Unfortunately, there is a certain stigma attached to mental illness such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, etc. Some people doubt the reality of these neurological issues and can’t understand that people with mental illness cannot ” fix” the way that they feel. Even when people with mental illness try to explain how they are feeling, many people doubt their feelings, thinking that they are just “exaggerating” or simply “complaining” about ordinary stressors that everyone has to deal with. Well, I am here to say that like many others, I was once in the dark about mental illness. It was hard for me to understand how real it can be until I witnessed it within my own family. It is hard for people without mental illness to believe that these problems are “real” and cannot be “fixed” because for us, regulating our emotions seems like a piece of cake. The reality is that mental illness is real, it is a neurological malfunction that we have no control over, and it is very hard to cope with. Luckily, with a rise in awareness over the past few years, the stigma surrounding mental illness has started to diminish. However, there is one particular group of people that are easily overlooked when considering mental illness: children.
While certain disorders, such as schizophrenia, are not likely to appear at a very young age, there are some, such as anxiety and depression, that can develop at a young age depending on a child’s environment. Although mental illness is a neurological problem, for some disorders such as anxiety and depression, additional stress at home or at school can make it harder for these children to handle negative emotions. Many people are in disbelief when you tell them that children, even in elementary school, can experience anxiety and depression, because they feel that children’s problems aren’t “serious enough” or they aren’t “old enough” to experience such serious emotions. The reality is that children, just like adults, can suffer from mental illness, and there is one mental disorder that is of particular interest to me: anxiety.
Rachel Ehmke from the Child Mind Institute wrote a great article (found here) about what child anxiety can look like. She writes that there are several types of anxiety that children can suffer from, and I have listed them below for convenience:
- Separation anxiety: When children are worried about being separated from caregivers. These kids can have a hard time at school drop-offs and throughout the day.
- Social anxiety: When children are excessively self-conscious, making it difficult for them to participate in class and socialize with peers.
- Selective mutism: When children have a hard time speaking in some settings, like at school around the teacher.
- Generalized anxiety: When children worry about a wide variety of everyday things. Kids with generalized anxiety often worry particularly about school performance and can struggle with perfectionism.
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder: When children’s minds are filled with unwanted and stressful thoughts. Kids with OCD try to alleviate their anxiety by performing compulsive rituals like counting or washing their hands.
- Specific phobias: When children have an excessive and irrational fear of particular things, like being afraid of animals or storms.
As you can see, there are several types of anxiety that children can suffer from, and there are several ways in which anxiety can have a serious impact on classroom performance. Depending on the type of anxiety, some children might become restless or inattentive in class. This is often mistaken for ADHD, as Ehmke mentioned in her article. Some children with anxiety might cause a lot of disturbances, such as moving around in their chair a lot or asking a lot of questions, and this can be disruptive not only for this child, but also for everyone in the classroom. Many children with social anxiety may have trouble answering questions in class because they are afraid of speaking in public. These are just a few examples of some issues that can stem from anxiety, and these issues can intensify if not handled properly early on.
So what can we as teachers do to help these children? Rachel Ehmke refers us to another article (found here) that discusses what we can do to help children who suffer from anxiety. First, I think it is important for us to respect their feelings. Don’t doubt that whatever they are feeling is real to them. However, don’t empower negative behaviors either. As Clark Goldstein, the author of this article, said “validation doesn’t always mean agreement.” Goldstein also tells us that we must remember that the goal is not to eliminate the anxiety, but to help the child manage it.The best way to do this is to remove as many stress triggers as possible. However, Goldstein argues that we shouldn’t always avoid things just because they make the child anxious. Doing this teaches the child that he or she can just opt out of any situation if it causes stress, and this is not a positive way of handling his or her anxiety. It is important for us as teachers not to reinforce their fears, but to help them overcome them. Going along with that, it is important for teachers and parents to model how to handle negative emotions in a positive way. This model of good behavior is especially important, and can even benefit other children in the classroom. Lastly, it is extremely important for teachers to set positive, yet realistic expectations for these children. We can’t promise them, for example, that they won’t fail a test in order to help them get over their test anxiety. However, we can tell them that we only expect them to do their best and we will deal with whatever happens together.
All in all, I think it is important for us to realize that childhood anxiety is real and there are certain things that we as educators can do to help these children overcome negative emotions. If we don’t do our best to raise awareness and acceptance of childhood anxiety and mental illness, it is likely that these children will be wrongly mistaken for trouble makers and will never receive the compassion or the help that they need to succeed in school.