How to Advocate for Students with Anxiety

Few educators and parents are better equipped to handle anxious kids than Christine Ravesi-Weinstein and Connie Hamilton. The former suffers from anxiety and is the author of Anxious: How to Advocate for Students with Anxiety, Because What if It Turns out Right? The latter is a school leader, author, and mother of a child with anxiety and depression.

Let's face it, most students suffer from some sort of anxiety, whether diagnosed or not, and educators struggle to identify anxious kids and to help them cope.

Hamilton shares her own experience with her daughter and how Ravesi-Weinstein's Anxious shows us how to become advocates, in her contribution to the book, shared below.

Connie Hamilton's Foreword to Anxious (Times 10, 2020). 

I am an educator and a parent. Not necessarily in that order. Throughout my career, I would pride myself on my ability to support my sons and my daughter in their academic lives.

My experience as a teacher, instructional coach, principal, and district level administrator has provided me with many perspectives and skills to help them from home with their learning. Although my sons Paul and Luke either didn’t need or rejected my help with school, my daughter, Allie, needed and wanted my expertise. I successfully helped her academically for years. Then high school hit.

Suddenly, her social and emotional needs were more than I could handle. It was not long before I realized the “girl drama” that I thought she was experiencing was so much more than typical. I spent hours trying to rationalize her emotions—unsuccessfully.

Some days it was all I could do to get her to go to school. Because I was an educational leader, I knew what the school was thinking of my parenting skills. Her absences racked up, and the truancy letters started to come. It seemed like every night was a battle. I relied on what had been successful with thousands of students I had worked with in my career.

Those strategies failed hard. I only made things worse. Allie would perseverate on things that seemed minor, irrelevant, and even ridiculous to me. I could see how her emotions were interfering with her learning. Now our family conversations were no longer about math or reading; they shifted to social and emotional issues.

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Comments like: “The teacher hates me; my friend is mad at me; everybody is judging me because of what so-and-so said” sparked hours of tears. I chalked up these issues to the tribulations of high school. Until the day that changed our lives forever.

A suicide attempt landed our daughter in the hospital. After her first visit, she was discharged with a diagnosis of depression and anxiety disorder. The recommended weekly therapy visits with a counselor didn’t make a big enough difference. Less than three months later, she was back in the hospital. This time, we connected with a psychiatrist who understood her triggers and had a plan for how to teach her to avoid them or cope with her episodes.

Her complex plan of support included my husband and me attending classes to learn skills to help Allie cope with her anxiety. I was a well-educated woman with motherly intuitions, and I couldn’t help my daughter. My husband resigned from his job so he could get her to school and be close enough to support her in a moment’s notice.

He and I were skeptical of what we would learn in the classes, but we faithfully attended every Saturday for twelve weeks. What I learned in those classes changed me as a mother and an educator. I learned how anxiety works.

I learned how to empathize with someone paralyzed by anxiety. I learned what I had been doing wrong and how I could be more helpful when Allie’s anxiety reared its head. This new awareness of what was happening with my daughter led to more successful interactions, and significantly reduced the amount of time it took to coach her through a bad day.

Not only could I recognize when she was triggered, I knew what to do—and what NOT to do. With more success under my belt, I began sharing my new set of strategies with anyone who expressed a need for them.

It surprised me how many other people close to me had been experiencing similar situations. As I shared notes with other educators in my circle, our conversations often highlighted why every educator needs to gain a new perspective on anxiety. These students are not just behaving this way for attention.

Clarity about how little control individuals with anxiety have over their thoughts is not as widespread as it should be. No teacher intentionally instigates a student in emotional distress; however, when we do not comprehend clinical anxiety, sometimes our gut steers us in the wrong direction and we escalate the situation. This is why Anxious is crucial to the world of education.

When I met Christine Ravesi-Weinstein, I was relieved to find someone inside education who truly understands the anxious mind. She articulated the difference between a healthy brain that experiences times of anxiousness, and the physiology behind clinical anxiety that stifles its victims. She was writing articles and tweeting about her experiences with anxiety. Additionally, she offered insight into how others could help students with anxiety.

Her suggestions and feedback were articulate, and more importantly—they worked! As an administrator, she had connections to hundreds of students, yet that’s not enough when there are over three million teachers in the United States alone. All of them are sure to serve students with anxiety at many points in their careers. The tools to deal with anxiety are in a different box than what most of us are accustomed to using.

Weinstein gives us these tools and teaches us how to use them. Knowledge is power, and obtaining the skills to support students before, during, and after their anxiety hits is empowering.

Weinstein shares how to reduce triggers for students with anxiety by being mindful of our classroom culture, carefully choosing the words we use, and being aware of the actions we take with students. Her guidance is actionable and relevant. She describes how to recognize an anxious student, identifies how that student might be feeling, and outlines ways to deescalate.

When I first became a parent, I looked at the students in my classroom differently. They were now someone else’s children, and I took educating them a level more seriously. As a parent of a daughter with anxiety, I advocated for Weinstein to write this book.

Teachers, administrators, bus drivers, and recess and lunchroom supervisors all encounter students who need the adults to be informed with coping strategies. Anxious is set to publish weeks before my Allie graduates from high school. She did not enjoy the benefit of having teachers who had learned from Christine Ravesi-Weinstein’s wisdom. But your students will.

You can reduce the suffering that anxiety causes your students. For the sake of everyone else’s children and your peace of mind, soak in Weinstein’s insight.

You will be forever grateful you did—and so will your students.

— Connie Hamilton, instructional strategies expert, presenter, author of Hacking Questions and co-author of Hacking Homework

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