Alternatives for Managing School-Related Anxiety
School-related anxiety can develop as the result of many different factors. Managing it can sometimes be difficult, but there are options available to help your child. It is important to be aware of the signs and symptoms of anxiety and to know when your child needs access to professional care. It is also important to support your child with compassion and understanding while you research steps that can be taken and choices you can make to help. Children often work through their anxiety while remaining in their current school setting. But, sometimes parents look for alternatives to their local public school in an effort to decrease the anxiety their child is experiencing.
Why might my child be experiencing anxiety?
Human beings are wired to react to danger or threat. For some people, the threat response is triggered more easily and is more difficult to turn off. There are several factors that can be involved when this happens.
Genetically, some people are more prone to being anxious due to the genes they have inherited. Brain chemistry can also influence levels of anxiety. Stressors in life, such as loss, illness, violence, abuse, moving, and transitions can be difficult to cope with and can also cause anxiety.
Learned behaviors can also have an impact on anxiety levels. When parents or other role models in the family setting are nervous or anxious, children often learn to react in the same way. It is important to be aware of how we, as our child’s first teacher, are expressing our emotions and reacting to our fears. Our children are watching us and, in turn, learning how to handle stress and other emotions.
What are the signs and symptoms?
According to The Cleveland Clinic, common signs of anxiety in children and adolescents include:
- Feeling nervous or "on edge"
- Unfounded or unrealistic fears
- Trouble separating from parents
- Sleep disturbance
- Obsessive thoughts and/or compulsive behaviors
- Trembling, sweating, shortness of breath, stomachaches, headaches, and/or muscle tension or other physical symptoms
As mentioned in ‘School Refusal’, by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, school-related anxiety can actually look like and be mistaken for other conditions. Some examples are:
- Poor school attendance
- Disruptive behavior
- Difficulty answering questions in class
- Frequent trips to the nurse
- Not turning in homework assignments
- Avoiding peers
When signs and symptoms like these appear, it is important to talk with your child and determine if they are experiencing anxiety.
How can I help my anxious child?
Talk with them.
If you sense your child is struggling with anxiety in the school setting, it is important to try to get them to talk with you about what is going on.
- Be honest with your child about your concerns. Let them know you are there to support them.
- Ask them open-ended questions that let them explain their thoughts as opposed to providing yes or no answers.
- Help them problem-solve for situations that make them uncomfortable.
- Talk with teachers and/or staff to see if they have noticed any changes for your child socially or in the classroom.
- Make changes at home that may help alleviate your child’s stress and anxiety.
- Keep a routine for homework and bedtime
- Provide nutritious meals and snacks
- Help your child create a plan for their days so they know what to expect. Include a calendar for completing short and long term assignments as well as schedules for activities and sports.
Take steps to alleviate anxiety.
Sometimes, despite our best efforts at home, children continue to struggle with anxiety at school. If symptoms persist, make an appointment with your child’s doctor for a physical exam. Sometimes, higher levels of anxiety are a symptom of a medical condition that can be addressed. If needed, make an appointment with a mental health professional and have an evaluation completed.
Follow through on treatment recommendations. Things can seem worse before they get better as your child learns to recognize triggers and deal with emotions differently. Communication with your child and those that work closely with them is key.
You can request a 504 plan to support your child’s success in school despite their symptoms of anxiety.
Consider other schooling environments.
When a child struggles and the pressures during the school day seem too big for them, it may be best to make a change to their environment, at least for a while. Research schools available to your child and determine which schools can provide the best environment for your child’s situation. There are alternatives to attending your local public school.
- Smaller public charter schools
- Online school your child attends from home (cyber charter schools in Pennsylvania are public schools, too!)
Any of these options can help reduce the situations that trigger anxiety, which allows your student to spend their school hours learning. However, when considering alternative options, it is important to consider “the big picture,” as well. Here are some helpful questions to ask when determining the right fit for your child.
- What supports are available in the setting being considered?
- Is the staff friendly and supportive of differences in individual students?
- Is this a temporary change or do I plan for this to be a long-term change?
- If I homeschool my child, do I have the knowledge, time, and resources to provide an adequate education?
- If I choose to send my child to virtual school, do I have the time to oversee their education and make sure they are attending classes and completing their work? Am I available to assist them as needed? Am I willing to learn about the school platforms so I can be a source of support when my child needs my help?
Why choose virtual school for my child?
Many families seek a virtual environment to help their child recover from anxiety. For some, this is a permanent change. The student and family decide this new routine and environment really work for their student and their family. Others use the learning environment as a temporary support until their child is ready to return to their local school. Whatever you decide, know that it is possible to help your child heal and grow while in a virtual school when the appropriate supports are in place.
What does success in virtual school look like for me and my child?
If you choose the virtual environment, there are things you should do to ensure your child’s success.
Wanting to be here!
Keep an open dialogue with your student as you research options for their education. When making a transition to alleviate anxiety, you want your student to regain a love of learning. It is difficult to regain that when they are not succeeding in their environment. If your student is not interested in attending a cyber school, they are not likely to apply the effort needed to succeed. Be sure this is an option that you are both willing and wanting to undertake.
Remember, your child is learning at home. This means you need to be involved and in tune to what is happening and what is expected in a different way. Make sure you understand the expectations at the school you are enrolling your child. There are a variety of models available within the virtual school option and you need to know the expectations before you commit your student.
Make sure you have the time to support your child in a virtual environment. It is important for an adult to actively oversee what is happening during the school day. Through your involvement, you can be a positive and proactive advocate for your child. Modeling a positive attitude will help them have the same perspective.
As you support your child, keep your expectations high for them. Don’t use your child’s symptoms as an excuse for failure or lack of effort. Advocate for support so your child can learn and heal at the same time.
When in school, encourage your child to socialize with their peers in the virtual classroom. Students have fun and engaging conversations. They develop friendships and become supports for one another. Outside of the school hours, you can encourage your child to stay involved in clubs, activities, and sports within your local school district and community. Many cyber charter schools also offer regional field trips for students to connect and virtual clubs that students can participate in. At PA Virtual Charter School, there are over 20 student clubs and activities available with the opportunity for students to create new clubs if there is not a current club or activity that piques their interest!
While attending virtual school during the day can alleviate some of the social stress present within the school environment, it is important to maintain or increase your child’s ability to navigate social situations. Children and adolescents need social connections. If your child experiences anxiety in social situations, their mental health professional can provide support on how best to help them.
Communicate with Professionals
Maintain your child’s treatment schedule with their mental health professional. It is critical for children to address their symptoms as early as possible in order to avoid longer term struggles.
Communicate with appropriate staff at your child’s school. They do not need to know the intimate details of your child’s struggles, but they do need to know your child is struggling in order to support them in the best way possible.
There are many reasons a child may suffer from anxiety relating to school, but, students can keep learning as they work to overcome their anxiety. Through support from loved ones, professionals, and school staff, children are able to develop the coping skills necessary to manage the stressors they experience in academic and social settings. Enrolling a child in the educational model that is best for them as an individual is important as they work through their anxiety. When a family can commit to providing the necessary school day supervision and support, in addition to prescribed therapies, the virtual setting may be a good fit for their student!
Interested in learning more about virtual charter schools? We invite you to check out The Ultimate Guide to Attending a Cyber Charter School in PA. This guide will answer your questions and paint a clearer picture about what a cyber charter school experience would look like for your child.
About the Author: Bernadette Mathis is a PA Virtual Guidance Counselor for students in grades 7-8.