Mental health has never been in the headlines more frequently than it has been of late. Changes in legislation have put greater emphasis on teachers and other school staff to support children with social, emotional and mental health issues (SEMH), but do you know how to detect and support anxiety in the classroom?
In their useful booklet, the Mental Health Foundation give lots of helpful guidance on how to spot anxiety. They tell us that:
Like young children, some school age children can become over-anxious. This can be a real concern for parents and professionals working with them. Signs of anxiety in children of this age include children who:
are extremely shy, timid and clinging
have real difficulties mixing with other children
have difficulty getting off to and staying asleep
have repeated nightmares (more than one a week)
have repeated complaints of headache or tummyache
are constantly asking if things are all right or other ways of asking for reassurance
The Teenage Years
Signs of anxiety in teenagers may be slightly different to those of younger school age children. They might include things like:
- under or over-eating
- being overly concerned by the way they look
- feeling very sleepy all the time
- having panic attacks
- harming themselves or others
It can be difficult to spot “problem” anxiety in teenagers as many of these behaviours are generally considered to be “normal” for children in this age group anyway! However, if they seem to be abnormal or extreme, then it’s likely that they need to be addressed.
Children with special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEND) may be more prone to suffering from anxiety. This could be due to their own physical or emotional limitations, or it could be due to the unwanted attention that they may receive from others, including bullying/being looked at differently etc. Most children have a strong desire to fit in so this can be especially distressing. Spotting anxiety in children who may have expressive limitations may sometimes be a challenge, so it’s really important for the staff who work with such children to become familiar with what is usual behaviour for that individual. In this way, it may be easier to spot if “abnormal behaviours” start to manifest as these could be early warning signs of anxiety.
Tantrums, outbursts and meltdowns
Children who are suffering with severe anxiety may express behaviours which could be perceived as “naughty” by the adults around them. Such behaviours may include things like sudden emotional outbursts, aggression, violence and refusal to follow instructions. It is important for teachers and support staff to recognise when this behaviour is out of character as there may be an underlying issue which needs to be explored. Simply “punishing” the child in question may exacerbate the issue, so it is important to explore whether there could be a reason behind it which requires appropriate support.
How can we support the children we have identified as being anxious?
We can all become anxious at times, and by adulthood, most of us have learned how to manage our anxiety. However, we are not born understanding how to do this – it is a skill and needs to be learnt. So how can we teach children to manage their anxiety?
- We must first help children to recognise what is making them anxious – this is often most effective on a one to one basis – after class/school or during break time can be ideal times for a one to one chat.
- We then need to explore ways to reduce/manage that anxiety. Some suggestions for this include:
- Talking therapy – Simply talking things through can be an effective therapy for many children and adults alike. If they prefer to do this anonymously, charities such as the Samaritans are an excellent resource. Younger children may find puppets or toys a useful vehicle for exploring their issues.
- Stress relieving activities – It can be useful to identify which activities a child finds helps them to “de-stress” and encourage them to regularly do these. For example, bird watching has been cited as being very therapeutic for anxious children and adults alike, so why not put a bird table in the school grounds and have a quiet corner for observing them?
- Controlled exposure to triggers – There are times when avoiding the things which cause anxiety is appropriate, but in many instances, it can be counter productive and result in exacerbating the issue over time. If the trigger is something that the child really needs to learn to cope with – such as going to school for those who are school-phobic – controlled exposure may be the solution. A careful plan for a phased return to school combined with some talking therapy may be an effective solution
- Controlled lead-time – For some children, time to process and anticipate an upcoming activity which triggers anxiety might be helpful – for example, children with autism may find this helpful. However, in other cases it may make the situation worse because the child has more time to worry about it beforehand. It’s important to know what works for the individual – you can find this out by chatting about with parents, carers or other professionals who work with that child or by trial and error.
- Reassuring, supporting and empowering – Although a child may have a fear or phobia which may be considered to be irrational or silly by many people, it is a very real issue for that individual, so do not belittle the fear or tell them it’s silly. Your role is to discuss it with them and discuss ways that they may overcome it. Often, the child will come up with their own solution and all you need to do is encourage that and express your support and belief in their ability to do it. This will be very empowering and encouraging in itself.
- Celebrating success – As soon as a child is showing an improved ability to deal with their anxiety, make a point of telling them that you’ve noticed and give them some support and encouragement. It’s amazing what difference a simple comment can make. Try saying something like “I’ve noticed how brave you’re being about coming into school now – well done!” to that school-phobic child (although doing this on a one to one basis may be most appropriate as most of us do not want our issues put in the spotlight in front of our peers!)
Understand that it’s a process
Children won’t learn to manage their anxiety overnight, so it’s important that both you, and they understand that it’s a process. It will take time and patience. There may be set-backs as well as great leaps forward. You must also remember that the responsibility does not fall entirely on your shoulders as their teacher or member of school support staff. As well as talking to parents and local health services, there are numerous other people and organisations who can help and offer support and resources. Some of these are suggested below:
Are you looking for an SEMH Job?
At Axcis, we work with numerous mainstream and specialist schools who are on the lookout for staff to help them support children with social, emotional and mental health (SEMH) issues. If you feel that you could be a classroom assistant or teacher in a role like this, why not register or get in touch with us today?