to speak up.

Developing personalised strategies and accommodations

Once individual needs and triggers have been identified, the next step is to develop personalised strategies and accommodations. This might include adjustments to the classroom setting, like providing a quiet space for the child to take breaks, modifications to assignments to reduce pressure, or the use of calming techniques and tools such as stress balls or relaxation exercises. Teachers can also communicate with the child using clear and reassuring language and foster a buddy system where peers can offer support. Implementing these accommodations helps anxious children feel seen and supported, enhancing their ability to participate in class and engage with their peers.

Promoting relaxation techniques

Teaching and practising relaxation techniques during the school day can offer immediate relief to anxious children and equip them with long-term coping skills. Simple breathing exercises, guided imagery, or mindfulness activities can be seamlessly integrated into the daily routine, helping students learn how to calm their minds and bodies. Encouraging participation in physical activities like sports or yoga can also be beneficial, as exercise is a powerful stress reliever.

Recognising and supporting children with anxiety in school is important for their overall well-being and academic success. Identifying the hidden signs early on can make a significant difference in a child’s life, giving them the support they need to face their challenges with confidence.


Similar Posts