Over the past decade, studies have shown a rise in anxiety disorders across the nation, especially in adolescents. Whether the rise is due to high expectations, the impact of social media, or current events, almost 1 in 3 people will have an anxiety disorder by the time they are 18. Out of all the mental disorders that affect children and adolescents, anxiety disorders are the most common. Anxiety is brushed off by some people as simply feeling nervous or scared, but anxiety disorders are serious mental health issues. The DSM-V defines generalized anxiety disorders as “excessive anxiety and worry (apprehensive expectation), occurring more days than not for at least 6 months, about a number of events or activities.” Many other anxiety disorders also exist, including specific phobia, social phobia, separation anxiety, PTSD, panic disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder. Due to the increasing number of adolescents with anxiety disorders, action needs to be taken, starting with one common source of anxiety: school.
According to my school’s counselor, the vast majority of the students she works with experience anxiety related to high expectations and pressure to be successful. While pressure created in the classroom is only one piece of the larger puzzle, it’s important to start there. Teachers not only affect the high expectations set for students, but they also set an example for how to treat mental health issues. I surveyed 56 students at my school, and 58.9% responded that they believed anxiety was a big problem for students at my high school. When asked what contributed to that anxiety, students said competition between students, homework load, short and infrequent breaks, and social climate.
There are many ways that teachers can adjust their classroom environment and curriculum to better accommodate students with anxiety. The list below includes both small changes and big changes recommended by the students who responded to my survey. Teachers can choose which ones they feel most comfortable with to create accommodations that make sense to them. These ideas are heavily influenced by what students at my school thought would be helpful, however, the needs at one school may be very different from the needs of another.
- Verbally recognize that anxiety is real and empathize
- Allow students to share confidentially that they experience anxiety at the start of a course
- Make individual accommodations with students
- Spend three minutes transitioning into class with a mindfulness or check-in exercise
- Send out plans for each class period at the beginning of the week
- Provide consistent structure and clear expectations
- Allow for movement and breaks during class when necessary
- Reduce the importance placed on grades
- Be clear about deadlines for assignments and communicate with students
- Reassure students they can catch up and give students options such as extensions
These accommodations target the specific needs of students with anxiety. A three minute transitional period is important as transitions from one class to another can be difficult because some students can’t think clearly if they haven’t gotten grounded. Giving students advance notice and setting clear deadlines is helpful because there will be less uncertainty. At the same time, being willing to give extensions can make a difference for students who are struggling because they know that their teacher will be understanding. Perhaps the most important accommodation on the list is openly acknowledging that anxiety is real. If students can see that their teachers empathize with their experiences, they will feel more comfortable talking to their teachers when they need help.
Right now, students need more support than ever in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the survey I conducted at my school, some students responded that their anxiety had gone up (28.6%), some responded it had gone down (35.7), and some responded it had stayed the same since they’d been in quarantine (35.7%). Prioritizing mental health in an online class is as important as prioritizing it in an in-person class. All this being said, it is important to remember that the mental health of teachers is just as important as that of the students. Most teachers aren’t trained psychologists. Being a listening ear and looking out for students is an important role teachers play, but that weight can build up. Just as teachers work to be empathetic to their students, the students should be empathetic to their teachers.
Share these ideas with students and teachers at your school! Emailing your teachers or even the administration can go a long way. Work to adapt what my classmates and I came up with to the needs of your community and add your own ideas. I would love to hear what teachers at other schools are already doing to accommodate for anxiety and other mental disorders, as well as ideas for accommodations that I didn’t mention in my project.