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Social Anxiety Factsheet (for Schools)

Reviewed by: D'Arcy Lyness, PhD
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What Teachers Should Know

Students with social anxiety feel overly concerned with how others see them. They feel extremely self-consciousness and fear being embarrassed, making mistakes, or looking foolish. As a result, they may feel anxious participating in everyday social situations like meeting new people, talking in groups, or speaking in front of the class.

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), which includes exposure therapy. In therapy, students learn to gradually face feared situations instead of avoid them.

Therapists teach coping skills to help students handle situations they fear, including skills to calm themselves. They teach ways to adjust thoughts that lead to anxiety and ways to use more helpful thoughts to use in situations that trigger anxiety. Therapists help students make a list of situations that trigger their anxiety and to rank them from least to most difficult. As a student learns coping skills, they face the easiest situations on the list first, practicing the coping skills they are learning.

Gradually, students learn to face feared situations rather than avoid them. In some cases, 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 situations
  • avoid school or participating in class
  • seem embarrassed, lonely, or withdrawn
  • have physical symptoms such as sweating, shaking, stomach pains, nausea, and a racing heart beat (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; assign partners for paired activities
  • assign a classroom buddy to provide support
  • 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 a student can go to 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 best ways to help them.
Reviewed by: D'Arcy Lyness, PhD
Date reviewed: September 2021