The Anxious Classroom: Helping an anxious child


Posted on February 5, 2019 at 3:06 pm


“Present fears are less than horrible imaginings”
Shakespeare, Macbeth Act 1, Scene 3

They say everyone grieves in different ways, but somehow we expect anxiety to have one face.

When I first became a teacher I was unprepared for the range of presentation I would encounter in the classroom, including dealing with many an anxious child. My training included lectures on SEND, but what I knew in practice could have been written on the back of a stamp, never mind a postcard. I soon learned that an anxious child might present as a quiet fearful individual, for whom cost of a day’s compliance would mean emotional eruptions at home; there might be the rigid posture and ‘defiant’ refusal of PDA, or there might be violent outbursts – throwing furniture, hitting, biting. I learnt that a child might call something ‘boring’ they meant was difficult. I learnt that fear was the root of many negative behaviours, that a happy child would be eager to learn, and a fearful or distressed child would not. I learnt the resulting attainment gap reinforced the children’s attitudes to their learning, both positive and negative.

There is a lot to fear in the school day. New and rigid routines, designed for a cohort rather than an individual. Loud noises – the bells, the yells and whoops at break, the chatter, the scraping of chairs on the floor at lunchtimes. Hour by hour, judgement and demands, social and educational, by adults and by peers. Work to be finished, graded. Ability groupings. There was a vogue at this time for labelling lolly sticks with each child’s name and picking a stick at random for responding to questions; for an anxious child who finds answering the register a predictable daily challenge, this is highly arousing. Some children thrive in a busy, competitive environment where everyone is given a place and a worth – the Red Table, Top Set, Lower Ability, Pupil Premium, SEND; others struggle, silently or aggressively.

How to help an anxious child

There are ways to help with ‘horrible imaginings’, given the time and will to address them. Communication is key. If your child has triggers, tell school – the issues might not be as obvious to others as they are familiar to you. ‘Horrible imaginings’, explained and prepared for, lose their power  and mystique. Knowing what will happen next, who will be on duty, how the school trip will work and what your new classroom will look dispels some of the fear of the unknown and goes a long way towards making change manageable.

In a safe environment, the anxious child can begin to articulate their fears. It is here that the work begins. Education asks children, quite rightly, to extend their comfort zone. This is as it should be. Expectations must be high, but we should approach rising to meet as a joyful challenge rather than a fearful obligation, where bravery of attempt and effort is as praiseworthy as success.

Carers and educators working together to understand, support and communicate with the anxious child is an effective model. Time invested early benefits everyone in the longer term.

Contact us today to discuss your needs and to see how we can help.

Cate West has taught in schools, nurseries and children’s centres for many years and is currently a Family Learning Tutor and freelance writer.