Anxiety in a school setting

More and more, when I am delivering training to colleagues in schools, I am asked about Anxiety and whether I believe it is affecting children's school attendance.

The short answer is "Yes" but it takes a whole lot longer to look at how we address it.

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More and more, when I am delivering training to colleagues in schools, I am asked about Anxiety and whether I believe it is affecting children’s school attendance. 

The short answer is “Yes” but it takes a whole lot longer to look at how we address it. 

Firstly, anxiety is a natural response within the body and is experienced by all of us at some point. Anxiety is designed to protect you – millions of years ago when humans were hunting woolly mammoths being alert and aware of the environment around you meant that you stayed alive and could hunt successfully. 

Our bodies are designed to respond to the environment in which we live at a number of levels. At the most basic level, the amygdala, monitors our environment with our own “fight, fight or freeze” response. This response ensures our body responds to danger by sending oxygen, fuel and adrenaline through the body allowing us to stay safe. The amygdala acts as our own mini-warrior. 

Other areas of the brain help to regulate this mini-warrior by overlaying it with facts that give us more of an explanation of our environment .e.g “we don’t need to be frightened of the tiger running towards us as it is in a cage behind bars”. This part of the brain helps us to think clearly, look at options and make decisions based on facts. 

Anxiety becomes a problem when the sensible rational part of the brain is turned off by the mini-warrior and isn’t turned on again when it is needed. When it comes to school’s anxiety can manifest itself in a number of ways:

  • Extreme and severe crying
  • Refusal to do things that require separation e.g. attend school; go to parties;   go on school trips
  • Clinging to parents or carers
  • Physical illness, such as headaches or vomiting
  • Violent, emotional temper tantrums
  • Poor school performance
  • Refusing to take part in activities e.g. reading out loud, giving presentations, taking part in new PE games, working with new partners
  • Refusing to sleep alone or having nightmares

As a parent it can be really difficult to manage anxiety and it can feel incredibly frustrating. However, it is important to avoid getting angry – which only serves to heighten the anxiety the child feels – and to avoid giving in – which can cause the anxiety to build as the situation is never resolved.

Supporting Anxiety in Schools can be difficult and requires a sensitive approach.

1) Parents should always be encouraged to seek medical help if the anxiety has been visible for more than a couple of weeks or is impacting on more than one area of life e.g. getting to school, taking part in outside activities etc. 

2) Acknowledge that anxiety is very real for that child – try to look at how that anxiety feels for them – where do they feel the anxiety, what colour is it, if it had a name what would it be called, if it was an animal what would it look like. 

3) Explain to them that what they are feeling is anxiety and what that can make the body feel like. There is a really good explanation of anxiety on the Hey Sigmund (

4) Make sure the child understands exactly what the morning routine will look like when they get to school e.g. Once you have your coat on I will drive you to school, I am going to walk you to the classroom door and have a quick chat with Miss Smith and then I am going to go to work. After work I will be back to collect you.  

5) Don’t delay the exit if the child has separation anxiety as this can heighten the anxiety. Also don’t sneak off without letting the child know you are going!

6) You can teach some relaxation techniques or breathing techniques to support the body in calming down and to allow the more rational part of the brain to kick back in – these are worth practising at home and at school. There are some great strategies available on this site  

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