Anxiety at School: What teachers and parents can do.

The more teachers, coaches, or any important adult can help children feel safe, seen, cared for, the more those kids will feel safe enough to ask for help, take safe risks, learn, be curious, be brave, learn, grow.

The research is so clear on this. Students who genuinely feel cared for by their teachers do better at school. This is because when children feel relationally safe, the learning brain opens wide up. Without that felt sense of relational safety, the brain will focus on getting ‘safe’ rather than learning.

Brains are here to keep us safe. They aren’t here to keep us happy, for relationships, learning, play – unless that matters right now for our survival. The priority for all brains is safety. When we talk about ‘safety’, this isn’t about what is actually safe or not safe. It’s about what the brain perceives. It’s also not just about physical safety. Relational safety (feeling cared for, welcome, seen, validated, free from humiliation, shame, judgement) is just as important to the brain. 

When the brain registers any form of threat, even if ‘threat’ is unlikely or teeny, it will hoard all available resources in case it needs them for survival. Only when brains feel truly safe 

Any ideas that behaviour at school should be managed with separation-based discipline, shame, star charts or behaviour charts or anything that publicly ranks students (someone is always on the bottom – usually the same someones), or overly-stern voices are outdated and are not at all informed by science. Fear does not motivate. It shuts down the learning brain and makes it impossible for children to learn. It does the same to adults. It’s also why we need to steer away from suspensions and stand-downs. None of these fix the problem long term. They’re the biggest ‘you’re not welcome’ signs children can get and will only contribute to the problem long-term. Of course, none of this means ‘no boundaries’. It means building relational safety and setting and enforcing boundaries in ways that don’t tear it apart.

Unless you’re one of the ones anxious kids feel safe with, you’ll only see the tip of what they are capable of. School and learning were never meant to be about how outgoing kids are or how confident they are in initiating contact with an adult. Greatness is built bit by bit, and the foundations are strongest when it’s safe.

What parents can do.

  • Know that whatever you decide, they will follow. Do you believe they are safe and loved at school? This isn’t a rhetorical question. Building relationships that feel safe and loving for children takes time. If you aren’t quite there yet, they won’t be either. What can help you feel more certain? Do you need a conversation? More information? Help to facilitate a relationship between your child and an anchor adult? Have a conversation with your child’s school. They want to be the best they can be for your child too, and you’re the one who can help that happen.
  • Be the ‘glue’ that connects your child and their teacher. Whenever you can, let your child know you like and trust their teacher. To facilitate this, ask your child’s teacher to tell you something your child did well – maybe once a month or once a fortnight. Then, pass this on to your child. ‘Mrs Jones emailed me to let me know how hard you’re working in maths. I really love the way she noticed that about you.’ Or, incidental comments sprinkled around that sound something like, ‘I really like your teacher. I think you got a goodie with Mr Smith.’

What teachers can do.

  • Let them know you’re their person: ‘I’m going to help you do the very best you can this year. ‘Being my best’ will mean different things to different people. I’d love to know what this means for you and how I can help. What matters most to me is that you try hard, make brave choices, be kind, and know that you can come to me any time. The more you can help me understand what you need and what doesn’t work for you, the more I can help you have a great year. I’m so pleased you’re in my class.’
  • At the start of the year (or any time), ask them to write the answers to the following questions:
    • What does ‘doing well this year’ look like for you?
    • What might make this hard?
    • How can I help?
    • What are three things teachers have done for you in the past that have helped you have a good year?
    • What are three things that teachers have done in the past that have made it harder?
    • I wish my teacher knew …
  • Build the connection. Micro-moments matter. Whenever you can (and you might not be able to do this all the time, and that’s okay), connect when they walk into the room. Let this be verbal or non-verbal. As soon as kids walk into a room, they’ll be looking to the adult in the room for, ‘Do you see me? Are you happy I’m here? Are you ready to receive me today?’ They’re looking to answer the big relational safety question: ‘Am I welcome here?’

And finally …

Good teachers change lives. They really do. So much of a young person’s experience at school isn’t about what teachers teach but about who they are. When children feel seen and safe, learning will happen. The brain will surrender safety resources and allow those resources to feed into curiosity, learning, connecting, and growing in all the vibrant ways we know they can. 

One Comment


This is just so affirming and so spot on… as a mumma and a teacher I know how crucial it is for children to feel safe and to connect with their teacher/ teachers at school.
Keep up the really insightful and helpful pieces, Karen.


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Thanks so much @maggiedentauthor♥️…
“Karen Young - Hey Sigmund has such a wonderful way with words especially around anxiety. This is her latest beautiful picture book that explains anxiety through the lens of the Polyvagal theory using the metaphor of a house. This shows how sometimes anxiety can be hard to notice. I think this book can help kids and teens better understand stress and anxiety. I loved it! This would be great for homes, schools and in libraries.
Congratulations Karen.💛”
Of course we love them, no matter what - but they need to feel us loving them, no matter what. Especially when they are acting in unlovable ways, or saying unlovable things. Especially then.

This is not ‘rewarding bad behaviour’. To think this assumes that they want to behave badly. They don’t. What they want is to feel calm and safe again, but in that moment they don’t have the skills to do that themselves, so they need us to help them. 

It’s leading with love. It’s showing up, even when it’s hard. The more connected they feel to us, the more capacity we will have to lead them - back to calm, into better choices, towards claiming their space in the world kindly, respectfully, and with strength. 

This is not about dropping the boundary, but about holding it lovingly, ‘I can see you’re doing it tough right now. I’m right here. No, I won’t let you [name the boundary]. I’m right here. You’re not in trouble. We’ll get through this together.’

If you’re not sure what they need, ask them (when they are calm), ‘When you get upset/ angry/ anxious, what could I do that would help you feel loved and cared for in that moment? And this doesn’t mean saying ‘yes’ to a ‘no’ situation. What can I do to make the no easier to handle? What do I do that makes it harder?’♥️
Believe them AND believe in them. 

‘Yes this is hard. I know how much you don’t want to do this. It feels big doesn’t it. And I know you can do big things, even when it feels like you can’t. How can I help?’

They won’t believe in themselves until we show them what they are capable of. For this, we’ll have to believe in their ‘can’ more than they believe in their ‘can’t’.♥️
Sometimes it feels as though how we feel directs what we do, but it also works the other way: What we do will direct how we feel. 

When we avoid, we feel more anxious, and a bigger need to avoid. But when we do brave - and it only needs to be a teeny brave step - we feel brave. The braver we do, the braver we feel, and the braver we do… This is how we build brave - with tiny, tiny uncertain steps. 

So, tell me how you feel. All feelings are okay to be there. Now tell me what you like to do if your brave felt a little bigger. What tiny step can we take towards that. Because that brave is always in you. Always. And when you take the first step, your brave will rise bigger to meet you.♥️
#anxietyinkids #consciousparenting #parentingtips #gentleparent #parentinglife #mindfulparenting #childanxiety #heywarrior
If anxiety has had extra big teeth lately, I know how brutal this feels. I really do. Think of it as the invitation to strengthen your young ones against anxiety. It’s not the disappearance of brave, or the retreat of brave. It’s the invitation to build their brave.

This is because the strengthening against anxiety happens only with experience. When the experience is in front of you, it can feel like bloodshed. I know that. I really do. But this is when we fight for them and with them - to show them they can do this.

The need to support their avoidance can feel relentless. But as long as they are safe, we don’t need to hold them back. We’ll want to, and they’ll want us to, but we don’t need to. 

Handling the distress of anxiety IS the work. Anxiety isn’t the disruption to building brave, it’s the invitation to build brave. As their important adult who knows they are capable, strong, and brave, you are the one to help them do that.

The amygdala only learns from experience - for better or worse. So the more they avoid, the more the amygdala learns that the thing they are avoiding is ‘unsafe’, and it will continue to drive a big fight (anger, distress) or flight (avoidance) response. 

On the other hand, when they stay with the discomfort of anxiety - and they only need to stay with it for a little longer each time (tiny steps count as big steps with anxiety) - the amygdala learns that it’s okay to move forward. It’s safe enough.

This learning won’t happen quickly or easily though. In fact, it will probably get worse before it gets better. This is part of the process of strengthening them against anxiety, not a disruption to it. 

As long as they are safe, their anxiety and the discomfort of that anxiety won’t hurt them. 
What’s important making sure they don’t feel alone in their distress. We can do this with validation, which shows our emotional availability. 

They also need to feel us holding the boundary, by not supporting their avoidance. This sends the message that we trust their capacity to handle this.

‘I know this feels big, and I know you can do this. What would feel brave right now?’♥️

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