Nicola Morgan

Author, Speaker, Supporter

Understanding and Supporting Your Teenagers – few spaces left and I’m not doing it again!

Questions about anxiety #5 #6 #7: Anxiety in school – how to tackle it

You’ve been asking me questions about anxiety and I’ve been answering.

Here are my answers so far

Today, I’ve lumped three questions together because they have a similar theme: school.

5. Anita asked: “Do you think school adds to anxiety? Rules, expectations, fear of not doing enough or performing well enough, promoting leaders etc”

6. Alex said: “I am a School Nurse and see children in school drop-in. A lot of teenagers, especially girls, I speak to seem to have anxiety about walking into a classroom at the beginning a lesson or for morning registration and come in to school late (so sometimes get detentions for persistent lateness) just to avoid tutor registration. There is no specific problem (eg bullying / problems with teacher). Support is offered by school and myself in the short term but then the YP is expected to go back to the usual routine and still struggle.”

7. David asked: “I’m a secondary teacher in a girl’s school. What should I say to help students who are feeling anxious in a lesson or in form Time? What should I avoid?”

Three words most likely to induce anxiety in a teenager: exams, friendships and school

They are all closely connected, with school being the common denominator. School has a focus on exams; school is where friendships are largely made, fought over and broken; in some way or another, school plays a part in almost every day of a teenager’s life. They are either at school or thinking about it.

At the same time, they are teenagers, going through huge upheavals in their brains, bodies and lives. Everything is changing around and inside them. That is anxiety-making. Even if school is not itself a big problem for a teenager, it’s still where everything goes on and where they are required to be on alert constantly.

A young person who is anxious about going to school might (or might not) be anxious about going to school per se. They might be anxious about:

  • Being seen – adolescence is a time of huge self-consciousness, as I’ve also written about in Blame My Brain (the new edition)
  • Being teased or judged
  • A friendship worry
  • An issue at home that they are worrying about
  • A particular lesson or teacher or piece of work
  • Their body – sweating, blushing, their period, having to get changed in front of others
  • Nothing specific – just anxious

We need to recognise that school IS an environment where people are on high alert. You are surrounded by people, noise, demands, rules, criticism, judgement, things to remember, things you don’t know or understand.

Therefore it is hardly surprising that so many young people display that anxiety especially at the start of the day, as they approach the school and as they go into registration. If they can get past those hurdles, they will feel better. But their instinct is often to run away, to avoid, to procrastinate. Those things don’t turn out well but they still want to do them – it’s instinctive and powerful.

I believe all this helps explain something that all the three questions refer to: the fact that many teenagers are more anxious at the start of day, about things like going into class and registration. they are self-conscious, on alert, waiting to be asked to do something, ready to be judged, watched, teased or commented on and the often simply thoughtless – rather than deliberately hurtful – remarks by classmates or teachers.

What can we do to help?

  • Acknowledge and discuss. Show that we understand that these are stressful moments and often very difficult for some teenagers. Teachers need to be deeply empathetic about this. You might think a teenager is “silly” for being afraid of registration but if you understand that this is a biological and utterly natural feeling of exposure and risk you might not think they’re silly. If you can ask what they’re feeling (without embarrassing them in front of others), listen to their answer.
  • Teach that feeling anxious is NOT an illness. It’s natural, helpful and healthy. (In a blog post soon, I’ll answer the question about how we tell when anxiety is an illness.) It’s not something to be scared about but something to learn to manage and control. this is the whole point behind No Worries. Buy it for your school!
  • Avoid avoidance. Avoiding what we’re scared of is very rarely the right thing to do, unless the thing is genuinely dangerous. So, we need to find ways to help a teenager manage the moment, using understanding language and help with breathing and relaxing.
  • Be as welcoming, friendly and gentle as you can when you greet the students. Exude calmness yourself – be the cabin crew, as I say in my talks to parents and teachers. (I’ll write about this another day.)
  • Cater for introverts. There’s too much emphasis (in my view) on being excited, loud, humorous, jovial. But this does not suit introverts – it just makes them (us) nervous and irritated.
  • Teach great anxiety management strategies. The breathing or grounding strategies that I talk about in No Worries are all important life skills. They need to be practised before they are needed so can you do this in small groups in your class or form/tutor time? Time spent on this is going to pay dividends. Look out for my Instant Action tips. They work!
  • Manage the environment. I mean the environment of your classroom and other parts of the school, in as much as you can affect this. The more you can make this suitable for healthy attention rather than stress, the better. Here are some ideas – and of course I do realise that some are out of your control:
    • Colour – blues and greens tend to be calming; red tends to be stressful and alerting; yellow and green tend to be uplifting.
    • Tidiness – messy piles of things are not calming. Can we leave tables and chairs in tidy rows? Can we put objects away?
    • Pictures count – a picture of a natural scene is going to be better than lots of shouty words on the walls (though of course you will have words on the walls)
    • Avoid shouty things – I remember sitting in a GP waiting room once and noticing that EVERYTHING shouted. there were warnings, in redc capitals, exclamation marks and everything was about “DON’T”
    • Are there places to sit; places where calm is the rule; escape nooks, seats where you can see greenery outside? Is there fresh air?
  • Foster an atmosphere where care rules and rudeness is not acceptable. I realise that in some schools this is difficult, if, for example, the behaviour is already a problem. But there will be ways that the atmosphere can be better. Students need to know that people nearby will not laugh or tease, that they will be listened to, that they are all equally important. What rules could you all come up with together for how you behave to each other? This needs to be done in a positive way – “How can we make our lives better?” – rather than a negative way – “How can we deal with the nasty behaviour?”
  • Ask for suggestions. Tell the class that you know that school is stressful and that you understand that they often feel anxious and uncomfortable and set them the task of coming up with some realistic ideas of how they could all feel better.

The most important message

I think this speaks directly to David’s question (“What should I say to help students who are feeling anxious in a lesson or in form Time? What should I avoid?) The most important thing we can say to someone who is anxious about something that is not genuinely frightening or dangerous is this:

“I hear how you feel. I understand. It’s not your fault that you are anxious right now – it’s biology and psychology and the changes your teenage brain is going through. Things will feel better and you will learn the skills to manage anxiety. Meanwhile, we are here for you to help you grow those skills. You can do this and we have your back.”

Don’t forget you can pre-order No Worries from any online or physical bookshop or you can order the Gift for a Teenager NOW 

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