Helping Students Overcome Social Anxiety in School

Prince M. — Class of 2016

Anxiety disorders are among some of the most common mental health disorders in the United States — and it isn’t just adults who are affected. In addition to an estimated 40 million U.S. adults, anxiety has also been diagnosed in more than 7 percent of U.S. children and teenagers aged 3 to 17, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That figure translates to approximately 4.4 million children and adolescents who are living with some form of anxiety, over a third of whom — nearly 37 percent — also exhibit “behavior problems.” Under the pressure of COVID-19, rates of anxiety in adolescents are climbing to new heights, causing more and more families to be affected. 

One of the most prevalent forms of anxiety is social anxiety disorder, or SAD, which affects more than 9 percent of adolescents, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). This estimate is higher than the approximate 7.1 percent of the overall U.S. population affected by SAD in the past year.

While some cases are less severe than others, SAD has the potential to negatively impact all aspects of life, including social relationships, academic performance, emotional wellbeing, and future work opportunities — particularly if left unaddressed. To help mitigate the consequences of unmanaged SAD, it is vital for both educators and family members to play an active role in supporting children who have social anxiety, empowering these students to thrive more successfully. Continue reading to learn about the types, causes, and consequences of SAD, how to identify the symptoms of a social anxiety disorder in children, and, perhaps most importantly, how to help a child with SAD succeed in the classroom — virtual or otherwise. 

Common Types and Causes of Social Anxiety in Students

Also called “social phobia,” social anxiety disorder is a specific type of anxiety disorder, just like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or panic disorder. What sets this condition apart from related anxiety disorders is that, unlike OCD or PTSD, SAD is characterized by the “intense, persistent fear of being watched and judged by others,” according to the NIMH. The patient might fear being embarrassed or rejected in social situations, even if no face-to-face contact is involved. In fact, virtual interactions can be some of the greatest triggers for social anxiety. 

Screen Anxiety in Students 

Constant notifications, comparisons to others, pictures of events they weren’t invited to, pressure to get comments and “likes” — between all of these factors, excessive screen time or social media may exacerbate the symptoms of anxiety in students with SAD. Some research has even shown a link between increased screen time and increased rates of depression or suicidal ideation, making it crucial for online instructors to be mindful of incorporating hands-on, real-life activities and assignments into their curricula. 

Back-to-School Anxiety in Students  

Going back to school can be a major stressor for children, especially those who are already struggling with symptoms of SAD. In order to mitigate back-to-school related anxiety, parents and guardians should consider practicing school-related routines with a child to prepare them for what’s ahead, rewarding the child for attending school, and validating the child’s emotions. 

What Are the Warning Signs and Symptoms of Social Anxiety in Children and Adolescents?

Social anxiety may manifest itself through differing sets of behaviors and symptoms, depending on factors like the child’s age and the severity of the anxiety. Some common examples of social anxiety symptoms in children are listed below, sorted by age group. 

Social Anxiety Symptoms in Preschool-Aged Children

In young children, the symptoms of social anxiety might take some or all of the following forms: 

  • Becoming fearful easily
  • Clinging
  • Excessive crying

Social Anxiety Symptoms in School-Aged Children

As children develop emotionally, so do their social anxiety symptoms. For example, older children might exhibit or experience fears around:

  • Inviting friends over
  • Participating in student clubs 
  • Placing restaurant orders
  • Reading out loud  

Social Anxiety Symptoms in Teenagers

Teenagers are notorious for being “moody” and “rebellious,” but don’t mistake normal mood swings for the warning signs of social anxiety. In adolescents, some symptoms and behaviors commonly associated with SAD include:

  • Avoiding class participation
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Fidgeting 
  • Mumbling or speaking inaudibly

How Social Anxiety Affects Students

The data makes it clear that SAD is widespread — and, fuelled partially by COVID-19, is becoming even more common. In fact, in a recent report titled The State of Mental Health in America, the nonprofit Mental Health America (MHA) determined that “mental health is worsening” among U.S. youth, who also have an “unmet need for mental health treatment.” 

So why is this such a pressing issue and what consequences might result? In the short term, students might skip lectures, decline invites to student clubs or chat groups, or avoid participating in group activities, such as group projects, class debates, or reading discussions. Their GPA may suffer as a consequence, harming not only their future opportunities, but also their sense of confidence and self-esteem. Coupled with struggles interacting with others, this can create a vicious cycle that may feel challenging or impossible to escape from — which is part of the reason why it is so important for students with SAD to receive empathetic support from adults. 

7 Ideas for How to Help a Child with Social Anxiety Disorder

Whether you are a parent or an educator, there are steps you can take to help your student or child succeed in both traditional and virtual classroom environments. Here are seven tips for how to help your child overcome social anxiety at school (or cyber school), with practical strategies for supporting students at every grade level and age. From third graders to high schoolers, your children or students can benefit from these simple yet effective ideas. 

Tips for Educators on Teaching Students with SAD

Here are three ways that teachers can spark learning, encourage engagement, and cultivate self-confidence in students with social anxiety disorders: 

  1. Assign groups or pairs instead of allowing the students to choose for themselves. This alleviates some of the intense pressure on students with social anxiety while helping to assure that no one in your class feels excluded. 
  2. Reward students as a way to incentivize participation. Participating in discussions or other group activities can be extremely challenging for students with severe social anxiety. By providing rewards and incentives, you can encourage the student to begin — and continue — contributing to group activities. To learn more about this topic, explore our article discussing how to create reward systems for online students
  3. Firmly establish clear rules against bullying, harassment, and discrimination. It’s imperative to cultivate an environment, virtual or otherwise, where all of your students feel safe to learn and collaborate. One way to accomplish this is by setting — and enforcing — strict zero-tolerance rules against bullying and other forms of harassment. It’s important to ensure that students who violate the rules face appropriate consequences as a deterrent to others. 

4 Tips for Parents and Families of Children with SAD

With the rise of distance learning, families are playing a larger and more important role in shaping their children’s education. Here are four strategies you can follow to foster a better and more supportive home learning environment for children with SAD: 

  1. Help your child practice basic social skills and interactions, such as making introductions, asking appropriate questions, and starting conversations with others. 
  2. Teach your child how to use relaxation strategies, such as breathing exercises. 
  3. Work with your child to help them recognize when they are getting overwhelmed or having negative thoughts so that they know when it’s time to take a breather and think positively. 
  4. If excessive screen time seems to be deepening your child’s SAD, talk to them about temporarily limiting their phone use at certain, agreed-upon times.  

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