Anxiety – particularly in this time of COVID, masks/no mask, vax/no vax – manifests in a surprising variety of ways. For children, a common response is acting out with “bad” behaviors. This is due in part to a physiological response to a threat in the environment, which maximizes the body’s ability to either face or escape danger.
While some children exhibit anxiety by shrinking from situations or objects that trigger fears, others react with an overwhelming need to break out of an uncomfortable situation. That behavior, which can be unmanageable, is often misread as anger or opposition.
undercover mental health issues
Anxiety is expert at disguising itself, particularly with kids who may not have words to express their feelings. When a child believes no one is listening to them, anxiety might manifest through acting it out to relieve pent up worry.
Educators are quick to pick up when a child has a difficult time separating from parents or avoids attending a particular class. However, understanding a temper tantrum or meltdown in response to a simple direction is much more challenging. Children with serious undiagnosed anxiety are often disruptive during class when they feel they cannot handle the pressure from demands and expectations put on them. Confused teachers can struggle to “read” that behavior, since it can seemly appear out of nowhere.
Making this even more challenging is the fact many anxious kids will push away the very people who are trying to help. As a result, they may end up spending more time in the office then in a space where their anxiety can be addressed.
home vs school environment
For most kids, academic and social demands at school are above and beyond what they typically face at home. Those demands may trigger problem behaviors in the classroom that parents never see at home.
Children with social anxiety who have worries about how they’re being perceived by others, or children who have anxieties relating to performance, might not have any problem behaviors at home. But when they get to school and have to do math or read a passage aloud, they might engage in some negative behaviors to avoid that task. Acting out in this particular situation might end up being functional for the child, because if they act a little silly, the teacher might scold them, but then they move on.
Kids with challenges like ADHD and anxiety often have a very low frustration tolerance. Asking them to be patient or persistent at school can be an uphill battle.
Similarly, autistic kids may be allowed very ritualized or self-directed behavior at home, such as screen time or Legos. When they get to school, they can struggle with not being allowed to do those things or having to wait for activities they may have free access to at home. This can also lead to disruptive behavior.
ted lasso’s advice
Here is where Ted Lasso comes in! He is a small college football coach who is transplanted to England to rescue a failing soccer team. While Ted struggles to learn not just the rules of football (soccer) but of English culture, he brings one important lesson to his bosses and the team he coaches.
“Be curious not judgmental” -Walt Whitman
Educators have the unique opportunity to practice a very fundamental lesson for educating young minds. Curiosity.
Rather than jumping to negative conclusions about a student’s behavior (“he’s making class miserable on purpose”), a curious teacher may find anxiety or other conditions underlying the opposition. This understanding can change the trajectory of the behavior. Together, teachers can join forces with students and school counselors to come up with strategies for improving or preventing these situations.
At Clarity Child Guidance Center, we teach direct care staff to engage a child in problem identification and solving. The script goes like this:
- Start with empathy. Connect with what a child is genuinely struggling with, put yourself in their shoes, and dig a bit to find out more about what going on in their life.
- Once you have a good grasp of problem, point your concern. For example, a child might be missing out on some important information or help that you could provide.
- Finally, invite the child to join with you on coming up a realistic solution that both of you can agree on. This is not a one time conversation but it can steer the behavior in a very different direction.
This may sound labor-intensive, but so is dealing with the aftermath of the same child having a meltdown.
The saying goes that “curiosity killed the cat.” However, when it comes to recognizing and helping struggling children, curiosity is also a lifesaver.