Schools are very different today than they were a decade or more ago. Children of all ages have a wide variety of different stresses within the academic setting, no less in their home life. Starting at an early age, kids hear about the need for good grades, doing well on testing, and striving to get into a good college. All of this pressure begins in elementary school where more and more time is being spent sitting and learning. There is less time to be a kid and play. Even playing sports has changed over time. Fewer kids play baseball or another sport with kids in their neighborhood. Many kids are in now on competitive teams that travel near and far for games. This adds to stresses of getting work done and keeping up with school. Staying up late to finish hours of homework after a game means less sleep and it begins a vicious cycle for growing children.
School psychologists are now seeing an increase in childhood anxiety. There are more children being diagnosed with generalized anxiety. Why? Much of it is due to family stress and the pressures from within the school setting. With all of the pressure, kids are trying to be perfect and this is not a healthy concept. Society has brought on the desire for people to compete with one another. This holds true for children in the classroom and when they play sports. When kids continue to internalize the anxiety from their stress, they often get physical symptoms like nausea and have trouble sleeping. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that over 25% of teens have an anxiety disorder. Even younger children are diagnosed with anxiety, too.
What can be done to help kids? First, they must be able to let go of the concept of perfection. This is not a simple task and takes time to accomplish. The key is for children to begin to recognize what makes them anxious. Once they are able to do this, they can work on coping strategies which face the anxiety. The goal is to learn to adapt their anxious thoughts and not avoid or try to escape the situation. With the help of therapy and intervention, they are able to learn and use coping skills. The older the child is, the more time it may take to deprogram their way of dealing with anxious situations or feelings. At the same time, young children may not understand what they feel and may need adults to watch for behaviors which signal a spike in their anxiety.
School therapists need to work with families to help all students who may be dealing with anxiety. It is something which they must recognize and work on as a team. With group and individual sessions, they can come up with plans to help the child if they get anxious in school. They may need a safe space to decompress, a moment to chat over their fears, or something to help distract their nervous energy like a fidget. It is crucial to have a protocol set at school for when a teacher or and parent expresses concerns about a student. There is no time to wait and the quicker they look into it, the better off the child will be down the road.