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How can teachers adapt their classroom and curriculum to better accommodate students with anxiety?


Background

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.


From the National Institute of Mental Health

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.


From Rogel Cancer Center

Accommodate

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.

Learn more:

https://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/emotional-problems/Pages/Anxiety-Disorders.aspx

http://www.acmh-mi.org/get-help/navigating/problems-at-school/


Empathize

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.


Works Cited

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COMMENTS: 6
  1. April 24, 2020 by Helena

    hi claire.. I really liked your project, specifically the accomodate section. i think the advice you give in this section is really great and i definitely will be incorporating your thoughts in my life. i loved the linked resources as well because it allowed me to do some exploration on my own. The idea of having 3 minutes of mindfulness to transition from one activity to another is something that I think a lot of people can easily integrate into their days. It’s a great tangible way to reduce anxiety and I think a lot of people will take it into account.

    • April 26, 2020 by Claire

      Hi Helena, I’m so glad you liked my presentation! Did you learn anything new or helpful from your exploration of the linked sources? The great thing about three minutes of mindfulness is that everyone can benefit from it, even those who don’t have an anxiety disorder. Everyone can use a little time to recenter themselves during the school day because school is generally pretty stressful. I hope you share this ideas with your school!

  2. April 26, 2020 by Sebastian

    Hey Claire! I think your project is not only important, but time relevant. In this time when things are so up in the air, teachers need to expend extra effort ensuring that students with anxiety are cared for. I thought your accommodations were overall pretty solid, and I loved the idea of drawing from your own student body, but I wish you would have drawn from other sources besides students at your school as well. I would have loved to see the addition of some professional sources in that list as to what experts think is best for students with anxiety. But as I said, you project was great, and you definitely have professional sources. I just would have liked to see them in that section. Great job!

    • April 26, 2020 by Claire

      Hi Sebastian, thanks for your feedback! Most of the ideas for accommodations I used were from students, but I also generated ideas with the counselor at my school and consulted the “Problems at School” source listed in my Works Cited for other ideas. That source talks about a wide variety of accommodations for various mental health challenges, so I had to par it down to what would be effective for anxiety, but you can check out the other ideas the ACMH had here: http://www.acmh-mi.org/?s=problems+at+school. Again, thank you for your feedback! I probably should have been more explicit that I had gotten ideas for that section from various sources.

  3. April 26, 2020 by Claire

    Hi Sebastian, thanks for your feedback! Most of the ideas for accommodations I used were from students, but I also generated ideas with the counselor at my school and consulted the “Problems at School” source listed in my Works Cited for other ideas. That source talks about a wide variety of accommodations for various mental health challenges, so I had to par it down to what would be effective for anxiety, but you can check out the other ideas the ACMH had here: http://www.acmh-mi.org/?s=problems+at+school. Again, thank you for your feedback! I probably should have been more explicit that I had gotten ideas for that section from various sources.

  4. April 27, 2020 by Conner

    Claire,

    This presentation was EXCELLENT! I loved the descriptive images, the citations of your texts, and the exploration of accommodations teachers are currently making. This is super relevant in today’s trying times. You really astounded me. I don’t have tons of ideas about new accommodations, but I know my teachers are making new virtual ideas to keep students interested like teacher appreciation days, candy give aways, etc.

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