by Erica Garza
Many teens feel anxious juggling the demands of school, sports, work, friends, and family. This anxiety often comes and goes, but for some these anxious feelings can be constant and worsen over time, especially if left untreated. The National Institute of Mental Health reported in 2015 that 30 percent of girls and 20 percent of boys—totaling 6.3 million teens—had an anxiety disorder. There’s also a correlation between learning and attention issues and anxiety.
Anxiety can manifest in the classroom in a variety of ways. If a teen has separation anxiety, they may feel most anxious when being dropped off at school and may need breaks throughout the day to check in with their parents or caregivers. For the teen with social anxiety, they may resist participating in class or socializing with peers. Teens with a generalized anxiety disorder will ruminate, worry and struggle with perfectionism while those with obsessive-compulsive disorder might perform repetitive rituals.
However it manifests, anxiety can impede a teen’s academic and social success. They may become withdrawn, argumentative or even consider dropping out. But there are strategies that teachers can use daily to help ease anxiety in high school students and make a positive difference in their lives. Here are some tips you may want to share with your child’s teacher if your child struggles with anxiety or depression. These accommodations can help your child’s teacher make the classroom a safe and inviting place for all teens.
1. Give the Student Notice of Upcoming Changes in Routine
An anxious teen can worry over changes in routine like unexpected substitute teachers or pop quizzes. By giving the student notice about upcoming transitions and assignments, teachers can empower students with time to prepare for the future.
2. Offer Both Written and Spoken Instructions
Some students are more visual learners. Others are stronger listeners. The student who prefers written instructions may become anxious when instructions are only given verbally because they won’t be sure they can remember it correctly. Teachers can offer both written and spoken instructions so the anxious teen can be sure they haven’t missed anything vital.
3. Excuse the Teen From Public Speaking
Teens who struggle with social anxiety can panic at the prospect of speaking aloud in class and possibly being laughed at by their classmates. Teachers may consider allowing the student to present separately in a more private setting or to bring in a recording of their oral report in lieu of presenting live.
4. Assign a Designated Buddy During Lunchtime
While lunchtime, recess, and other breaks can be a time of fun and camaraderie for some teens, others who suffer from anxiety may dread these unstructured blocks of time. By assigning a student a designated buddy or randomly creating ties between small groups of students, the teacher can help the anxious teen feel less alone.
5. Reduce Homework
For teens with anxiety, the pressure of assignments, tests, and deadlines can paralyze them with fear and panic. They may even stay up too late trying to complete assignments, resulting in poor sleep and even more anxiety. Teachers should consider reducing homework for students with anxiety or providing time estimates for each assignment so they don’t obsessively redo or re-check their work all night.
6. Give Extra Time for Tests
The anxious student may need extra time for tests because the thought of getting even one question wrong fills them with dread. It may also help if teachers designate a private test-taking space to prevent performance anxiety.
7. Teach Self-Calming or Mindfulness Techniques
For emotional support, teachers can remind the teen of self-calming or mindfulness techniques that may have been taught to them by their counselor or therapist, such as slow breathing or meditation.
By demonstrating patience and being present to an anxious student’s needs, both parents and teachers can work together to help struggling teens. A teen who feels understood at home and at school is less likely to feel ashamed about his or her challenges, and more likely to feel empowered to face them.
Erica Garza is an author and essayist from Los Angeles and a mother of one. She holds a master’s degree from Columbia University. Her writing has appeared in TIME, Health, Glamour, Good Housekeeping, Women's Health and VICE.