Storm of Worry: When Anxiety affects the Classroom

by Debra Hake

The first time my daughter had a panic attack, it was terrifying. She was eight-years-old, her father and I had been separated for a few months, and we were staying in a different house for the first time in her life. She laid in my bed for three hours, heart racing, breathing erratic, restless and unable to lie still; crying and complaining she couldn’t calm down. I wish I could say this is the only time I sat up with her like this, but it proved to be the beginning.

Now at 14, her anxiety manifests itself in different ways. Obsessive worry, pacing and agitation, lasting from a few minutes to a few hours. Asking her if she is “ok”, often escalates the situation, and she will snapback with answers which are vague. The best response for my daughter is a quiet acknowledgement of the situation. I give her space to do what she needs, and accommodate reasonable requests. If she needs to pace, I let her pace. If she needs to walk, I let her walk, safety being my primary concern.

How do these symptoms manifest themselves in a way which is detrimental to success in the classroom? My daughter explained having a panic attack at school can be challenging. Many of the behaviors she exhibits are misconstrued as rude or apathathetic. For example, she can’t be short with people, especially teachers, when feeling agitated. Withdrawing is another symptom which makes it difficult for the person in panic to communicate. Blank stares are often what I’ll get when asking them if my daughter needs anything.

Emergency drills are another issue for my daughter. The loud screech of the fire drill bell, crowds of people filling out. Twenty-three hundred students going to the football field at once can be horribly overwhelming for her. With the understanding of her teachers, she has a modification which allows her to wear earbuds. The music is soothing, drowns out the loud alarm and allows her to focus on something besides the large crowd forming around her. Allowing her to stay near an adult or another student who is aware of her symptoms can be reassuring.

Though anxiety can be misunderstood, there is help both in the medical profession and the school system to allow students to succeed in a high level of stress. In my daughter’s case, we do have to medicate her with the help of medical professionals. We have a 504 in place to inform her teachers of her needs and limitations in the classroom. A 504 Plan ensures that a child with an identified disability, such as anxiety, can receive accommodations that will ensure their academic success.

We agreed to a 504 plan when one night my daughter fainted. One minute she was talking, and the next she hit the floor like an anvil. Plenty of blood work and a CAT scan later, her fainting was attributed to her anxiety. My daughter’s 504 plan is used as a way for me to communicate behaviors which may seem defiant to an unsuspecting teacher. If she is staring blankly, unresponsive, agitated or were to faint in class, her teachers would be aware of why and how to get her the best possible assistance.

Anxiety, especially the need to do things perfectly can keep a student from classroom participation and work completion due to a fear of making mistakes or failing. Though this may seem irrational to someone without anxiety, the person suffering, can have difficulty processing and retrieving information when their minds are full of concerns.

Sleep deprivation is another symptom of anxiety, where students have trouble either falling or staying asleep. My daughter would take hours some nights before she could soothe herself to sleep. Using music, from the app @Calm, would pacify her enough to slow her breathing and make her less restless. Without the proper sleep, I have found students have higher absenteeism or the inability to stay awake in class.

I am lucky, my daughter attends my school. My classroom is her Safe Zone and if she is having an episode, she can ask for a pass from her teacher to come see me. Often times the walk from one class to another, and sitting in a quiet place for 10 minutes is enough before she’ll be ready to go back to class.

Soon my school will be implementing a service dog program specifically designed for students with anxiety.. Though the program is on a trial basis, it allows for students in a high stress moment to find relief through specially trained service dogs. At home, our dogs are a huge stress reliever for my daughter. Students having this service available at school is the type of alternative social emotional learning more schools should enact.

Having these experiences and learning about the triggers and symptoms of anxiety, has made me more empathetic to my students who not only have anxiety, but who exhibit behaviors which may be the cause of stress. A student falling asleep often times isn’t doing so out of defiance, there is more to a story.

If a student needs a hall pass to go to the restroom, they may need that time to simply decompress. Allowing them a few minutes of time to recollect themselves, will allow a student more time of productivity than one who can’t focus due to racing thoughts. Though anxiety can be a challenge for students, parents and teachers, a little empathy and flexibility can mean a better chance of success.

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