It’s not uncommon for students who learn and think differently to also struggle with anxiety. They might worry a lot or be withdrawn at school. They may hesitate to participate in the classroom, make frequent trips to the bathroom or the nurse’s office, or even refuse to go to school at all. All of this can get in the way of learning.
What are some classroom accommodations for kids with anxiety? Here are strategies teachers can try.
Providing emotional support
- Encourage the student to use self-calming or anxiety-reducing techniques that were taught by a counselor or therapist.
- Allow the student to have a self-calming object or family pictures on hand.
- Build in “call home” breaks (for students with separation anxiety).
- Let the student seek help from a designated staff member with mental health expertise when feeling anxious.
Classroom setup, schedules, and routines
- Provide classroom seating where the student is most comfortable (near a door, near the front of the room, near the teacher or a friend).
- Let the student sit near the back of the room or by an exit during assemblies.
- Assign the student a designated buddy for lunchtime, recess, and/or hallways.
- Allow preferential grouping for field trips so the student is with a teacher or friends.
- Provide a “take a break pass” to let the student walk down the hallway, get a drink, or leave the classroom when needed.
- Create a plan for catching up after an absence or illness (for example, excusing missed homework or having a known time frame for making up work).
- Give advance notice of planned substitute teachers or other changes in routine.
- Give the student notice and extra time before upcoming transitions, like before recess and lunch, and rehearse transitions in a private or low-stress environment.
Giving instructions and assignments
- Clearly state and/or write down classroom expectations and consequences.
- Break down assignments into smaller chunks.
- Check in frequently for understanding and “emotional temperature.”
- Provide a signal before calling on the student and a signal for the student to opt out of answering.
- Offer written instructions in addition to spoken directions.
- Exempt the student from reading aloud or demonstrating work in front of the class.
- Let the student present projects to the teacher instead of to the entire class.
Introducing new concepts/lessons
- Give extended time on tests and/or separate test-taking space to reduce performance anxiety.
- Allow use of word banks, cheat sheets, or fact cards for tests (for students who freeze or “go blank” during in-class tests).
- Set time limits for homework or reduce the amount of homework.
- Assure that work not completed in that time won’t count against the student.
- Provide class notes via email or a school portal for the student to preview.
- Give notice of upcoming tests (no “pop quizzes”).
When students are being treated for anxiety, it’s crucial for all of the people working with them to be in contact with their mental health providers about using school strategies like these. Together, you can all ensure the accommodations are a good fit for the student.
You can also visit the Child Mind Institute, an Understood founding partner, to learn more about what anxiety in the classroom looks like.
Does your student have anxiety?
Does your child have anxiety?
- Read expert advice on when it’s time to get your child help for mental health.
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About the author
About the author
Amanda Morin is the director of thought leadership at Understood and author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education.” She worked as a classroom teacher and early intervention specialist for more than a decade.
Jerome Schultz, PhD is a clinical neuropsychologist and lecturer in the Harvard Medical School Department of Child Psychiatry.