Student Mental Health

03 November 2021
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Students with Anxiety

What is anxiety?

Anxiety refers to a feeling of nervousness due to a belief that something bad will occur in a certain situation or because of a certain stimulus.

How does anxiety present itself in the classroom?

The ways in which anxiety presents itself in the classroom vary. Students may have a physiological reaction and complain of headaches and upset stomachs. They will also tend to avoid whatever is causing their anxiety, whether this is certain people, activities, or even actions like walking into the classroom. When unable to avoid these situations/stimuli, students may show their distress by crying, panicked breathing, ‘freezing’, etc. Change and new activities might be hard for highly anxious students as well. For example, if a substitute teacher will be coming into the classroom, the student may need to be warned ahead of time and even be shown a picture of the teacher. Some other signs are restlessness, throwing tantrums or fighting, incompletion of assignments, and asking a lot of questions.


How can students with anxiety be helped?

Helping students with anxiety in school must start with uncovering the cause of the anxiety. The same strategy may not work for a student who avoids socializing because they fear criticism and a student who throws a tantrum when the classroom routine gets disrupted. In general, you want to encourage the student to tolerate their anxiety and learn how to manage it. It is not helpful to let the student avoid whatever is causing the anxiety as this reinforces avoidant behavior and does not actually address the problem. The educator, the student and their parents/guardians, and possibly a school counsellor should meet to create a plan for what to do when the student is feeling anxious. This might include practicing deep breathing, talking or writing about what they are feeling, or having a movement break (e.g. going for a walk). This way the student has a list of steps to take when the uncomfortable feeling of anxiety arises.

Another tool which may help is social emotional learning (SEL). Research has found that highly anxious children have poorer emotional regulation skills. Given this association, SEL can be used to improve students’ emotional regulation and, thus, may help them manage their anxiety.

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Trauma Informed Teaching

Why is trauma-informed teaching so important?

Trauma-informed teaching considers how trauma impacts the learning and behavior of students. Trauma often slows or completely stops a student's ability to learn. Helping students with trauma requires educators to be aware of just how this happens and what can be done to mitigate the learning loss associated with it. 

How does trauma present itself in the classroom?

There are many different ways a child might react to classroom or school-based experiences. Often a child’s fear system is activated by neutral triggers that remind the child of previous experiences that were scary or shameful, sometimes these experiences happened so early in life that they have no words for the memories. This can be an experience that causes the child to be afraid for their physical safety (behavior of another child, loud noises, safety drills, proximity to the school’s front door, etc), afraid of being left out and alone, afraid of feeling shame for not doing something well enough, afraid of getting ‘in trouble,’ afraid of not knowing what is expected of them or afraid of an unexpected change in routine. For example, whether they remember it explicitly or not, a child with a history of moving from one foster home to another may react to a neutral trigger of a new person arriving at the classroom door. They have a previous memory of an unexpected move that was facilitated by a social worker they had never met. When an unexpected adult arrives at the class door their brain interprets it as danger and their body reacts with either a fight, flight or freeze response. It’s like an internal alarm system that is activated by experiences in the environment that others interpret as neutral or insignificant.

Stressed Out Students

How is stress different from anxiety? 

At first glance, it may appear that stress and anxiety are interchangeable terms; however, there is an important distinction between the two. Stress is a response caused by an external stimulus (i.e. the stressor). The response can last for as long as the stressor is present, but once the stressor is removed, a stressed out student may become regulated again. Anxiety is not so simple. While it can appear in response to a stressful situation, it does not go away by removing the stressor. The excessive worry that accompanies anxiety may appear without any external stressors at all.


What are the signs?

The signs of stress overlap heavily with those of anxiety. Students may be easily irritable, tired, complain of poor sleep, and/or have physical symptoms such as headaches or stomach aches.

How can students be helped?

By using mindfulness and brain activation exercises! These activities lead to more activity in students’ frontal lobes, which can then “apply the brakes” on our limbic system (which is responsible for the fight-or-flight response, as well as other behavioral and emotional responses). Another way to reduce our body’s stress response is by activating the vagus nerve. This is the longest nerve in the body, and links the brain to the cardiovascular, digestive, and reproductive systems, and many other vital organs. Students can stimulate their vagus nerve by humming, singing, deep breathing and meditation. Other methods, which may be more suitable at home, are gargling, submerging their face in ice-cold water, or putting a cold compress over their face.

Stressed Out Brain

Learning Brain







A survival brain (left) versus a learning brain (right).

Survival Brain

  • Cognitive delays
  • Dysregulated behavior
  • Executive function shutdown
  • Learning loss

Learning Brain

  • Focus
  • Executive function
  • Improved self regulation
  • Resilience

Executive Functioning

What is executive functioning?

The executive functions of the brain refer to a set of mental skills which include working memory, flexible thinking and self control. These skills are crucial for successful learning in the classroom.

How does executive functioning shutdown present itself in the classroom?

If a student’s executive functioning has been shut down, they may have difficulty switching from task to task due to dampened flexible thinking. Additionally, it could be hard for them to remember certain lessons due to a decrease in their working memory. Below are a few other examples of how executive function shutdown displays itself in the classroom.

  • Inability to plan ahead
  • Forgetting to complete tasks
  • Trouble following conversations
  • Difficulty remembering steps of processes
  • Unable to multitask
  • Being overly emotional

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What causes executive functioning shutdown?

While there are conditions that cause executive dysfunction, there are also temporary causes. Some of the conditions include ADHD, depression or anxiety, bipolar disorder, autism, Alzheimer's, traumatic brain injuries, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. The temporary causes of executive function shutdown however, can be treated to improve functioning. These might include exhaustion, stress, distracting environments, and severe boredom.


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