How Anxiety Shows Up At School and why it often looks like something else

 In Anxiety/Worry

Anxiety in schools is a widespread concern and impacts as much as 25% of children, according to recent research.  It is easy to spot when kids express worries, fears, or being nervous about a test or project. Most of the time, it’s not so obvious.  Kids present anxiety in a number of different ways that can be difficult to spot.  

It shows up as all kinds of other things from anger and defiance to stomach aches and trips to the nurse.  

Here are 7 ways that anxiety shows up at school:

  1. Inattention

Of course when you think of inability to focus and a child who can’t sit still, ADHD comes to mind, and rightfully so.  But Anxiety could be the culprit as well! Kids who are anxious are overwhelmed and distracted by their anxious thoughts; so much so that it can make it really difficult to concentrate on what’s going on in class.  It’s important to consider that the child’s restlessness and lack of focus could actually be triggered by anxiety.

  1. Avoiding or refusing school

Sometimes school in general causes a great deal of anxiety for kids.  When this happens, they may refuse to get on the bus or out of the car.  They might have a tantrum in the mornings leading up to the time they leave for school.  Sometimes children refuse to go to school altogether, complaining of various symptoms, such as headaches or stomach aches.  Chronic absences also can lead to problems with truancy and falling behind in school due to poor attendance. School refusal is usually worse after a long weekend or an extended break (Thanksgiving, winter, spring break, summer) and kids have a hard time adjusting to being back in school.

Separation anxiety happens when a child’s anxiety is triggered by having to leave their parent.  Many kids experience some degree of separation anxiety, and this is normal. However, over time when kids don’t adjust to the idea of separating from parents, it can be a difficult battle getting them to go to school at all. 

  1. Loud and Disruptive

In my 30 years as an educator, I  heard many teachers and parents confused by anxious children being loud and disruptive in class.  Often they will ask “if they are anxious, shouldn’t they be quiet and nervous, NOT wanting to call attention to themselves?”  

The truth is, no, not necessarily.  Children who are loud and disruptive in school are often labeled as defiant and experience discipline consequences like detention or in-school suspension.   

Children often display anger or aggression in response to their anxiety.  When they are overwhelmed with anxiety and don’t know how to manage, they can feel threatened which triggers their amygdala – the area of the brain in charge of adrenaline and fight-or-flight response.   This is why some kids shut down, but others are likely to engage in “fight” when they feel out of control. When that happens they might yell, throw things, push people or objects, or even hit another kid. 

  1. Shut Down

Along the same lines, when a child feels overwhelmed with anxiety and their fight or flight response kicks in, they may engage in “flight”.  Kids in this state may sit in their desks and do nothing, staring at their work, or even “shut down” entirely, put their head down, refuse to respond, or even go to sleep.  They may even leave the classroom without permission. Shutting down looks a lot like lack of motivation or laziness but consider that it may actually be anxiety and the child does not know how to manage it.

  1. BFFs with the Nurse

Every school nurse knows a handful of students they refer to as their “frequent flyers.” They seem to have some type of unexplained ailment daily and need to visit the nurse or call home.  Anxiety can show up as unexplained physical symptoms too, such as nausea, headaches, or vomiting. 

  1. Not doing work

Kids with anxiety sometimes start to doubt themselves and are afraid their work isn’t good enough.  They may even get stuck in a loop of second-guessing themselves. When that happens they may just stop doing their homework or not turning it in.  In their mind, if they don’t do it, then they can’t get negative feedback or fail. Sometimes this behavior gets mistaken for a learning disability, but anxiety is really the root.

  1. Avoiding more social places at school

Social anxiety is when children are overly self-conscious, to the point where it is difficult for them to participate in social activities or situations with their peers.  Sometimes students experience this type of anxiety when they have to perform, such as speaking in front of others or try out for something. Social anxiety can also look like being excessively self-conscious in social situations in general. Anxious thoughts that get stuck in a loop for kids with social anxiety can include: 

”What if I don’t have somewhere to sit?” 

“What if I say the wrong thing?”

“What if I don’t know what to do?” 

“What if I offend someone?” 

“What if I get embarrassed?” 

“What if I don’t know anyone?” 

Students may avoid PE or the cafeteria where they feel they may be judged if they do something wrong in front of others.  In elementary school, students might refuse to participate or go to lunch. In middle school and high school, students may skip class, hide in the bathroom, or even use substances in an attempt to manage their anxious thoughts.  

If your child is having difficulty in school, take a look at the behaviors they are displaying and consider possible causes of the behavior.  Anxiety could very well be a trigger. Talk with your child about their day. Ask them what’s on their mind and how they feel about the situations giving them the most trouble.

A skilled therapist can help you and your child identify the situations that cause them anxiety and learn healthy ways to manage their feelings.  

Does your child display some of these school behaviors? Let’s connect!  Call us or email to connect with a licensed therapist who specializes in children and adolescents with anxiety.  

940-222-8552 or info@redeemedlifecounseling.com

Sherry Allen, MEd, MA, LPC, EMDR

Licensed Professional Counselor

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