There is often no single cause for anxiety. Common risk factors include having a parent with anxiety, stressful life events, health issues, frequent lack of sleep, neurodevelopmental disorders, learning disabilities and temperament.
Children who are exposed to one or more stressful or traumatic life events are more likely to have high levels of anxiety. Such events threaten their perceived or actual safety (and/or the safety of those close to them) and challenge their coping resources. Stressful or traumatic events may include major illness, experiencing a natural or man-made disaster, abuse, bullying, and family breakdown or dysfunction. Note, the child does not have to personally experience the traumatic event; they may be affected by seeing distressing images on the news; viewing mature audience films, videos or games; or hearing adults discussing a disturbing event.
Within the home stressful and traumatic life events may be experienced, for example:
- More than 20 per cent of Australian children live with a parent who has a mental illness. It is estimated between one-third and two-thirds of children of parents known to adult mental health services experience difficulties coping. 
- Approximately one-third of Australian marriages end in divorce.. In addition, a significant number of other family relationships involve separations. About two-thirds of children from separated families will exhibit changes in behaviour and/or heightened levels of anxiety at school. 
- Up to one-quarter of young people in Australia have witnessed an incident of physical family violence against their mother or stepmother.  Children are often embroiled in these incidents. Children’s exposure to family violence is a form of child abuse, with about two-thirds of children traumatised by the exposure. 
Children who live in a stressful residential environment may also be prone to anxiety. For example, children in some residential settings may feel physically and psychologically unsafe and fearful of peers and/or siblings. To reduce vulnerability, they may play within the protective ‘safety’ of a tight friendship group or gang. Unfortunately, group members can turn on one another verbally and/or physically, leading to children feeling distress, and elevating anxiety. This anxiety can carry into school when they attend the same school or share the same classroom, as they never have a chance to feel free of each other.
It is expected that all schools will provide a physically safe environment for children. Your school can help to create an emotionally safe environment by focussing on the following:
- Uphold zero tolerance for bullying. Bullied children can have persistent feelings of anxiety and depression, impacting on their physical and psychological health. For some, anxiety and depression will be resolved when bullying stops, but for others, residual worry, anxiety or depression can persist. Trained or experienced teachers and counsellors might use the Shared Concern Method a non-punitive strategy that addresses group bullying. Also see the Behaviour support strategies package in the Member’s Area of the Psych4Schools website to support bullied students.
- Build a strong whole of school program for recognising and reinforcing pro-social behaviour. For example, see Education and Training in Victoria School-wide positive support. Promote and advertise your program to parents and within the community.
- Teach assertive ways to deal with verbal harassment and teasing. For example, the most common type of bullying in Australian schools is verbal and covert. A number of students might privately subject a vulnerable child to repeated negative comments about them or a family member such as, ‘Go cry to your mother’. Work with the child to write the teasing down and quarantine the statements into an envelope or box. Assist the child to counter these comments with positive, productive written statements. These assertive, affirming and resilience building statements can be used by the child to develop positive self-talk (what they say to themselves) about their own behavior and help to counter conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviours.
- Expect all students to work on solving conflicts and tensions using pro-social strategies or acceptance of differences of view. Trained or experienced teachers and counsellors might support with Restorative practice which seeks to repair relationships.
- Implement a welfare system that is proactive rather than reactive. For example, provide support and early intervention with students who are at risk of disengaging. Help anxious children to feel they belong by establishing computer clubs, library groups, games groups, and mentoring roles with peers.
- Provide one-to-one teacher or school counsellor support. On a term or semester basis, teachers and other support staff agree to spend an additional 15 – 20 minutes once or twice a week with a specific child to form a trusting and supportive relationship. They can start by saying good morning and goodbye to the anxious child to show they are noticed and important. Note: Referral to a psychologist requires parental consent.
- Establish regular liaison with housing estate youth workers and other community workers who provide safe before- and after- school activities to assist children and their families to care about or at least tolerate each other. In addition, assist some parents to build the skills needed to take turns to support and oversee small manageable groups of children to promote pro-social play.
- Seek agreements from families not to have ‘sleep overs’ during the school week, and to implement agreed, adhered to, night curfews for children.
- Set a calm tone and don’t raise your voice. Yelling and sudden loud noises can increase anxiety in many children. Take responsibility for your emotions and model emotional regulation. If you lose control of your emotions and yell, reassure and explain why you acted this way, without blaming others.
- Prepare children for unexpected routine changes. Aim to inform, rather than excessively reassure, as this may reinforce anxiety. Explain changes once or twice but not repeatedly. Reassure where details are yet to be confirmed, for example, ‘I’m not completely sure of the changes yet, but I will advise you as soon as I know.’
- Provide ‘safe zones’. Analyse the school and classroom physical environment for trouble hot spots and establish calm zones and quiet play areas. Anxious children may feel overwhelmed by the vastness of the playground and fear getting hurt by other children running or playing in fast moving games.
- Teach safe online behaviours to assist children understand and manage cyberbullying incidents. For further information see Psych4Schools blog, Together for a better internet.
Teachers work in challenging times as they address the many impacts of student anxiety. Look for strategies that will help all children feel they belong at school and are valued.
We’re keen to hear from you if you have strategies and resources to support schools to reduce or manage student anxiety. Contact us below with comments or suggestions.
This blog draws from the forthcoming ebooklet, Working with children who are anxious (and helping to prevent anxiety) (revised) by Murray Evely and Zoe Ganim, 2019, as well as information in the Anxiety resources package in the Member’s Area.
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Murray Evely, Psych4Schools Psychologist/Guidance Officer
Maybery D, Reupert A. (2005) VicHealth Research Report on Children at Risk in Families affected by Parental Mental Illness. Melbourne: Victorian Health Promotion Foundation, cited in Position Statement 56, Children of parents with a mental illness, The Royal Australian & New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, October 2009. See,https://www.ranzcp.org/Files/Resources/College_Statements/Position_Statements/ps56-pdf.aspx
Australian Infant C, Adolescent and Family Mental Health Association Ltd (AICAFMHA). Information retrieved from the website www.copmi.net.au. The Children of Parents with a Mental Illness National Resource Centre: Facts and Figures, cited in in Position Statement 56, Children of parents with a mental illness, The Royal Australian & New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, October 2009.
4102.0 – Australian Social Trends, 2007. Australian Bureau of Statistics (2007). Accessed 14 January 2010 at http://www.abs.gov.au/Ausstats/ABS@.nsf/0/26D94B4C9A4769E6CA25732C00207644?opendocument#DIVORCE
Evely, M. & Ganim, Z., (2011) Working with children of divorced or separated parents with conflict issues, Melbourne, Australia: Psych4Schools https://www.psych4schools.com.au/free-resources/divorced-parents/
Indermaur, D., (2001), Young Australians and Domestic Violence, No.195, Australian Institute of Criminology. Trends & issues in crime and criminal justice, Canberra ACT Australia. See, http://www.aic.gov.au/documents/C/8/B/%7BC8BCD19C-D6D0-4268-984F-B6AF9505E5EA%7Dti195.pdf
Richards, K., (2011) Trends & issues in crime and criminal justice. Australian Government, Australian institute of Criminology. No. 419. See, http://www.aic.gov.au/publications/current%20series/tandi/401-420/tandi419.html
Rigby, K. and Johnson, K. (2016), The Prevalence and Effectiveness of Anti-Bullying Strategies employed in Australian Schools, Adelaide, University of South Australia. See, www. ken rigby .net/School-Action