Editor’s Note: Some students may have a medical diagnosis of anxiety and be covered by an Individual Educational Plan. There are, however, many children whose anxiety is real but not addressed with an IEP. We hope teachers will be attentive.
As a student, seventh grade was a really scary time for me. Even now, I distinctly remember the churning in my belly every morning when I arrived at school. I was crippled by insecurity when the teacher called my name in class and all eyes turned my way. School felt aggressive and frightening. Students struggled for power and to be seen as “popular.” I began to realize that my anxiety was something that made me different from the other kids.
Although my friends in high school and college also had horror stories from middle school—usually concerning a hurtful social incident—none of them describe the fear I had felt. I decided that my experience was unique, perhaps freakish, and left it at that. Turns out, my experience wasn’t all that rare.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders affect 1 in 8 children in the U.S. These students are at a higher risk of performing poorly in school and engaging in substance abuse. It is only now as a teacher that I recognize how common anxiety is, and how crucial it is to address it at a young age. How are we helping these children feel safe and welcome in our classrooms?
Over the past few years, several parents of transferring students talked to me about their child’s anxiety. One girl stopped going to school because she was so fearful. One boy experienced such severe homesickness on an overnight school trip and he never really recovered from how his chaperones and classmates had dismissed or made fun of his panic. Another boy was so scared that he had threatened suicide if he had to go to school. Still another boy threw up in the bathroom every day.
Before we can address anxiety, we need to recognize and address it rather than dismiss it as a weakness. I naturally feel compassion for these students because of my own history with anxiety, which informs how I respond to them. Daily routines such as a morning meeting, communal lunch and regular compliments also help anxious students feel secure.
Smaller schools and intimate classrooms also make a difference. The suicidal boy is now an outgoing, confident freshman who recently starred in a school play. The homesick boy went on a four-day school trip last spring and reported that it was one of the best weeks of his life. The boy who was throwing up is now a self-assured artist and high-performing student. I have learned how crucial it is to recognize anxiety early in order to prevent severe lifelong struggles. My students have also taught me that I was not all that different after all, and that the only way out of anxiety is to face our fears with compassion.
Anderson is a middle school humanities and interdisciplinary studies teacher in Oregon.