Learn more about how anxiety presents in children and young people and how to support your pupils when they are feeling anxious.



What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a feeling of unease such as fear or worry. It’s one of the body’s natural responses to stress, and affects our thoughts, feelings, body and behaviour.

Anxiety activates the body’s fight-flight-freeze response. This means that the body prepares to either confront, escape or freeze in the face of a perceived threat.

Anxiety is not necessarily a mental health condition. Most of the time, anxious feelings are normal responses to stressful situations in everyday life.

Anxiety in children and young people

For children and young people in particular, some level of anxiety is normal as they grow up and learn to navigate the world.

It helps them to cope with potential threats, and understand how they feel about different situations they encounter.

Difficulties can arise when normal levels of anxiety become more severe and start impacting a child's everyday life. Anxiety can become a problem when:

  • it is constant, intense, and overwhelming
  • it occurs in response to no real threat, or the threat is exaggerated
  • it interferes with someone’s daily life and stops them doing things they want to.

Anxiety at school or college

School or college can be an anxiety-provoking environment for some children and young people.

They might be worried about friendships and fitting in, pressure to do well, or taking part in certain lessons or activities.

Experiences outside school or college, such as caring responsibilities, health issues, bereavement or other life changes can also cause children and young people to feel anxious.

Common signs and behaviours

Anxiety can present in different forms in children and young people. It generally manifests in the form of avoidant behaviours. They may seem distracted or absent-minded, agitated, hyperactive or withdrawn.

Pupils displaying challenging behaviour may also be doing so as a response to anxious feelings.

You might look out for some of the following signs and behaviours:

  • avoidance of people and places in school/college
  • difficulty concentrating
  • withdrawal from social activities
  • seeming tired, fidgety or absent-minded
  • not completing tasks or homework
  • constantly seeking reassurance
  • worrying a lot about minor issues, such as having the correct equipment
  • having frequent headaches, stomach aches, etc.
  • avoiding difficult situations, such as tests or assessments
  • frequent unexplained absences.

These behaviours aren’t always indicative of anxiety or an anxiety disorder. It’s important to raise any concerns that you might have with the student and their parents or carers, and to work with relevant staff to provide support.

How can I support my pupils?

Most children and young people who experience anxiety do not require specialist intervention. Schools and colleges can be sites of both prevention and support.

The most important thing you can do is to normalise anxiety. Explain to your pupils that it is a normal response to everyday difficulties, and that support is available to them.

It’s also important to take your pupils’ concerns seriously, particularly when they are having further difficulties with anxiety and need additional support.

You should:

  • Make yourself available: make pupils aware that you are available to talk, and share information about any other support available in your school or college.
  • Listen to understand: when discussing anxious feelings with a student, listen to them with curiosity and openness. Try to avoid making assumptions, minimising their feelings, rushing to reassure them, or telling them to ‘calm down’ or ‘relax’.
  • Teach your pupils about anxiety and wellbeing: this could include improving pupils' knowledge and understanding of what anxiety is, healthy coping strategies for dealing with it and when to seek help. You could use the Let’s talk about anxiety and We all have mental health toolkits to discuss anxiety in a lesson, assembly or in tutor time.
  • Provide structure and clear expectations: establish a consistent daily routine that pupils can rely on. Use visual aids such as schedules or calendars to help pupils anticipate any changes.
  • Create an inclusive environment: carry out an audit of your classroom to ensure it is inclusive. Use visual aids and other communication devices to support learning and communication differences.
  • Work with individual pupils to support their needs: working with pupils and their parents and carers, you might identify particular difficulties, triggers and patterns, and work together to create an individual support plan.

Concerned about a child or young person?

If you are worried that a child or young person is at risk involve your designated safeguarding lead as a matter of priority who will contact the parents/carers and other services as necessary. If the child or young person is at immediate risk, ensure that they are taken to their GP or A&E as a matter of urgency, depending on the severity of the concern.

Find out more

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