School is a critical place of learning, development, socialization, and fun; however, for many children school can be a perfect storm of stressors. The average school day requires a child to separate from their parents, interact with potentially judgmental peers, face academic worries, speak in front of others, and tolerate being trapped in a busy, school building, among many other potential stressors! For anxious children, the school day can feel like a minefield full of challenging obstacles to overcome.

Teachers are the front line of support for your anxious child – in many cases they spend as many or more waking hours during the school year with your child than you do! However, research suggests that anxious children often fly under the radar in the classroom or their anxiety is misunderstood (such as a child who becomes cranky or aggressive when he is anxious). It is up to parents and caregivers to partner with your child’s teacher to ensure the teacher is aware of their child’s needs and thus more able to support anxious children during the school day. Read on for some ideas to get you started in partnering with your anxious child’s teacher.

Get Curious

Prior to contacting your child’s teacher, try to understand what makes school difficult for your child. Do they fear tests? The cafeteria? Particular times of the day? In a gentle, non-judgmental way, try to discuss what makes the feared situation so difficult for your child. For example, some children feel anxious at lunchtime because they worry about talking to peers while others are overwhelmed by the noise of the cafeteria, while still others may fear germs or getting sick. Once you understand what makes your child anxious in school, gently explore if they are avoiding their feared situations. Sometimes avoidance is very apparent, such as the child who refuses to get out of the car in the morning to avoid separating from their parent. However, avoidance also often disguises itself in seemingly innocuous activities such as frequent trips to the nurse’s office or choosing to play on the computer rather than socializing with peers. Understanding what your child does and does not avoid is an important first step in helping them face their fears. Once you have a sense of your child’s perspective on how anxiety gets in the way at school, it’s time to…

Partner with Your Child’s Teacher

Step 1: Build a Relationship

Your child’s teacher can be a wealth of information and your most valuable partner in your child’s fight against anxiety at school. Approach this relationship as you would any other important relationship in your life. Be respectful of the teacher’s time, knowledge, and opinions. Though you may be tempted to approach the teacher as soon as possible, set up a time to speak such as before or after school rather than approaching the teacher at busy drop-off or pick-up times. It is helpful to briefly explain why you want to meet with the teacher, including describing particular areas of difficulty for your child that you would like the teacher to monitor before the meeting.

Step 2: Perspective Take

At the meeting, listen to the teacher’s observations of your child with an open mind and maintain a positive and respectful tone. Note areas of difficulty or avoidance you may not have been aware of that the teacher has noticed. Get a sense of if they have tried anything to help your child thus far and how it has worked. Keep in mind that teachers become teachers because they care about and want to help children grow. You and your child’s teacher likely share many goals for your child.

Step 3: Share Your Experience

Anxiety can take on many forms so educate your child’s teacher about how anxiety typically manifests in your child. Anxiety can present in the more stereotypical way such as avoiding speaking and showing physical symptoms like turning red, shaking, or crying, but might also include getting “stuck” in rigid thinking, or appearing irritable or aggressive. Explain your child’s style of showing distress to clear up any potential misconceptions about what is driving your child’s behavior in class. Additionally, share what has been helpful in managing your child’s worries at home. Explore how these strategies might be feasibly and sustainably adapted to your child’s classroom environment. Consistency between environments is a key component for helping anxious children overcome their worries.

 Step 4: Make a Plan 

Collaboratively decide on some strategies for your child’s teacher to try over a time limited period. These strategies might be based on what you already do at home and/or techniques the teacher has previously used to support anxious children in the classroom. If your child is working with a therapist, it can be very helpful to include the therapist’s ideas for classroom accommodations as well. Try to make the strategies as concrete as possible, such as moving your child’s seat, allowing your child to give speeches one on one to the teacher, access to a non-distracting fidget toy or allowing your child to take brief breaks from the classroom as needed. Throughout this process, keep in mind that your child’s teacher has as many as 25 or 30 other children to help in class. Try to develop a plan that’s realistic and sustainable.

After agreeing on a plan, introduce the changes to your child. Let them know that their teacher is working with you both to fight anxiety and that there will be new supports in their classroom to help them be brave. Set a meeting or phone call with the teacher to evaluate how the plan is going in a few weeks. Plan to look for specific clues that your child is feeling more comfortable or is more able to push through his anxiety in the classroom such as increased hand raising, time in class, or participation in group discussions. If your child is successfully pushing back on anxiety in the classroom with the support of these new strategies- keep up the good work! If not, brainstorm additional strategies to try with the teacher. Test these out, meet to evaluate, and repeat until your child is better able to manage anxiety at school.

When to Seek Additional Support

If your child’s anxiety is impairing his or her academic performance and consistent classroom management strategies and support have not seemed to help, consider asking your school to evaluate your child for special education accommodations. These accommodations, such as a 504 Plan or Individualized Education Plan (IEP), are designed to ensure your child receives appropriate supports in the school environment. Also consider seeking out a therapist who specializes in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for child anxiety. Learn more about finding a therapist here.

If your efforts to partner with your child’s teacher have gone unanswered, contact your child’s principal or district superintendent. Explain the situation and advocate for your child’s rights. To learn more about your rights in the school setting as the parent of a child with social/emotional needs, go to the website of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 2004.

by Julia Martin Burch, PhD

This Article's Author

Julia Martin Burch, PhD is a staff psychologist at the McLean Anxiety Mastery Program at McLean Hospital in Boston. Dr. Martin Burch completed her training at Fairleigh Dickinson University and Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School.She works with children, teens, and parents and specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety, obsessive compulsive, and related disorders. Outside of her work at McLean, Dr. Martin Burch gives talks to clinicians, parent groups, and schools on working with anxious youth.