How to Help Students Overcome Social Anxiety in the Classroom

Sure, we all get nervous, but what happens when that nervousness becomes serious, even debilitating? This is the case for people with social anxiety, a disorder more and more young people are exhibiting today. Fortunately, social anxiety is treatable with a good network of parents, counselors, and teachers. We’ll look at what social anxiety is, how you can detect it, and what you can do to help students who are wrestling with it.


Social Anxiety’s Increasing Prevalence


Social Anxiety

Image via Flickr by juliejordanscott

Everyone experiences a bit of fear of being judged, but for people with social anxiety, the fear is much worse. Fifteen million Americans suffer from social anxiety, a condition in which individuals fear the scrutiny of others. This debilitating condition can lead to depression and low self-esteem, and in more extreme cases, it can stop a person from even appearing in public.


While individuals with social anxiety may feel more comfortable sharing information about themselves on social media, sometimes technology can actually lead to increased social anxiety, especially among teens. We often see images of young people, heads bent, intently staring at their phone or mobile device. Because they are so distracted by these devices, students are becoming less apt to engage in social interaction; as a result, some students are becoming more uncomfortable with interacting with other people face-to-face.


Social Anxiety Symptoms

Many of us are shy, meaning we may not necessarily prefer to be in certain social situations, but we will still participate in that situation. This is not the case for someone with social anxiety. When placed in a social situation or in an event in which they are the center of attention, people with social anxiety may experience increased heartbeat, nausea, sweating, and dizziness — all characteristics of fear. Of course, worrying that these symptoms are obvious to others only exacerbates the problem.

While group therapy and prescription remedies exist, sadly many social anxiety sufferers turn to substance abuse rather than seeking out treatment.  Furthermore, about 50 percent of social anxiety patients fail to complete high school, which is why resolving this issue early on with our youth is critical.


How to Detect Social Anxiety

According to the U.S. Surgeon General, one out of every eight young people aged nine to seventeen suffers from social anxiety. Being on the front lines of student life, you are able to detect patterns in their behavior that may be symptomatic of something deeper. We have all seen the “loners” in schools: These students avoid social activities and interactions and are often alone. Pay attention to these students; if they demonstrate significant anxiety or anger when you call upon them to participate in class, they may be suffering from social anxiety. Even worse, their behavior may cause other students to label them negatively, such as “loser” or “snob.”

For younger students, social anxiety might be more obviously manifested. Selective mutism, an instance in which a child who can talk refuses to do so, is one clear indication. Children who refuse to detach from their parents or who respond to social situations with excuses of illness or by throwing a tantrum may also be experiencing a form of social anxiety. Massachusetts General Hospital indicates that social anxiety is clearly seen after age 12, when social relationships become more prevalent in a child’s life.


How to Help Students Manage Social Anxiety   


Managing social anxiety in children requires a concerted joint effort between schools and parents. If you think that a student may be experiencing social anxiety, be sure to alert the parent and school counselor immediately, in addition to trying the following interventions:


Encourage Participation: Social anxiety is social avoidance, but encouraging students to engage in social situations can actually help them overcome social anxiety. However, this must be done only when the student is ready; otherwise, it could cause them to relapse further into their anxiety.


Write Clear Directions: Because of their intense fear of failure, students with social anxiety are pleasers, trying to ensure that they follow all rules and directions to a T. When offering directions for an assignment, place them in written form so students can clearly understand your expectations and gauge if they are completing the assignment correctly.


Carefully Arrange Students: Seating a student with social anxiety near distracting, rowdy, or judgmental students is far from beneficial. Arrange your classroom to encourage students with social anxiety to sit near people who are more focused on learning. Coordinating pairs and groups yourself for in-class projects means you can carefully select with whom the student works, and it eliminates the embarrassment of being the last student picked by their classmates.


Give Them a Break: All students need a break occasionally, but socially anxious students may need to break away from the pressures of social interaction. Offering students a signal, such as a certain colored card to place on their desk, indicates their desire to take a break to refresh their mind, and it lets you know they are not ready to participate in class at that time.


Consider Them an Expert: Encouraging students to become an expert at something can also alleviate social anxiety. These students may be particularly knowledgeable about cooking, music, art, or even current events. If they are able to display their knowledge in a non-judgmental environment, like the classroom, they may be able to see that others can appreciate them. For instance, if a student knows a great deal about the Civil War, requesting their expertise during that portion of the history lesson gives them something to contribute, and it demonstrates the value of who they are and what they know.


Follow Up on Absences: Students who suffer from social anxiety will typically skip school to avoid social confrontation. If you take attendance, you will notice this pattern quickly. Follow up with the student and parent to find the root of the student’s absences. Not only does this demonstrate the concern you have for the student, but it also enables you to help them find resources to resolve their social anxiety.


Create Mindfulness Lessons: While the school conducts most therapeutic programs for socially anxious students, you can create solutions to the problem part of your curriculum. Teaching students about mindfulness can help students focus more on problem-solving and less on worry. To get started, Mindfulness in Schools offers a 10-step lesson plan to encourage more mindfulness in the classroom.


In Short


Social anxiety is a debilitating disease that is not limited to adults. More children today are experiencing this anxiety, due in part to the ubiquity of technology. As teachers, we can help our students break free from the chains of social anxiety.


  1. HelenHe

    June 4, 2015 at 12:44 am

    You are correct that every student is good at something. We should encourage them and make sure that their potential can be brought into full play.

  2. ugc net admit card

    June 4, 2015 at 10:36 pm

    Social anxiety is similar to stage fear, many of us are really good at singing, dancing but stage fear won’t make us do so publicly. Similarly many bright students do not express their selves in class room due to social anxiety. There is only one solution to this problem at the student’s end: face it. The more you face challenges and people the more confident you become.
    Have a good day.

  3. ned

    June 7, 2015 at 4:47 pm

    Bullying can create the false stigma of social anxiety. Most children would participate in a proactive positive environment. Teachers can help cultivate healthy socializing or they can make it worse by letting children fend for themselves.

  4. Sarah Braverman

    June 8, 2015 at 12:30 pm

    This year sadly brought a higher number of students suffering from social anxiety. I had many conversations with parents and students who were seeking treatment for anxiety and/or depression. My conflict came from students who missed deadlines and/or struggled with major assignments. In many cases, I only found out about this anxiety because of conversations with parents – many of the students displayed virtually none of the behaviors that should help me detect social anxiety. Their parents would often comment that their children put on a brave face at school. I struggle finding ways to give students what they need while still holding them accountable for their responsibilities as a student. Does anyone else share this struggle?

  5. Mike brown

    June 8, 2015 at 12:33 pm

    I have found that recently more and more students in my classes have anxiety or depression, interestingly very few of them are in my AP classes, however I have younger students in there- freshmen and sophomores- so that may be a reason why. I found the tip on encouraging participation by seeing if they’re an expert on a specific topic to be most useful, and also to consider their anxiety when grouping them with loud or judgmental students.