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Teenage anxiety and learning in school

Teenage anxiety can have a profound effect on learning. Dee Doherty, educator, author and former special needs adviser, looks at some of the causes of teenage anxiety and suggests what schools and individual teachers can do to address this issue.
Teenage Anxiety

Written by Dee Doherty, MEd Psych

Teenage anxiety reflection

Last weekend, I received an email from one of my junior students (Year 9). He was worrying about a school assessment – presenting the speech he had written. Even though I had already said it could be delivered privately to me, an audience of one, he was feeling anxious.

I sent what I hoped was a reassuring response that in the grand scheme of things, his wellbeing was more important. So, I told him that if he had already written his speech, I would be supportive and help him present it. Then I told him to relax and enjoy his weekend.

I could feel the student’s relief radiate from the screen. He was so grateful.

However, I felt awful! What had I done as his teacher to instil such fear? Was it me, the task or both? I began to question whether it was unreasonable to expect students to push themselves beyond their comfort zone.

After some deliberation, I assumed it was not unreasonable, but my job. As their teacher, I must support, encourage, and understand through this process.

Lately, I am noticing more and more students in my classes being diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. Sometimes along with depression. This has been rightly ‘flagged’ by our special education needs coordinator (SENCO). But why has it apparently become so prevalent in recent years? And what can we, as teachers, do to help these students?

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a normal response, born of worry. In many respects, it is seen as a mechanism to keep us safe. It would be unusual not to feel anxiety in potentially high-risk situations or before a test.

However, when anxiety is excessive and stops someone from functioning, it can become a clinical disorder. This type of diagnosis can be subdivided into generalised anxiety, phobias, and other related conditions. It can also cause panic attacks: over breathing, heart palpitations, nausea, sweating and feelings of light-headedness.

teenage anxiety

 

Some reasons for anxiety in teenagers

Anxious children will often grow up to be anxious teenagers. However, many young people will not develop anxiety until after puberty. For reasons such as the following (recognising that for many individuals, the reasons are complex, with many factors contributing):

Physiological changes

As teenagers begin to metamorphose into their adult form, their brains and bodies undergo rapid physiological changes. They can sometimes feel adrift and insecure. Hormonal changes – testosterone surges in males and hormonal shifts due to menstruation in females – are often a recipe for stress and teenage anxiety.

Relationship changes

With physiological changes come changes in behaviour. Hormonal activity can result in irritability, tearfulness, and impulsiveness, all of which have an impact on relationships. The relationship changes can become worse when teenagers seek more independence and emotional distance from their parents. They shift their focus to social interactions and friendships but navigating this change can also be problematic and stressful.

Social pressures and fitting in

During your teenage years, it becomes much more important to feel acceptance by your peers. This can lead to unhealthy comparisons with others, and a fear of being seen as different. Peer pressure and bullying can also trigger social anxiety, especially in timid and naturally shy teenagers. Anxiety can manifest in eating disorders as well.

High expectations

Anxiety is usually caused by an overwhelming sense of fear and failure. Often linked with other people’s expectations and worrying about letting them down. The requirement to complete exams and tests can contribute to and escalate anxiety.

Other factors

Many teenagers are developing anxiety due to wider issues – in particular, world events such as climate change and COVID-19.

Isolation is another factor contributing to teenage anxiety. Psychiatrist Dr Nicole Racine and colleagues state that diagnoses of anxiety and depression among adolescents doubled during the pandemic.

teen anxiety

Treatment of anxiety

There are various ways to help improve teenage mental health, from supporting them to make lifestyle changes to providing counselling. A specialist, usually a psychologist or psychiatrist, should be involved in treating generalised and other forms of anxiety.

As treatment for mild to moderate anxiety, a teenager might:

  • get involved in sports and regular exercise
    eat a healthy, well-balanced diet – too much sugar, a high-fat diet and other poor eating habits can worsen anxiety
  • establish good sleeping patterns
  • reduce time on social media
  • redirect their energy into hobbies and interests
  • have meditation or mindfulness training.

The most effective clinical treatments for anxiety disorders are cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) and selective serotonin-reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) medications.

Impact in the classroom

Untreated anxiety can present in several ways in the classroom and is not always easy recognise. Signs to look out for are where students:

  • are unable to concentrate
  • avoid tasks
  • are agitated or irritable
  • undergo physical changes (such as weight change, shaking, sweating)
  • are tired
  • respond emotionally
  • do not engage in their work or with teachers and other students
  • experience stomach aches and headaches
  • frequently need reassurance.

teenage anxiety and learning

What schools can do

Being anxious makes learning difficult as the brain is unable to function (stress is triggering a flight-or-fight reaction). Students need to be calm to perform to their best ability and learning to manage anxiety is an important life skill. Therefore, students need to feel safe (emotionally and culturally) in their classrooms.

By accepting student anxiety, we can enable them to achieve. In particular, teachers can:

  • educate students about the developmental changes they are experiencing and related mental health issues
  • build supportive relationships with students and regularly talk to and check in with them about their wellbeing
  • be alert to any changes in student behaviour and wellbeing
  • contact the school counsellor for advice and possible referral
  • contact the SENCO, dean and/or form teacher and put a support plan in place for the student
  • inform parents/caregivers of the concern (through the school counsellor or dean)
  • reassure the anxious student, be sympathetic to them and alleviate pressure for them
  • adapt tasks to meet the student’s needs
  • establish routines to give the student predictability and security
  • set clear expectations and manage the behaviour of other students
  • give the student positive and constructive feedback
  • have exit cards and provide safe, quiet spaces for the student to go to if they are not coping.

The student I mentioned in my introduction did his speech. And afterwards he was commenting on how proud he felt for overcoming his anxiety. I applauded his bravery as much as his speech.

About the author

Dee Doherty has been an educator for over 30 years. In this time she has been a primary school teacher, a special needs coordinator, a behaviour specialist for the prestigious Schools’ Support Team, Tower Hamlets in the United Kingdom, a resource teacher of learning and behaviour and an adviser for special education in New Zealand. She completed her masters degree in educational psychology at Massey University in 2004. She is currently Head of Literacy at Spotswood College, New Plymouth, New Zealand.

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