Anxiety in School: Working with Your Child's Teacher

Health Writer

When your child has an anxiety disorder, chances are there are times when it interferes with school. A few examples of how anxiety disorders can make school more difficult:

  • When children have social anxiety disorder  (SAD), they might feel uncomfortable answering questions in class, going up to the board or making friends
  • When a child has  obsessive compulsive disorder  (OCD), he might need to complete rituals, even if those rituals interrupt the school day. He might feel anxious if unable to complete certain rituals.
  • Children with  generalized anxiety disorder  (GAD) worry endlessly. They might worry about an upcoming test, forgetting their homework, whether they are going to be called on. They might be inattentive in class (because they are worrying rather than listening) and have a hard time focusing on schoolwork.

If your child has anxiety, he might try to hide it from others. He might be embarrassed or worry about how others will react. Teachers might think that anxious children look a certain way. They might believe that they look worried, scared or sad. Although panic attacks are easier to spot - children might sweat, shake or have trouble breathing - anxiety is often a "hidden" disability.

Your child might avoid activities, act out or be quiet, keep to himself unless forced to interact with classmates. He might be considered an over-achiever or perfectionist. Your child might have physical symptoms, such as a headache or stomachache and never let anyone know. Even though your child's teacher spends hours each day with your child, he or she might never guess he has anxiety.

As a new school year gets underway, it is important for you, as a parent, to open communication with your child's teacher. Together, you can work as a team to address anxiety triggers and behaviors stemming from your child's anxiety. You can work together to make sure your child's anxiety doesn't interfere with his or her ability to learn and thrive in school.

Approaching your child's teacher

The first few weeks of a school year are hectic, for you, your child and your child's teacher. It is a time when teachers try to get to know their students, prepare lessons and get ready for the school's open house. You might see your child's teacher as you drop off or pick up your child or during the open house and other school activities and be tempted to talk about your concerns. But, this isn't the best time or place to do so. Instead, start the conversation by making a phone call or sending an email and asking for a private meeting.

It is often helpful if you give a summary of why you want to meet with the teacher, without going into much detail. You might start with, "Sandra was diagnosed with anxiety and I would like to meet to find some ways we can work together to help her through this year." If you want the teacher to give you specific information, ask before the meeting, for example, you might say, "Sandra has social anxiety disorder. It would be helpful if you can pay attention to how she is interacting with her classmates." This gives the teacher a chance to gather up pertinent information prior to your meeting.

Meeting your child's teacher

If you already have an  IEP  or  Section 504  for your child and have accommodations in place, meeting with the teacher in the beginning of the year is still helpful. Besides the strategies to manage anxiety, you might ask the teacher to pay attention to how your child is progressing, academically, behaviorally and socially during the school day. This is important information for you to share with your child's doctor. You might want to find out if the teacher has any questions about the current accommodations or how to react in certain situations. Or, you might simply want to begin a new relationship with a new teacher.

If you don't have an IEP or Section 504, your child's teacher might still be willing to work with you and your child. Most teachers will go out of their way to help the students in their classroom and appreciate you sharing information about your child. Often, teachers are willing to adopt certain accommodations without a formal document, as long as it does not interfere with teaching or prevent her from helping other students.

Your meeting should be positive and upbeat. You should remain respectful at all times. You should never accuse or demand. The purpose of this meeting is to begin to forge a partnership, one in which you are both working to help your child.

Developing strategies

Each child's anxiety and triggers are different, there are no standard accommodations. Before meeting with your child's teacher, it is a good idea to write down some areas your child has struggled in the past and what some of your child's anxiety triggers are, for example, some teachers have children choose a partner when working on a project. The stress of having to choose or worrying about not being chosen might trigger an anxiety attack. After each possible trigger, write down how you  help your child manage anxiety at home  and what other teachers have found helpful in the classroom.

Your requests should be reasonable. Remember, your child's class has many different students, all with specific needs. While this doesn't mean that you shouldn't expect any special treatment, it does mean that the teacher must be able to teach all of her students. Some strategies include:

  • Choosing teams for projects rather than allowing students to choose
  • Allowing extra time for tests
  • Allowing tests to be taken in a quiet environment
  • Regular emails to you with progress reports and advance notice of upcoming tests or projects and changes of routine, such as school assemblies
  • Writing directions on the board
  • Signalling the child before calling on them during class
  • Presenting oral reports privately
  • Allow the child to briefly leave the classroom when overly anxious (go get a drink, use the lavatory, visit the nurse or guidance counselor)
  • Make efforts to create social ties with other students, especially if your child spends lunch and recess times alone
  • Setting a reasonable time for homework rather than setting a specific number of questions to answer

These types of accommodations usually don't interfere with a teacher's ability to pay attention to the entire class, however, be respectful if your child's teacher indicates a certain accommodation isn't possible. Work together to find other ways to best help your child.

Remember, working with your child's teacher should be a positive step toward making school a healthy and positive environment for your child. If you find your child is still anxious or if her anxiety is interfering with schoolwork, consider requesting an evaluation to determine if she is eligible for an IEP or Section 504.