Anxiety, Learning, and the Special Needs Learner

Excessive anxiety has been shown to have a detrimental effect on learning. It can impair working memory. This makes it difficult to retain information. Learning capability is seriously impaired. This is because anxiety causes students to work less effectively. Thinking capacity and capability is also diminished when anxious.

For many already anxious children, the covid-19 pandemic has made all of this worse.

Anxiety is normal, and even healthy… until it isn’t

Anxiety is associated with avoidance behaviour and muscle tension. It anticipates a future concern. It is a normal response to stress. In many situations it can even be beneficial. Anxiety alerts us to dangers. This allows us to prepare and pay attention.

However, anxiety disorders involve excessive anxiety and fears. They exceed normal levels of feeling anxious. They can be defined as ongoing anxiety for longer than six months. This is beyond expected day-to-day nervousness. In this sense, 30% of adults will experience an anxiety disorder at some point, making these disorders the most common forms of all mental disorders.

Anxiety disorders and children

Some set the normative level of anxiety in children aged 6 six to eleven as quite low. Statistics from The Anxiety and Depression Association of America show the level of anxiety in this age group to be very high. Their figures show that one in eight children are affected by an anxiety disorder in the USA. This figure has been quite consistent for the better part of a decade. Anxiety was this prevalent before the international Covid-19 pandemic.

Some have even called anxiety a hidden disorder for children.

Anxiety disorders in South African children

The figures are even worse in South Africa. In this country about one person in every five suffer from an anxiety disorder.

South Africa already had an ailing mental healthcare system. With the onset of the covid-19 pandemic, public mental health has been further negatively affected in this country.

What can anxiety in children look like?

Up until the age of three, from the age of 18 months, separation anxiety is usual. For cases in which it has continued beyond that age, this could be an anxiety disorder. It is being extremely fearful of separating from caregivers or parents. Separation can even cause high levels of distress,

Episodes of intense fear can cause panic attacks. These are incidents where children may experience difficulty breathing, dizziness and a rapid heart rate. Fear of future panic attacks can cause further anxious episodes.

Social anxiety is an intense fear of being judged socially or for performance. It can lead to a refusal to be in public spaces due to feelings of fear. Dreading interacting with other people and/or children is another sign of this disorder. For some children, their anxiety is triggered by having to speak in front of others or social situations. Though less common, some sufferers might have selective mutism.

Children might fear the future to a point that they are preoccupied with their worry. Their thoughts will never move far away from the bad things that might happen concerning many different things. This would be state of generalised anxiety. Some children will experience physical symptoms. These can include fatigue, muscle tension and/or stomach aches and/or headaches.

Children can also suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder or specific phobias.

Anxiety and Learning

Anxiety’s impact on working memory makes it difficult to remember new information. Anxious students work less effectively. They also have diminished thinking ability and capability.

A study showed that excessively anxious first graders performed poorly in reading and maths. They were also two-and-a-half times more likely to be in the lowest 25% of maths achievement. They were eight times more likely to be in the same category for reading.

A further effect of anxiety is that it can lead to learners being uncomfortable in a school environment. This discomfort is distracting. This makes it more difficult to learn, getting in the way of concentration.

This can lead to avoidance. Anxiety of school or homework can mean that students cope by not doing the work or “checking out” mentally even if still in school. Others might find the physical effects of the anxiety allow them to stay off school. This can lead to falling behind in schoolwork. This in turn leads to more anxiety. And the cycle can continue.

How children with special needs are even more at risk for anxiety

Children that learn differently from mainstream students often suffer from anxiety. They are more likely to be anxious than children without these challenges. This is especially true for children who have recently been diagnosed with a learning disorder. As many as 29% of these children are clinically anxious.

For some of these learners it is the difference in how they learn that causes the anxiety. For others it might be that there is a genetic link between the learner challenge and the anxiety.

Some specific links between learning challenges and anxiety

Children diagnosed with ADHD are three times more likely to have anxiety than other children. Children with dyslexia are routinely under ongoing, unremitting stress. This state is what leads to anxiety.

For children with sensory processing issues, bright lights and loud noises can be overwhelming. Strange and unfamiliar surroundings and situations are very stressful. Stress itself can cause a sensory overload for these learners. For this reason they can be very anxious about the future. All of us have been worried about what is to come. But for children with this condition it can be terrifying.

This is also true for children who have slow processing speed. They are often anxious. This is because their condition impacts on everything they face in the day. From taking tests to speaking to friends, they are under constant stress to respond according to the expectations of others. We all take a moment to process a situation that is stressful. For many children with slow processing speed their slowness causes real anxiety.

How you can help an anxious child

Have a productive family routine that is solid and consistent. This will help children feel safe and secure. Chat with your kids about lots of different topics, as often as is possible. Make sure to talk about school. This helps them feel comfortable telling you about issues that could cause them anxiety. This will allow you to guide them through what they are facing.

Limit screen time. Encourage quiet moments where they do nothing for a few minutes. Make sure they are getting enough sleep.

Be engaged with their schooling. Read with your children and see what homework they are doing. Ask them about their school day. This will help you pick up on areas that might be a problem.

Praise effort. Encourage them to keep trying. Get help for the children when they need it. Seek out help if you need it yourself in helping them.

Japari has decades of experience in equipping children to deal with their anxiety

Japari has decades of experience of lovingly working with children who have particular learning needs. We don’t only help children to learn math, science and English. We also equip them with the life skills they need to deal with living in a real world.

Within a gentle and loving environment, we are able to assist children in their anxiety. This is so that when they leave our school, they are ready for the world that awaits them.

Our students are given the tools to continue to learn effectively and live life fully. They are taught to achieve all that they can be. Their potential is unlocked and they are ready to be part of making the world a better place.

Bibliography/Further Reading:

Leave a Comment