What Teachers Should Know
Students with social anxiety feel overly concerned with how others see them. They feel extremely self-conscious and fear being embarrassed, making mistakes, or looking foolish. As a result, they may feel anxious about participating in social and performance-based situations.
Social anxiety is a fear reaction to something that isn't actually dangerous — although the body and mind react as if the danger is real. This means students with social anxiety actually feel the physical sensations of fear, like a faster heartbeat and breathing. Fears that they'll be embarrassed, look foolish, make a mistake, or be judged, criticized, or laughed at (even if these fears aren't realistic) lead them to avoid many situations.
Some students with social anxiety are so fearful about talking to others that they don't speak at all to certain people (such as teachers or students they don't know) or in certain places (like at school or at someone else's house). This form of social anxiety is called selective mutism.
Students who have social anxiety may need therapy to help them overcome it. Therapists treat social anxiety with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
Therapists teach students skills to calm themselves. They also teach ways to adjust thoughts that lead to anxiety and ways to use more helpful thoughts in situations that trigger anxiety. Therapists also use exposure therapy, where students gradually face situations that trigger their anxiety, often using a ranked list of least- to most-difficult situations.
Gradually, students learn to face feared situations rather than avoid them. In some cases where social anxiety interferes with day-to-day functioning, doctors may prescribe medicines to help ease the anxiety. Some students may need this before they are able to face feared situations.
Students with social anxiety may:
- feel self-conscious and anxious in social or performance-based situations where they are observed by others, such as speaking in front of the class, raising their hand to answer a question, or eating in the presence of peers
- avoid school or participating in class
- seem embarrassed, lonely, or withdrawn
- have physical symptoms such as sweating, shaking, stomach pains, nausea, and a racing heartbeat (panic attack) when they face feared situations
- need intervention with a school counselor or therapist to help them handle social situations
- be targeted by bullies
- be overprotected by well-meaning friends who are willing to talk for them
What Teachers Can Do
The best way to help your student is to be supportive and non-judgmental. You can:
- structure classroom activities and small groups so anxious students are not left out
- allow students to select their own partner(s) for group-based assignments
- assign a classroom buddy to provide support
- let students know in advance, if possible, that they will be asked a question in class
- offer to help a student rehearse if they need to give a report in class
- encourage students to participate to the extent that they are able
- be patient and positive as students learn ways to cope
- make relaxation skills part of your classroom routine — this can be as simple as inviting students to take a few calm, slow breaths
- encourage anxious students to try to speak for themselves when they can, rather than speaking for them
- identify a quiet place (e.g., a restroom, hallway, or nurse’s office) where a student can go if they feel overwhelmed
- encourage attendance, which may require shortened school days and modified class schedules
- meet regularly with parents, counselors, and school staff to discuss the student's progress and the best ways to help them
- offer an alternative space to eat lunch if necessary
For students with significant social anxiety that impacts their academic performance or classroom participation, it may help to set up formal accommodations, such as a 504 plan.