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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.