Children with Anxiety: IEPs in School

Health Writer
Medically Reviewed
iStock

When children suffer from anxiety disorder, their school performance may also suffer. Anxiety symptoms can show up in school in many different ways:

  • Poor test performance. Children with anxiety can "freeze" when it is time to take a test and sometimes, even though prepared for the test, their mind goes blank as soon as the test is in front of them. Teachers may think students are unprepared or don't care.
  • Distraction. Distraction and the inability (or decreased ability) to concentrate are symptoms of anxiety. Anxiety can cause consistent and non-stop worrying. During the school day, children are measured based on their performance and children with anxiety can have constant anxiety over whether their performance is "good enough." Worrying causes distraction and the inability to focus on the work being taught or in the ability to recall previous known information.
  • Panic attacks. Children with panic disorder are faced with stressors everyday, all day during school. From having to speak in front of class, to the worry of getting into trouble, to having a pop quiz, students with anxiety are faced with stressful situations, all of which are able to bring on an anxiety or panic attack.
  • Social anxiety. Social anxiety causes problems in peer relationships. In addition, a child can experience severe anxiety if they need to read or speak in front of the class, or work in a group with other students. Students with social anxiety disorder can have difficulty concentrating and falling grades.
  • Behavioral problems. Sometimes children with anxiety will use disruptive behaviors to avoid anxiety-producing situations. Students may skip class, not hand in schoolwork, or talk in class rather than listening to the teacher. Frequently, this disruptive behavior is a reaction to feelings of anxiety rather than a behavioral problem.

When anxiety interferes with a child's ability to learn, he or she may be eligible for special services and accommodations within the classroom. One federal law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) may be able to help. According to this law, a child must be evaluated to determine if he or she is eligible for services.

IDEA includes a provision for children with "Other Health Impairment." According to the U.S. Department of Education, this is defined as:

"Having limited strength, vitality, or alertness, including a heightened alertness to environmental stimuli, that results in limited alertness with respect to the educational environment, that -

(i) Is due to chronic or acute health problems such as asthma, attention deficit disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, diabetes, epilepsy, a heart condition, hemophilia, lead poisoning, leukemia, nephritis, rheumatic fever, sickle cell anemia, and Tourette syndrome; and (ii) Adversely affects a child's educational performance."

Although anxiety is not specifically mentioned, it can be included, based on the level of a child's anxiety disorder and how much it may interfere with their abilities in school.

In order to be eligible for special services, a child must be medically diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and it must be shown how this anxiety interferes with his or her ability to learn and function within the school setting. A school must perform the evaluation; however, parents can submit a written request for the evaluation to be completed. When submitting a request, a parent may want to include a written diagnosis from the child's doctor or mental health provider, including information on how the anxiety is adversely impacting the child's abilities in school.

If a student is found to be eligible for an IEP, a meeting with school professionals and parents will be set up. During this meeting, accommodations and modifications will be discussed. Some ideas of accommodations and modifications include:

  • Creating a safe place for the child during times of high anxiety
  • Allowing time at the beginning of the day and the end of the day for transitioning
  • Allowing the child time to use relaxation techniques at time of high anxiety
  • Using small group activities throughout the day
  • Providing information on any changes in schedule and helping the student cope when these situations occur
  • Incorporating time for exercise into the school day
  • Adding extra time for test-taking or allowing the student to take tests in the resource room or library

For a more complete list of possible accommodations, see 20 Classroom Interventions for Children with Anxiety Disorders.

Eligibility for an IEP is rather strict, and students with anxiety may be found ineligible. In these cases, parents can appeal the decision or request evaluation for services under Section 504.