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Linda Houston, BA, B.Ed., OCT. Educational Consultant, LDAO

Image of a student in a classroom

The Ontario Ministry of Education document entitled Supporting Minds: An Educator's Guide to Promoting Students' Mental Health and Well-Being states that two or three students in any classroom may experience anxiety-related symptoms, regardless of whether they have a learning disability (LD) or not (EDU 2013; 38). In this summary, anxiety refers to fears that are out of proportion to the danger and that adversely affects a student’s ability to function in daily life (Turgeon and Brousseau, 2000). According to the research, many students with LDs show signs of short- and long-term stress that can lead to anxiety and affect them throughout their lives (Painchaud, 2014, p. 4). This summary offers educators an overview of these signs, as well as strategies for supporting students with LDs who experience anxiety at school.

What Many Students with LDs Fear

According to psychologist Manon Painchaud, many students with LDs fear losing the respect of others if their difficulties become known; this is because they perceive their difficulties to be degrading (2014, p.1). Keeping this “secret” creates an enormous burden for them. Students with LDs tend to minimize their strengths and overlook the positive aspects of school, holding themselves responsible for events that are beyond their control. To maintain some measure of control over their lives in and outside of school, these students often hide their frustration and seek relief by avoiding problems or situations. Painchaud writes that when feelings of shame, resentment, and frustration shift into anxiety the student then focuses on the anxiety, not on the core problem (2014). In order to reduce anxiety, its triggers must be identified. With an awareness of the triggers, and with the help of teachers, family members, and the community, a student with LDs can reduce his or her level of anxiety. In order to achieve this, the student needs to know his or her strengths and needs, and have a set of strategies close at hand.

Signs of Anxiety

Educators may mistake the signs of anxiety for symptoms of learning disabilities; for example, a student avoiding a task that triggers anxiety may be interpreted as having difficulty focusing. Consequently, educators should be familiar with the signs of anxiety. In a document on coping with learning disabilities in daily life entitled Les difficultés d'apprentissage: comment faire au quotidien (2013), Geneviève Lecours, Nathalie Landry, and Michelle Émond provide a list of the ways in which anxiety may manifest at school.

Note that a student may show some, but not all, of these signs:

  • Difficulty planning and performing tasks;
  • A need to feel safe and reassured;
  • Difficulty sitting still;
  • Difficulty focusing, concentrating or remembering;
  • Making excuses in order to avoid performing unfamiliar tasks;
  • A tendency to be destabilized by a change in routine or schedule;
  • A reluctance to step outside of established routines;
  • Physical signs of discomfort (perspiring, trembling, palpitations);
  • Not showing signs of listening to the answers to his or her questions;
  • Extreme perfectionism causing slow task performance;
  • Somatic complaints (health-related excuses);
  • Asking the same questions over and over again;
  • Rigidity (resistance to change).

(Lecours, Landry and Émond, 2013, p.5)

According to Supporting Minds: An Educator's Guide to Promoting Students' Mental Health and Well-being, other signs that students may manifest at school or at home include:

  • Avoidance;
  • Procrastination;
  • Feelings of being overwhelmed;
  • Worries about time limits or changes in routine; and
  • Physical aches and pains

(EDU 2013; 30)

Supporting Minds also states that the experience of anxiety is primarily internal. Outward signs of anxiety may be difficult to detect because the behaviour and/or symptoms do not necessarily manifest in obvious or disruptive ways (EDU 2013; 28). Students may also not tell their classmates, parents or other adults what they are feeling because they may not recognize it themselves. They often suffer in silence.

What can educators do in the classroom?

In order to minimize anxiety in the classroom, an educator must recognize that he or she may have anxious students and that this anxiety can be caused by a variety of internal factors (e.g., temperament) and external factors (e.g., noise in the classroom or even the configuration of a student’s personal space such as the placement of his or her desk). The educator must recognize the behaviour of a student with anxiety so that he or she can support this student.

Here are a few things that may help:

  • Observe when the anxiety tends to occur;
  • Observe what circumstances or conditions trigger the anxiety;
  • Observe the frequency, duration, and intensity of the behaviour.

(EDU2013; 32)

It may be helpful to create a chart for observing and noting a student’s behaviour and situations that trigger the anxiety.

The following strategies reduce external stress and are applicable to both elementary and secondary classrooms:

  • Create a learning environment where mistakes are viewed as a natural part of the learning process;
  • Provide predictable schedules and routines in the classroom;
  • Provide advance warning of changes in routine;
  • Provide simple relaxation exercises that involve the whole class;
  • Encourage students to take small steps towards accomplishing a feared task.

(EDU 2013, p. 32)

Specific Strategies for Helping Students with LDs who Experience Anxiety

For students with LDs, negative thoughts and feelings are often their first response to anxiety-inducing situations. Thus, the role of educators is to recognize these situations, present strategies, and support students in the use of these strategies in the classroom. These strategies are not innate and must be learned. Painchaud suggests a few strategies that teachers may offer students who experience anxiety:

  • Tell a friend or adult when you feel anxious;
  • Visualize positive images;
  • Create realistic scenarios;
  • Stay in touch with your feelings;
  • Accept your learning difficulties and social vulnerability.

Click here to print these strategies.

Types of Strategies that Educators can use with their Students

1 – Preventative strategies. Preventative strategies support the development of feelings of effectiveness that can prevent or reduce anxiety. The more effective a student feels, the less anxious he or she will feel. The following strategies were put forward by Jacinthe Beaulieu in her presentation on anxiety at school and strategies for use in the classroom, at the TES symposium on special education techniques that was held on May 31, 2013.

  • Encourage positive self-talk;
  • Help the student to have realistic expectations;
  • Take the drama out of the situation;
  • Encourage the student to see the glass as half-full, not half-empty;
  • Place an emphasis on personal affirmation;
  • Encourage non-anxious or brave behaviours (verbally, emotionally, or otherwise);
  • Model effective preventive strategies;
  • Support the student to manage his or her own anxiety;
  • Note subtle avoidance strategies and offer winning strategies in their place;
  • Have moments of fun with the students on a regular basis;
  • Have an emergency plan to deal with crises.

Click here to print these strategies.

2 – Teaching planning strategies. These strategies will help to minimize the anxiety of students, in particular, students with LDs. Planning brings an element of stability and routine to the day or the activity; this helps students with anxiety to manage disruptions and minimizes changes that they may perceive as unexpected. Lecours, Landry, and Émond suggest these planning strategies:

  • Divide work into smaller steps;
  • Provide an example of a planner or organizational chart and show the students how to use it;
  • Provide an individualized work plan, with a sequence that the student can check off;
  • Provide a work plan with specific tasks that the student can check off;
  • Personalize references, checklists, etc.;
  • Plan for individualized tutoring sessions/instruction;
  • Plan regular times for individual review and revision;
  • Plan time to go back over work with the student;
  • Provide a variety of time management tools.

Click here to print these strategies.

Supporting Minds: An Educator's Guide to Promoting Students' Mental Health and Well-being contains a list of behaviours and strategies that can be used in the classroom (EDU 2013; 34)

Behaviour

Classroom Strategy

A range of anxiety-related behaviour
  • Work with parents and the school team to take appropriate action;
  • Reward brave, non-anxious behaviour.
Perfectionism
  • Tell the student that it’s okay to make mistakes or present them as learning opportunities;
  • Encourage the student to produce rough drafts and to brainstorm.
Test anxiety
  • Determine whether the student would benefit from an adaptation, where assessment is concerned (e.g., more time to write an exam);
  • State the expectations of the test clearly.
Anxiety about details
  • Encourage the student to complete one task at a time;
  • Offer incentives to encourage the student to work at an appropriate pace.
Intolerance of uncertainty
  • Provide daily schedules;
  • Warn the student if something is unusual or different.
Excessive reassurance-seeking
  • Try to respond calmly;
  • Provide simple answers to questions.
Social anxiety
  • Work on developing an atmosphere of acceptance in the classroom;
  • Resist pressure to allow the student to avoid social interactions.

Click here to print the table.

Conclusion

Due to the effects of anxiety and the difficulties they experience at school, students with LDs may carry an extra burden. Educators must be on the lookout for signs of anxiety in their students. This will enable them to implement appropriate strategies in a timely fashion; ease the impact of the anxiety; and promote their students’ mental health. These measures may be included in an individualized education plan (IEP), whether the student has been identified as exceptional or not. They may also be included as different expectations or described in an action plan that is separate from the IEP.

Related Resources on the LD@school Website:

Click here to access an article by Cindy Perras, entitled "Learning Disabilities and Mental Health".

Click here to access the “Ask the Expert” question and answer on mental health and students with LDs.

Click here for a webinar by Dr. Cameron Montgomery on Adolescent Stress, Coping Strategies and Learning Disabilities.  

Click here to access the video, "Supporting the Mental Health and Well-Being of Students with LDs through Integra Mindfulness Martial Arts (Part I)".

Click here to access the video, "A Mindfulness Practice to Support the Well-Being of Students with LDs – Feed All Four".

Click here to access the video, "Mindfulness Teaching Practices: Implementing the Integra Mindfulness Martial Arts Program in the Trillium Lakelands District School Board (Part II)".

Related Resources

Click here for the Ontario Ministry of Education document Supporting Minds: An Educator's Guide to Promoting Students' Mental Health and Well-being, which contains a table of behaviours and strategies that can be used in the classroom. (EDU 2013; 34-7).

Click here to read an article on Helping a Child with Anxiety, on the Smart Kids with Learning Disabilities website.

Click here to read information for teachers on the Worried Child, on the ABCs of Mental Health website.

Click here to access information on the « De-Stress for success program », a 5 workshop program that provides stress education for children making the transition from middle-school to high school, by the Centre for Studies on Human Stress (CSHS).

Click here to access various editions of Mammouth magazine, the offical magazine of CSHS.

References

Beaulieu, Jacinthe. (2013). L'anxiété à l'école - Présentation au colloque des TES. Commission scolaire des Samares, Québec. Repéré à http://www.colloquetes.org/upload/File/documents2013/atelier_%2323_Lanxiete_a_lecole.pdf

Lecours, Geneviève, Landry, Nathalie et Émond, Michelle. (2013). Les difficultés d'apprentissage: comment faire au quotidien. Commission scolaire de Laval, Québec. Repéré à http://www.pierrepotvin.com/8.%20Banque%20d'outils/Difficultes_apprentissage_%20strategies.pdf

Ministère de l'Éducation de l’Ontario. (2013). Vers un juste équilibre, Pour promouvoir la santé mentale et le bien-être des élèves, Guide du personnel enseignant, version provisoire. Repéré à http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/fre/document/reports/SupportingMindsFr.pdf

Painchaud, Manon. (2014). Pourquoi ai-je mal à l'estomac? Comment les personnes ayant une difficulté d'apprentissage peuvent utiliser des stratégies cognitives pour réduire l'anxiété et le stress à l'école ? Commission scolaire Val-des-Cerfs, Québec. Repéré à http://aqps.qc.ca/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/13-1-081.pdf

Turgeon, L., Brousseau, L. (2000). Prévention des problèmes d’anxiété chez les jeunes.  Dans Problèmes d’adaptation chez les enfants et les adolescents, Vitaro, F., Gagnon, C., Presses de l’Université du Québec.