7 tips for reducing student anxiety in the classroom

4 mins read
Eliescha Bazley

One of the greatest mental health concerns for young people is the prevalence of anxiety, according to recent reports by OECD. Because anxiety can often manifest as disruptive behaviour in your classroom, it’s important to think about strategies to keep everybody safe.

1. Building strong connections

“…one major threat to students’ sense of belonging at school is their perception of negative relationships with their teachers.”

Andreas Schleicher.

It’s easy to cut our losses with difficult students and focus on the students who aren’t difficult to manage in our classrooms. However, those challenging students can be the ones who would benefit the most from developing strong connections with their teachers.

Taking proactive steps to foster better relationships may include:

  • Being empathetic towards students
  • Calling home to discuss a student’s needs
  • Being mindful to treat students equally
  • Knowing the signs of anxiety in children and teenagers
  • Building a support network (parents/teacher/school/counselor)
  • Increasing positive interactions with the student
  • Promoting tolerance, respect, and safety in your classroom

If you are fortunate enough to work in a supportive school environment, ask for help if you need it. Reach out to your colleagues or executive staff for classroom support for students and objectively document concerns on your school’s student records to help in the development of behavioural support plans.

2. Assigning classwork

For some students, seeing all the work that needs to be done can make them feel overwhelmed and unsure of where to begin. Anxious students will also be reluctant to ask for help, and we can mistake this for laziness and disruptive behaviour.

Lesson planning to reduce anxiety can involve:

  • Teaching/Modeling relaxation techniques
  • Teaching appropriate problem-solving techniques
  • Breaking down activities into smaller parts
  • Providing more instruction/structure/assistance for struggling students
  • Making accommodations when completing activities
  • Allowing short breaks
  • Ensuring opportunities for success

Remind them that your expectation is that they’re making a strong effort in class. Discuss personal goals for the class and encourage them to view their achievement of those goals as being successful.

Student anxiety in the classroom
Anxious students will also be reluctant to ask for help, and we can mistake this for laziness and disruptive behaviour.

3. Providing advanced warning

Research consistently shows that “when students are low in perceived control, they are more likely to engage in counterproductive behaviour…”. Knowing what to expect can really help to reduce a student’s anxiety.

Make sure there are no stressful surprises by:

  • Creating a visual activity board/writing daily schedule
  • Providing detailed unit/assessment/test schedules
  • Checking-in at regular intervals
  • Implementing predictable, structured procedures
  • Allowing extra time for transitions
  • Briefly overviewing tomorrow’s lesson
  • Having a signal for when they need clarification

Implementing daily classroom routines can assist whole classroom management because it removes confusion about your expectations. It also helps you during challenging times to confidently fall back on a tried and tested procedure.

4. Reducing fear of failure

Fear of failure and looking stupid can be paralysing. It has been linked to student disengagement, truancy and feelings of helplessness across the world. Unfortunately, our education system is test-driven and focused on limited skillsets, and this can set students up to fail.

Reframing the idea of success as growing and do better involves:

  • Focusing on achievable goals
  • Learning from our mistakes
  • Developing skills
  • Seeing improvements
  • Making a good effort
  • Not giving up
  • Increasing self-belief
  • Seeing the relevance of learning

If our students are doing these things in our classroom, they are succeeding—or more importantly, not failing. Ideally, teachers, parents and guardians should be working together to achieve this.

Teachers are responsible for:

  • Driving this narrative
  • Providing the necessary support
  • Providing appropriate feedback
  • Developing learning strategies
  • Evaluating strategies with student
  • Working collaboratively with mental health colleagues

Parents are responsible for:

  • Talking to their child about their anxiety
  • Modelling appropriate behaviour
  • Setting achievable goals
  • Encouraging improvements
  • Providing support
  • Seeking professional assistance

Understanding the counterproductive strategies students use to avoid completing work due to anxiety about failure can help you to teach more positive and productive behaviours to build success.

Understanding Anxiety – Exam Stress

5. Asking for help

Your goal should be to eventually remove any anxiety that your student has about asking for help during class. Acknowledge that the work is challenging, but with help, they can do it.

Approaching this goal takes time and requires being sensitive to their needs, which may include:

  • Using non-verbal cues
  • Regularly checking-in
  • Writing their questions for you
  • Designating short, individual meeting times
  • Allowing them to work with a friend
  • Encouraging independence (see figure 1)

Your student should be told to consider what they need help with and why. This means that they can’t simply tell you, “I can’t do this.” Rather, “I need help with reading this page because this word is difficult.” When your student can solve problems on their own, give them plenty of positive reinforcement to build their confidence and independence.

6. Reframing misperceptions

Statements like “I hate art” often reflect a student’s difficulty with an aspect of the work overtaking their perception of the entire subject and their approach to it. Helping your student to identify specific areas of difficulty can alleviate anxiety by:

  • Focusing on existing strengths
  • Targeting weaknesses
  • Developing skills
  • Developing healthy class self-talk
  • Comparing perceived to actual task difficulty
  • Breaking task components into categories (I like it/It’s OK/I don’t like it)
  • Not avoiding the source of difficulty

Responding to your student’s anxiety, rather than reacting to it, allows you to show them that their feelings are valid. This part is tough, but there are steps we can take to handle it!

7. Promoting persistence

A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new”

Albert Einstein.

Students need to feel motivated to keep trying even when they aren’t achieving the best results. Teachers who emphasise achieving personal goals can promote feelings of success through effort, as opposed to focusing on graded performance in class.

Encouraging your students to see the value in continued effort can be aided by:

  • Using a reward system (listen to music/class movie day)
  • Providing accommodations/scaffolding learning
  • Awarding extra marks for effort
  • Differentiating assessment items
  • Providing fast, genuine feedback
  • Using reinforcing language

Teaching them to push outside of their comfort zones helps them to grow and become more capable. Just like skills in basketball or football are learned and practiced, their skills in completing classwork and taking exams must be developed over time with plenty of practice, too.