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Reaching Out to Anxious Students

Some back-to-school advice from News-O-Matic's child psychologist, Dr. Phyllis Ohr.

Hello, educators. I hope your first few weeks of school have been exciting. By now you are getting to know your students and most likely amazed by the many different personality types or “flavors” represented in your class. Exposure to a diverse or “flavorful” class can help children develop compassion and tolerance, especially when their teacher models acceptance and support.


For most children being shy or worrying is a common, predictable, normal experience. You may have noticed students who are shy or worry a lot about their grades, but still do well academically and socially. According to Jerome Kagan, a well known child development specialist, these children are “temperamentally inhibited”, which is a common inherited style of behaving. As the teacher of an inhibited child, you can use any of the recipe tips for POSITIVE RELATIONSHIPS to help you develop rapport with inhibited students — and even help prevent their shyness or worrying from developing into a way of behaving that interferes with a successful school experience.

But what should you do if some students in your class are so intensely shy or worried that their discomfort interferes with their academic and/or social functioning?

Some children feel so uncomfortable in school that they avoid answering your questions or avoid social interactions, even with other children. If their discomfort or anxiety is ongoing, is felt very intensely, and interferes with the student socially or academically, then that child might have an anxiety disorder that seems to be worse when that child is in school. When a child in your class won’t talk at all in school even to classmates, but feels comfortable talking in other places, like home, that child may be diagnosed with Selective Mutism. A student who avoids interactions with others, whether other children or adults, and who is clearly distressed if told to interact may be diagnosed with Social Anxiety Disorder. Even if the socially anxious child is able to communicate verbally, feeling intensely uncomfortable around other children makes being in school very challenging.

Most children with high levels of anxiety feel less anxious if they can avoid the situations making them feel uncomfortable, such as demands to answer out loud or interact with other children. According to learning theory, avoidance reduces anxiety temporarily and ultimately can maintain or increase anxiety. Most anxious children can be helped to reduce their discomfort in the long term by approaching what is making them anxious using gradual exposure. So what can you do as a teacher? Well, you can read my “healthy tips” below.



  • Accept that your student is doing the best they can do at this moment in time and tell them you realize “being brave” is not easy. Stress how both of you working together can help them feel more comfortable, but the plan is to help increase their talking and interactions. You can provide incentives (“small prizes” that they earn) or just talk about what would change for them in a good way if they were able to talk and play with others.

  • Patiently wait for your student to answer your questions if they are selectively mute. A good rule of thumb is to count silently for 5 seconds and then restate your question using a different question type. There are three frequently used question types: forced choice (“Do you want a blue or red crayon?”), yes/no (“Do you want a blue crayon?”) and open-ended (“What color crayon do you want to draw with?”). Some children respond the best to forced-choice questions so you may want to first ask a forced-choice question, wait 5 seconds and then restate your question using a yes/no or open-ended format.

  • Praise their efforts to respond to you whether they give a full voice verbal reply, a whispered response or a gesture. Sometimes progress is slow. Remember that your goal is to encourage them to approach verbal communication and interaction, but if your student is not ready then a head shake or pointing is at least an approach towards communicating with you. Once you get some type of answer let them know you appreciate their response by saying “thank you for letting me know”.

  • Respond positively to any of the ways a socially anxious child shows you they are approaching rather than avoiding social interactions Giving better eye contact, sitting closer to a group of students, and accepting a “fist bump” or “high five” are all small steps in the right direction

  • Openly talk to your students about this “personal challenge to be brave” that you are helping them with. It takes a high level of motivation and support to approach your fears and it’s good if they hear that you, their teacher, understand how difficult it is. You are asking them to work very hard to be brave. It’s okay to let them know about how you have faced personal challenges because they are not alone. Sharing relaxation tips that were helpful for you would be perfect, such as breathing in and out evenly while counting to ten or visualizing being in a safe place.

  • Alternatives to verbal communication should be presented for signaling important needs, such the need to go to the bathroom or go to the nurse. Planning on using a hand signal or a written pass will help the child feel in control while they are becoming less anxious in social situations. Having a nonverbal way to indicate important needs is a necessary for their sense of self efficacy which can significantly reduce their other worries.

  • Connect to your student through play. Children who are mute or socially anxious avoid talking and socializing in school because they fear negative judgment or embarrassing situations. Setting aside time either before or after school to play with no demands to talk can help students feel more comfortable and lead to increased talking. You can even add on other students.

  • Help parents make a video of the student in the classroom supposedly responding to the teacher asking specific questions, but the child is actually alone. With help from the parent edit in footage of you, the teacher, asking the actual questions and classmates sitting at their desks listening. This is called video self-modeling and frequent viewing of this video, even though the child knows it has been staged, has been shown to increase verbalizations and social interactions and reduce anxiety


You can use News-O-Matic to help anxious children learn to answer your questions and interact with their classmates in small groups of three or four. Follow these helpful tips:

  1. You first have to determine which children should be in the group with the anxious child. Spend a few days observing the anxious child’s social patterns. There may be a few students the anxious child seems comfortable with. If so, pair them with those students. If not, pair the child with two or three friendly students; preferably students who are outgoing (but not too outgoing) & quiet (but not too quiet).

  2. Spend a brief amount of time sitting with each group and ask questions about the News-O-Matic stories. A day before you start this, talk individually to the anxious child explaining that you are going to be joining each group to ask questions and that you will be using different types of questions. (Use my earlier hints to know about the types of questions you can ask and how to react.) Explain that you know it may be difficult for them and it would be great if they answer but, if not, that’s ok. You can even give the anxious child stickers or another type of incentive for talking. But this should be done individually with the student and not during group reading.

  3. Do group reading of News-O-Matic a few days a week and use my tips on the types of questions you should be asking in order to get the anxious child to respond. Also, use my tips to help you react to the anxious child in the best way: patiently, nonjudgmentally, and with acceptance (which is always a good way to react to all of the students in your class). I bet you will see some change within the first month. In fact, please write back and let me know!

Thank you for reading my post. I enjoyed putting together the ingredients for helping anxious children approach and how you can use News-O-Matic to help!

By Dr. Phyllis Ohr


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