It’s hard to watch your child struggle in school and natural to look for the root causes. A growing number of children are suffering from anxiety, which can have symptoms that impact the school day and learning. It can be difficult to tell the difference between anxiety and other conditions, like ADHD or depression, as they may share symptoms, so it’s important to work with a professional to fully understand or diagnose your child’s behavior.
Learn more about anxiety symptoms and how they impact learning:
Anxiety can cause a number of symptoms and behaviors in children, including:
- Agitation and restlessness
- Inattention and poor focus
- Excessive irritability or anger
- Physical symptoms, such as an upset stomach, headaches, sleep problems, a racing heart or shortness of breath
- Frequent crying or tantrums, often seeking comfort from parents
- Trouble separating from parents
- Meltdowns before or after school
- Avoiding certain people or situations
- Compulsive and repetitive behavior
- Recurring obsessive thoughts about negative things
- Prolonged negative moods or periods of depression
Anxiety can take several different forms, including separation anxiety, social anxiety, generalized anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, selective mutism and specific phobias.
It can be challenging to determine the exact source of anxiety in children, but there are several possible explanations:
- Distressing life events. Things like abuse and the loss of a loved one can be especially difficult for children to cope with.
- Environmental factors. A child growing up with family members who are anxious or fearful can sometimes lead them to be afraid as well.
- Genetics. Having a family member with an anxiety disorder can increase your child’s chances of having anxiety as well. Children can inherit genes that make them more prone to anxiety.
- Brain chemistry. A chemical imbalance has been shown to contribute to anxiety. When there are too many or too few of certain neurotransmitters in the brain, anxiety can result.
How anxiety interferes with learning
Anxiety can be all-consuming or situational. If your child is experiencing anxiety at school, it can impact their ability to learn because of:
- Inattention and restlessness. When children are preoccupied with worried, anxious thoughts, they can’t properly focus on the lesson. They may be restless, disengaged, squirming or engage in repetitive motion, like tapping or rocking. It may look like they aren’t paying attention or don’t care, but the behavior is triggered by anxiety.
- Missing class. Children with anxiety may experience physical symptoms, such as headaches, nausea or stomach aches – leading them to often visit the school nurse and miss important information and lessons. School refusal is also common for anxious children, particularly if they are suffering with social or separation anxiety.
- Acting out. We may not associate disruptive behavior with anxiety, but it can be a big contributing factor. It appears in a variety of ways from asking repetitive questions, to compulsively kicking the chair in front of them, to becoming aggressive with classmates. When children feel upset and don’t know how to handle those feelings, they are more likely to respond physically, by fighting, shouting, or pushing over a desk. These disruptions natural interfere with their learning – and others’.
- Problems in specific classes. If children start doubting their abilities in a certain subject, or have to confront the focus of their anxiety in a specific class, then anxiety can interfere with learning. It can also go hand in hand with a learning disorder, making it challenging to properly diagnose.
- Not turning in classwork/homework. We usually think that children who don’t turn in their work simply didn’t do the assignment. However, anxious students may be overly critical and worried that it isn’t good enough. Anxiety can cause children to second guess themselves – erasing their work over and over again, or being unable to start because of anxious feelings. This can prevent children from benefitting from independent work and impact their grades.
Anxiety also impacts the working memory – making thought processes less efficient and impairing short term memory, impeding a child’s ability to convert new information into long-term knowledge.
Diagnosing and treating anxiety
If your child is exhibiting symptoms or behaviors that may be caused by anxiety, it’s important to seek the help of a professional. Dominion Hospital offers a variety of assessment and therapy services to meet the needs of children and teenagers. Call our First Step counselors 24/7 at (703) 538-2872 to discuss your child’s behavior.