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Anxiety Disorders Special Needs Factsheet

What Teachers Should Know

Anxiety disorders are among the most common mental health problems of childhood and adolescence.

Anxiety disorders cause people to feel excessively frightened, distressed, or uneasy during situations in which most people would not feel that way. Left untreated, anxiety disorders can impair students’ ability to work or study and may affect their personal relationships. In the most severe cases, anxiety disorders can make going to school incredibly difficult.

The most common anxiety disorders affecting kids and teens are:

  • Generalized anxiety. With this common anxiety disorder, children worry excessively about many things, such as school, the health or safety of family members, or the future in general. These students also may have physical symptoms, such as headaches, stomachaches, muscle tension, or tiredness. Their worries might cause them to miss school or avoid social activities.
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Children with OCD have excessive preoccupying thoughts (obsessions) and repetitive actions done to try to relieve their anxiety (compulsions).
  • Phobias. These are unrealistic and excessive fears, such as a fear of dogs or enclosed spaces. Phobias usually cause people to avoid the things they fear.
  • Social phobia (social anxiety). This anxiety is triggered by social situations or speaking in front of others. A less common form, called selective mutism, causes some students to be too fearful to talk at all in certain situations.
  • Panic attacks. These can occur for no apparent reason. With a panic attack, a person has sudden and intense physical symptoms that can include a pounding heart, shortness of breath, or dizziness caused by the body’s normal fear response.
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This results from a past traumatic experience.

Students with an anxiety disorder may:

  • have difficulty concentrating in class or completing classwork
  • feel self-conscious and avoid certain situations
  • have physical symptoms, such as a racing heart, fast breathing, tense muscles, sweaty palms, a queasy stomach, and trembling hands or legs
  • take medication to help reduce anxiety
  • miss class time due to problems coping at school, or needing to talk with a school counselor or therapist

What Teachers Can Do

Students with anxiety disorders may have difficulty completing their work. Teachers can help ease anxiety levels by:

  • talking with parents or guardians to learn about strategies that work at home
  • allowing students extra time to do work
  • checking that their assignments are written down correctly
  • giving them daily schedules
  • modifying assignments and reducing workloads when necessary
  • promoting relaxation techniques and allowing for breaks throughout day
  • encouraging school attendance, which may require shortened school days and modified class schedules

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: January 2014