Responding to School Anxiety

Author: Karen Copeland

backpack-1149461_1280To say our family has experience with school refusal/school anxiety would be an understatement. Starting even before Kindergarten, this is a challenge we have been dealing with for most of our child’s school experience. It has been responded to in many different ways, some of them successful, others not so much.

I had the opportunity to participate on a panel regarding school anxiety in September 2013, the recording of which you can listen to here: Kelty Mental Health Pinwheel Recording School Anxiety. The panel featured myself, Dr. Lynn Miller (UBC) and Kelly Angelius (Friends for Life program). The recording is definitely worth a listen, but as I recently found the notes I prepared in advance of the panel, I thought I would share them on my blog with you. I have also added new information that is not included in the recording.

The way we think about anxiety is often based on our own personal experiences with it, in addition to how it was responded to by others in our lives. So, for me, I can remember the paralyzing fear I had when entering a room full of people I did not know, and I dealt with this by avoidance. It is no surprise I did not finish my first attempt at college. For others, they may perceive and recognize anxiety as cowering in a corner, or gnawing on fingernails. I wonder though, how many of us look at behaviour and anger as forms of anxiety?

We need to remember that anxiety results in a fight, flight, or freeze response. What we found in the early years with our son was that his behaviour was not viewed to be a result of anxiety, rather it was attributed to other things (wilfulness, parenting).

Ted Leavitt from Connectivity Counselling created a great graphic on the relationship between anger and anxiety:


A bit of an eye-opening graphic, isn’t it? It is a useful tool to shift the way we think about behaviour in order to get to the underlying reason of why it may be occurring.

We tried many different interventions for our child to address his (and our!) anxiety. We attended Anxiety groups through our local Child and Youth Mental Health Office. There I learned about different Cognitive Behavior Therapy techniques that I could use to support my son when he was anxious. While we did not experience much success with these strategies initially, through patience and continuous modelling, we finally started to see him engage with us and utilize these tools much later on – years later, in fact. To this day, I still model and communicate when I am feeling anxious and what I can do to calm myself.

One of the major benefits of attending the anxiety groups was learning that I was not the only parent going through this with my child. In fact, many parents are. But we don’t tend to talk about it much, either from fear of judgement or worse, dismissal, but perhaps we are sometimes simply so overwhelmed with what is going on that we simply can’t. The groups provided a safe place to discuss our experiences and concerns, as well as share tips on different things that worked for our families.

Towards the end of elementary school, an assessment discovered some pretty critical learning challenges being experienced by our child. In particular, there were major concerns with written output and fine motor skills (aha! now it made sense why so much refusal was happening around written work!), but also with motor coordination and being able to mimic the movements of others (think of what movements you need in order to kick a soccer ball. Now imagine you are delayed about 3 seconds from following through while your brain tries to co-ordinate your legs to move).

What was helpful?


I subscribe to the notion of the Four C’s based on Adlerian theory and more specifically defined by Bettner and Lew – that children (I daresay, all human beings) want and need to feel connected, to feel capable, to feel like they count and to have courage. Certainly when I reflect on the positive moments our child has experienced at school, these four needs have mostly been met. Relationship development with our kids with anxiety is critical! There also needs to be an understanding that relationship development takes time, and it cannot be rushed. Being patient, being flexible and creating a foundation of trust is essential.

We have seen amazing growth in our child because the relationship foundation was solid. Our son went from not attending full days of school for two full years, to attending full days starting last year. Towards the end of last school year, he was walking himself to school. This year, our son is entering through the student doors, something he was not comfortable doing last year. These may seem like small steps to some, however I can assure you they are huge, and you’d better believe we celebrate them!

It also helped to look at things from a different perspective. I found a great quote from Kirk Martin of Celebrate Calm (August 13, 2013):

“Today I assume the best about my child’s intentions. When I assume the worst, it leads to blame, finger pointing and confrontation. When I assume the best, it leads to understanding, compassion and problem solving.” 

Shifting the way we view behaviour can make a huge difference for a child – it helps us think of different ways to respond, and to think in terms of teaching skills versus punishing outcomes.

Often it is helpful to be aware of our own anxiety levels and how this will influence how we respond to behaviour. For example, how is our own anxiety contributing to the behaviour? One of my anxiety provoking situations is being late. For my oldest child, being late was not a concern for her. This put us at odds, especially when it was time to head out the door for school. My face is hot with shame as I think about some of the walks we made up to the school – me angry about being late, my daughter upset because she didn’t see why this was such a big deal. Once I took some time to reflect on this, and realized it was my own anxiety that was causing much of the issue, she and I were able to problem solve together on how to make mornings a more pleasant experience in our house. Consider the anxiety an educator may feel – wondering how to assess a child who is not completing academic work and yet there is still a need to report out. How might this impact his/her responses to a child?

It takes courage to reflect on how we as adults may be contributing to a behaviour, but it is a critical piece of the puzzle. I honestly believe that behaviour is the result of a combined effort between the adult and child, and cannot solely lie with the child. How we choose to respond will influence the trajectory of the behaviour. Along with courage, there is also a need to be gentle with ourselves. Remember, we are not perfect. We aren’t always going to get it right. Take those moments that have not gone well, take ownership and apologize, then reflect and ponder how we can do it better the next time.

Making a Plan

One of the best things parents and schools can do is create a plan of support for the child who is anxious and refusing school. First though, there needs to be an understanding of why the refusal is happening. I wrote this a few years ago when I was feeling particularly overwhelmed with my child’s school refusal:

“When a child does not go to school…wait…let’s rephrase that. When a parent does not get their child to school, the community starts to judge. Assumptions are made about why that child is not at school, and most often it is related to  parenting.

  • “The child is just manipulating his or her way out of going to school.”
  • “The parents are just being lazy, there is no excuse for that child not to go to school.”
  • “Give him to me, I’ll straighten him out.”
  • “There must be something going on at home”
  • “She’s just trying to get out of school so she can stay home and play video games all day.”

I wish they would speak with my child. He will tell a different story about why he does not want to go to school. It is not about staying home and playing video games. It is about crippling anxiety that he cannot manage, that morphs into thoughts that he is a stupid, dumb, worthless kid who gets into trouble all the time, so why bother going anyway. It is about an overriding feeling that he will never be able to be successful at school, that he can’t do anything right. Not to mention the learning disabilities that slow his ability to understand the new concepts so he is always a few steps behind the other kids.

Think about your own life. If you went to work every day and you felt like that, would YOU want to go?”

Once you know the why, the plan becomes easier to make. If possible, include the child in the planning process. Have him/her identify what might be helpful at the start of the school day. Be flexible (some days will be better than others) and patient (this is likely going to take a long time). Learn about what the child is interested in, then talk with him about it. Facilitate connections with understanding peers who have similar interests. Provide positive feedback to parents, don’t always focus on the negatives – recognize the baby steps when they happen, celebrate these! Build a strong relationship foundation based on the Four C’s. Most importantly, be gentle with the child, with yourself and with others. Persevere and remain hopeful. Believe.

Helpful Resources

Anxiety BC resources for parents  (includes quick video clips and worksheets, you can order videos as well)
BCCH Family Resource Library (all items available to borrow for free from the library, they mail the resource out to you, along with a pre-paid envelope to return):
Shared Care Toolkits (lots of resources, including online games and apps relating to mental health)
Anxiety webinar with Dr. Lynn Miller (well worth the watch, but 1 hour long!):
Booster Buddy App (from Vancouver Island Health Authority)


  1. Great post. I think as educators we are only beginning to understand the impact that anxiety plays in education. It can be debilitating. I appreciate you sharing your stories in such an open and honest way. I know as a school community we are often unaware of anxiety or tend to under appreciate how disabling it can be.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I appreciate your comment, Darcy. Admittedly I have only shared a small piece of how our family has been impacted by anxiety and community responses to such. Critical that we ask families what they are experiencing so we can all effectively support and encourage the child, being mindful and realistic about our expectations not only for the child, but the family unit and school as well.


  2. Karen, I can attest to the fact that sometimes it takes years for a child to process and use the strategies that have been learned and modeled. It took participation in the anxiety group numerous times along with developmental growth and our child being in a place of calm to be able to start to use some of the skills that had been taught years before. So although we may think that our efforts are in vane because we don’t see immediate results, we need to trust that our child wants to be in a different frame of mind and will do well when they can.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Excellent article with so much wisdom from the lived experience. Anxiety can rip apart families and destroy relationships…been there ! The message about looking at our kids’ behaviours (and our own) as an outcome of high anxiety is so important to spread far and wide ! When we can really tune into the signals our body and mind send us, we begin to see the underlying anxiety, and we will be able to better help ourselves and our kids. And yes, it does take time. Patience ! It’s about adjusting the way we think and respond and communicate. It’s about slowing down and paying attention. School plans…..absolutely. Parents and educators working together to help find a plan for their child to support them through their anxiety without allowing them to completely avoid is key. Our educators have such an important role to play in this… parents, get to know your teachers ! Thank you, Karen, for this amazing post. I’m going to share it with a few parents and educators.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for sharing your story and your struggles and progress. I have seen this in my family and in my school, and your point about reframing our view and language regarding children’s behaviour is paramount. I appreciate the resources and links and will share them with parents!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you for sharing. We’ve been on a similar journey with our son and I find it has made me a much more understanding teacher. It is so important to really listen to what children are saying with their behaviours and to get their input when creating a plan to ease their anxieties. It can be frustrating at times, but we must all have patience and understanding.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Your comments are so true. As I reflect on the assumptions that my sons behaviour had to be managed rather than be understood as to why they were what they were I feel guilty that I didn’t address it. Being non-verbal he had no other way of communicating his distress but instead of being listened to he was punished, sending him down and down and down until we ended up in the children’s psychiatric unit. Educators and those working with children need to realize that anxiety causes children to respond in different ways and they need to be understood, not “managed”.

    Liked by 1 person

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