Social Anxiety

Social Anxiety

Anxiety Strikes

I have seen the panic attacks unfold. The bright-eyed child is rapt with fear and anxiety. Her hands cover her ears, her face…anything and everything to disappear. There have been a few times when she eloped to escape the feelings of anxiety that came with the environment that she found herself overwhelmed in. 

In another instance, I had to help a young student calm himself down and began to guide him through deep breathing techniques as he was incredibly overwhelmed. His feelings took him by surprise, and he hadn’t yet developed strategies to support him in these moments of uncertainty.


Anxiety in the Classroom

As a middle school teacher, I often see signs of social anxiety in the classroom. Students will wrap themselves in their hoodies, cover their faces to hide behind their hair, and speak so softly that they are barely audible or may not speak at all. It also presents as task avoidance as they don’t want to be “wrong” so instead of engaging in a task, they do whatever they can to disengage.

Students are now regularly avoiding school altogether, with proof from the national chronic absenteeism figures reported to school districts nationwide. In our Post-Covid school setting, we are doing our best to support students with anxiety, and are finding it difficult when those who need the greatest supports are not showing up to receive them. We have entered into a new era where students are exhibiting signs of anxiety of alarming proportions. 


Balancing Anxiety and School

Classroom and task avoidance is not a long-term solution. Enabling our children and students with the ability to avoid uncomfortable and/or difficult tasks will keep them from developing tools and strategies that will help them flourish.

However, pushing our children and students into completing tasks that they are not yet ready for can also produce a debilitating effect.  Finding the balance requires empowering our children with tools and strategies to support them through these difficult moments. 


How to Help Children Cope with Social Anxiety


Using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) tools are a highly effective strategy to use with our children facing high levels of social anxiety.  Clear phrases that guide expectations are very effective.  For instance, guiding our children into a classroom setting can sound like, “First we are going to find your seat, then you can use your thinking putty for a few minutes.”  This sets clear expectations, while also arming the child with a preferred task. 


Setting a Timer

I often allow students to use sensory tools in the classroom. I want to support them through the anxious moments of the day, while also not allowing them to disengage in the learning.  Many times throughout the day I will hand students a timer and ask them to stay engaged and participate for a set amount of time, before taking a sensory break for their anxiety.  This may look like a 5 minute timer for uninterrupted work on a task, and then a 1 minute timer for a sensory tool.  These intervals help the child to re-engage with the learning, while also setting a time limit so that they persist in focusing.  Of course, the time limits can change to extend or shorten the times as needed. 


Occuptianal Therapy Supports

You may be lucky enough to have your student at a school where there is an OT specialist on staff that can offer additional supports.  I worked with a team that included an OT specialist, parents, and other team teachers that worked together with the child to develop appropriate supports and strategies when dealing with social anxiety. 


How to Prepare for Social Settings

Many children and students may need to know the schedule and what the expectations are well before an even occurs. For example, if a child is going to attend a birthday party, it may be beneficial to talk about what to expect. Talk about who is going to be there and what is going to happen. It can sound like, “We are going to go to the birthday party in about 30 minutes. Your friends from school are going to be there (name them if you are certain that they are going). There will be some games and a bounce house.  If you want to play, you can, or you might just want to watch…and that’s okay too.  After the cake, we are going to head home.”

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