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The Worried Child - Social Anxiety

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Fears of rejection or criticism in social situations



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  • It is normal for young children to be shy and fearful in social situations. Often there is more stimulation than they are accustomed to and they need time to adjust.
  • In a new situation there are people to get to know, new situations to size up and simply a lot of information to process. A young child may withdraw and take some time to adjust to a new social situation.
  • If a child is not used to socializing in groups, he or she may act shy. A child may come from a family that is isolated and the child may not be accustomed to socializing with strangers.
  • There are some children who are simply shy by temperament and take a long time to warm up to new people.
  • Boys may have more difficulty in the early years in school than girls because they are less inclined to be comfortable with small motor activities and often have more difficulty sitting still for long periods of time. Young boys may therefore feel uncomfortable in a classroom environment and behave in socially inappropriate ways.
  • Young children may be used to doing their own thing at home and find it difficult to adapt to the routine at school where they are required to give up their own inclinations and conform to group expectations.

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  • If a child has been a part of a group such as a class, and continues to avoid social interaction for several weeks, then it is necessary to look for the reasons.
  • Being anxious when anticipating changes in routine or the introduction of new people to the routine may interfere with normal activity. Children may resist participating in events that they are unfamiliar with.
  • If these behaviours continue after a week or two, then they are not simply adapting to a new situation, but rather may be showing signs of a more persistent problem, and adult intervention may be necessary.
  • Children who are socially anxious often miss a lot of school in order to avoid certain school events. Pay attention to children who are always absent when particular activities are occurring at school, like school trips or other group activities. He or she might need some help.
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  • If, after a few weeks of being in the class, the child continues to exhibit very poor eye contact, speak in very low tones so they are inaudible, and seems excessively uncomfortable, then the child needs help to become a part of the group.
  • If exposure to a social situation provokes extreme signs of anxiety, such as panic, crying, freezing, tantrums, clinging and attempts to avoid the situation and these behaviours persist for at least a week, then a more serious problem exists and needs attention.
  • If the child begins to anticipate the social situation with extreme avoidance behaviour, such as complaining of stomachaches or an inability to sleep just before having to attend school or going on a school outing, and this behaviour is repeated many times, then professional help is suggested.

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  • It is normal for young children to be shy and fearful in social situations. Often there is more stimulation than they are accustomed to and they need time to adjust. In a new situation there are people to get to know, new situations to size up and simply a lot of information to process. A young child may withdraw and take some time to adjust to a new social situation.
  • If a child is not used to socializing in groups, he or she may act shy. A child may come from a family that is isolated and the child may be unaccustomed to socializing with strangers.
  • There are some children who are simply shy by temperament and take a long time to warm up to new people.
  • Boys may have more difficulty in the early years in school than girls because they are less inclined to be comfortable with small motor activities and often have more difficulty sitting still for long periods of time. Young boys may therefore feel uncomfortable in a classroom environment and behave in socially inappropriate ways.
  • Young children may be used to doing their own thing at home and find it difficult to adapt to the routine at school where they are required to give up their own inclinations and conform to group expectations.

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  • If a child has been a part of a group, such as a class, for several weeks, and continues to avoid social interaction, then some exploration for the reasons is necessary.
  • Children in the elementary school years are typically able to deal with changes in routine and adapting to new people. If a child is unable to do this comfortably there may be other reasons behind his behaviour.

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  • If a child shows persistent fear of one or more social situation, often involving unfamiliar people or being judged by others, and the fear limits the child's participation in normal activities, this is a cause for concern.
  • If children are so worried about other people laughing at them that they refuse to participate in normal activities, this is cause for concern.
  • If just anticipating social activities such as recess or physical education makes a child anxious, and they do everything they can to avoid the activity, then professional attention may be necessary.
  • Children who are socially anxious often miss a lot of school in order to avoid certain school events. Be on the lookout for children who are always absent when particular activities like school trips or other group activities are occurring at school.
  • If a child continues to exhibit very poor eye contact, looking down whenever spoken to, and acting as if they are trying to disappear, this can result in a vicious cycle. The more the child tries to disappear, the more visible he or she becomes. Since other children are more likely to reject a child who behaves this way, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. This leads to more withdrawal on the part of the anxious child. If this is occurring, then professional help should be sought.

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  • Many adolescents find middle school and high school a bit overwhelming. The demands to meet and interact with many different people and to be on display in so many new and challenging situations can be quite stressful for many students.
  • School itself is a major stressor for many young people. Irrespective of their strengths and weaknesses, they are required to participate in a full range of activities and thus will likely be in at least one activity in which they are not suited and may appear foolish to others. If they lack tolerance for being judged by others, then they may try to avoid the activity. This behaviour may be more likely to occur at the beginning of the school year when young people are finding ways to cope with new situations

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  • Some young people may have coped adequately with elementary school but find the social challenges of middle school or high school too demanding. They may feel that they are different from others and don't fit in, or feel inadequate in some way. The result can be that they are reluctant to socialize fully, for fear of humiliation or being judged harshly by others.
  • If the adolescent's social behaviour changes on entering a new school stage, it is important to find out if this is a sudden change in their behaviour patterns, or if difficulty adapting to major changes has been a part of the adolescent's temperament since early childhood. Even if it is due to temperament, there may be some ways to help the child improve his or her ability to cope. If it is a sudden change, then the behaviour is likely due to something specific occurring in the present environment and might benefit from adult attention.
  • Adolescents are typically able to deal with changes in routine, adapting to new people and even thrive on the stimulation offered by change. If a young person is unable to do this comfortably there may be other reasons behind his or her behavior, such as stress at home.

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  • If a youth shows persistent fear of one or more social situations, often involving unfamiliar people, scrutiny, or being judged by others, and the fear limits his or her participation in normal activities, this is a cause for concern. The young person may choose to skip certain classes because of the requirement to socialize and reveal oneself to others, and try to avoid being in any position where others might be critical and one could feel humiliated.
  • If adolescents are so worried about other people laughing at them that they refuse to participate in normal activities, this is cause for concern.
  • If the adolescents approach social activities such as recess or physical education with anxiety, and use all their skills to avoid the activity, then professional attention may be necessary.
  • If a youth is avoiding social situations, then it is important to find out if a serious bullying situation is occurring.
  • There are serious problems, mild forms of autism, associated with the inability to socialize. If severe problems in lack of socialization are occurring it is important to check with a professional.

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The list of important and life changing new experiences is long in this last stage of development: interviewing for jobs and university placements, meeting new people, living in residences, dating and so on. As they are new experiences, it is difficult for the individual to know what to expect and thus most are somewhat anxious. Furthermore, all these are being expected of adolescents just when their parents are telling them that they are more mature and can make more decisions independently.

Some adolescents may hide their anxiety, especially from adults in authority, such as teachers, coaches or employers. Not resisting or feeling ashamed of the anxiousness they feel is one key strategy they need to manage it, and even to use it productively.

School is a major stressor for many young people. They are required to participate in a full range of activities and thus will likely be in some that they lack ability and skill in. They fear doing badly, perhaps pulling down the mark of the group, or the team. If they lack tolerance for being judged by others, then they may try to avoid the activity. This behaviour is more likely to occur at the beginning of the school year when young people are finding ways to cope with new situations. 
 
As a teacher of a socially anxious older adolescent, you may observe some of the following behaviours:
 
  • stating that growing up ‘is scary’ 
  • expressing self-doubt, wondering if things will work out for them
     
  •  becoming more self-critical, even with positive evaluations from others
     
  •  when complimented, responding, “Are you just saying it to make me feel better? I didn’t think it was good enough.”
     
  • expressing worry about new situations and meeting new people
  • avoiding social situations, such as group activities, or after school events, dances, athletic activities, or work related situations, such as job interviews. When asked the reason for not participating, may just blush and avert the eyes
     
  • looking down when sitting in class, painfully self-conscious about appearance—hair, clothes, face
  •  spending a lot of time connecting with people electronically, on Facebook or texting, but not interacting in person.
 
If these socially anxious students implement any of your suggestions (See the Section: Green Light Course to Follow for these), then it is likely that they will, with your continued interest and support, work through some of their shyness and social anxiety. If you don’t see any progress, check the Yellow Light symptoms of Social Anxiety following.
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Older teens may feel unable to accomplish all the tasks expected of them of this stage—developing a plan for their life, dating, forming meaningful and lasting relationships, forming a stable sense of their own identity, becoming more independent financially, and planning for life after high school. These are “high stakes” life challenges and they pile up on this age grouping
Some adolescents may have coped adequately with elementary school, even middle school, but then find the social challenges of high school too demanding. They may feel that they are different from others, that they don’t fit in, or may feel inadequate in some way. They are reluctant to socialize, for fear of humiliation, or harsh judgements by others. In a new social grouping, the less they participate early on, the more excluded they are likely to feel when others form friendships. This is an important reason for trying to intervene early in the school year.
 
As a teacher or mentor,  you may hear about or witness some of the following behaviours:
 
  • speaking in a very quiet or low tone, or not speaking at all, unable to talk on the phone, or order in a restaurant. Peers around the student start to act as if this is the expected behaviour of the shy student
     
  • panicking,  freezing, crying, stomach aches, in fear that they will be humiliated or embarrassed in a certain situation
     
  • avoiding people or common situations at school and recreational activities
     
  • avoiding eye contact or hiding from situations, looking down when sitting in class, shoulders hunched, nervously playing with hands; looking ill at ease in their own body
     
  • becoming more self-critical even in the face of positive evaluations and feedback from others
     
  • saying, when complimented: “Are you sure, or are you just saying it to make me feel better? I don’t think it was good enough.”
     
  • fussing about appearance—hair, clothes, face; self-conscious and self critical
     
  • spending hours a day on video games (normal for younger children, but not so for older teens) 
     
  • spending more time connecting with people electronically, on Facebook or texting, and avoiding interacting with others in real space 
     
  • taking up cigarette smoking to find acceptance and also calm anxious feelings. Peers may comment humorously about the shy student’s behaviour: “You started to smoke, this is so ‘cool’…”
  • experimenting with substance use, in order to calm anxious feelings, or even experimenting with higher risk sexual behaviour. 
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All of the following are cause for heightenedconcern and professional mental health help is likely necessary immediately:
 
  •  if an adolescent shows persistent fear of one or more social situations and the fear limits his or her participation in normal activities
     
  •  if an older adolescent is engaging in extreme withdrawal or avoidance of normal social situations and is refusing to acknowledge the problem,or to engage in a process of trying to improve the situation
     
  • if adolescents are so worried about other people laughing at them that they refuse to participate in normal activities, refuse your strategies and accommodations to help them participate, and after you approach them about the situation, stop coming to your class 
 
 
 
The following risky social behaviours are all happening outside your classroom, but you may become aware of them. All of them are reason to counsel the student to seek professional help.
 
Teens that are socially anxious may modify their levels of anxiety, using drugs, alcohol or high risk behaviours, such as unprotected sex. While exploring romantic and sexual relationships is a normal part of this stage of development, engaging in promiscuous sex with multiple partners is high risk behaviour.   While providing immediate acceptance and relief from anxiety, these behaviours ultimately increase the anxiety as the teen deals with the consequences—peer rejection, trouble with the law, property damage, strong guilt reactions, and the possibility of STDs or pregnancy.
 
Internet communication allows socially anxious teens to socialize and interact with others, while remaining detached and impersonal. What they often don’t realize is that information they put on the internet can be shared or copied by many people other than the person for which it was intended.   A recent study by the American Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy surveyed close to 2,000 teens and found that 1 out of 5 had sent nude or semi-nude pictures or videos of themselves. Forty percent of the sample said that they had sent sexually suggestive messages, and 48 percent of teens said they had received such messages.   The urge to send such a message, make contact, and “hook up,” is great. The anxiety that may come after the message is sent and cannot be recalled can be even greater. At the same time, the more isolated from face-to-face contact these socially uncomfortable adolescents become, the harder it is for them to relate in person.
 
Finally, some situations can look like social anxiety at the outset but are not. For example, if there is a sudden change in behaviour and an adolescent starts avoiding social situations, it may indicate a serious bullying situation is occurringin school, or on the way to and from school, or with electronic communication that spreads negative information and rumours about a student. Speak directly to the student, raising this possibility. If confirmed, seek the help of the school administrators.
 
Further, mild forms of autism may look like social anxiety since autism is associated with the inability to adequately interpret different non-verbal and verbal communications, andto socialize. If Autism is the cause of the student’s social isolation, you are more likely to see idiosyncratic behaviours than shyness and embarrassment. You may see total absorption in a single subject or topic, rather than excessive self-absorption. If you suspect autism may underlie the social isolation you see, it likely has been documented in the student’s school record. Check with a professional for ways of relating to and teaching a student with mild autism.
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New experiences generally make all of us nervous. With experience, we learn that we can manage these feelings and even use them to focus our performance. Without these prior learning experiences, however, older teens may resort to unproductive means to lessen their anxiety: absenteeism, risky sex, substance abuse, internet abuses. For these behaviours, professional help should be quickly pursued.

The older teen years can be an especially anxious time; many of life’s “high stakes” developmental challenges are expected to be met in this period. Some may have already gotten jobs or university placements, steady romantic relationships, achievement awards, public commendations, making others nervous when they haven’t. Even the pending loss of the predictable high school environment that they have avoided participating in, can raise the anxiety level of the socially anxious adolescent.




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What may be behind social anxiety?

Biological, congenital and health factors

  • There is strong research evidence that supports the view that shyness is a highly inherited trait, and that it is possible to predict from infancy who will grow up to become excessively shy and inhibited. (Dr. Jerome Kagan, Harvard University)
  • There is strong research evidence that children of anxious parents are more likely to develop an anxiety problem than children whose parents are not anxious. However, if you look at the group of children whose parents are anxious there are still many more children who do not develop an anxiety problem than there are children who do develop one. There are other things contributing to anxiety besides genetics.
  • There are serious problems, in mild forms of autism, associated with the ability to socialize. If severe problems in lack of socialization are occurring it is important to check the situation out with a professional.
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Consider the child's living situation:

  • Have there been any recent changes that could contribute to the child's feeling more insecure?

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  • Having a disability may also create a sense of "difference" in the child and make him or her feel more anxious in social situations. He/she may feel embarrassed and self-conscious about the disability and try to avoid being noticed by others.
  • Disabilities may be temporary. A child may have a broken leg or be sick at home for a few weeks. These conditions can trigger anxiety reactions because the child has to adapt to a different way of being in the world, walking with crutches, or using a different arm to write. The child may be hypersensitive to how other people view his or her lack of competence or clumsiness.

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  • Children who are teased or bullied may develop social anxiety and try to avoid being in situations where they might be teased.
  • If a child is avoiding social situations, then it is important to find out if bullying is occurring.
  • There are serious problems, in mild forms of autism, associated with the ability to socialize. If severe problems in lack of socialization are occurring, it is important to check the situation out with a professional.

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  • Newly arrived immigrant or refugee children may be the recipients of excessively high expectations, due to the parents' need to succeed in a new country.
  • Elders may be counting on the children to succeed so that the family succeeds.
  • Newly arrived immigrant or refugee children may be socially anxious due to language problems, lack of experience with social customs and mores, feeling of strangeness.
  • Anxiety may be due to contradictory values/expectations from family/school and peers, leading to confusion.
  • Anxiety may result from loss of traditional supports such as members of the extended family remaining in the country of origin.

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  • Children who have had traumatic experiences in the past may feel a sense of shame about their experience and might avoid social situations. They may have the unrealistic fear that others can sense their "differentness," that what they have experienced is somehow visible to others.

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Skill development

  • Feelings of inadequacy because skills are lacking in some area may contribute to shyness and reluctance to participate fully in social situations.
  • Children watch others and compare themselves with respect to their skill development. If they view themselves as deficient in some way, they may become excessively shy and avoid interacting fully with others.
  • It is important to find out if this is a sudden change in the child's presentation or if this appears to be the child's temperament since toddler age. If it is a sudden change, then the behaviour is likely due to something occurring in the classroom and might benefit from adult attention.
  • A child's verbal skills may be underdeveloped due to English as a second language, or he or she might have a speech/language problem.
  • A child's fine motor skills may be underdeveloped. This is significant since a lot of early activity in school involves fine motor skills.
  • Even if adults do not draw attention to individual differences, children are very perceptive and are often acutely aware of them.
  • Socializing is an important part of elementary school, but the skills for it are not usually explicitly taught.
  • Children often tease each other, but some children take it more personally than others. This can be related to the nature of their sibling relationships at home.
  • Research shows that only children and the eldest child in the family are more prone to over-reaction to teasing behaviour from others. If a child has an older sibling they may be more immune to teasing at school because they are used to it and have developed adequate skills at responding appropriately. Only children and eldest children need guidance so they understand the behaviour and so they can develop some appropriate responses that minimize the negative effect of the teasing.

Gender Differences

  • Patterns of socializing are different between boys and girls.
  • Boys tend to fight with each other more frequently, but they also do not tend to hold grudges, and they get over their spats more easily.
  • Boys tend to be friends in groups rather than pairs.
  • Girls tend to talk more to each other, to be hurt more by what is said, and to hold onto grudges.
  • When girls bully others it is often less visible because it is based on what is said in private and therefore less obvious to adults unless they make it a point to know about it.


Social anxiety is often considered to be a fairly normal human response to unfamiliar and important events. The need to engage in social behaviour is very strong for most people and thus the reward for overcoming initial fears and reluctance is great. Most adolescents have coping skills and strategies for the anxiety that they feel. For those that haven’t acquired these, there are many suggestions offered in this section. Why is it important to do something about social anxiety in children?

 

If social anxiety is allowed to persist, the child will miss out on many of the normal experiences of childhood. The social anxiety can turn into a vicious cycle that builds on itself, so that the child can become extremely socially isolated and even avoid school altogether. The child also could face a life-long struggle with anxiety. Early interventions can prevent future problems.

How to create a classroom environment that minimizes social anxiety

Create opportunities to speak up or socialize. If the opportunities are limited in scope, they will feel safe for the child. For example, you could begin the day by asking everyone to say hello to someone they don't usually say hello to, or to smile at someone they haven't smiled at yet.

Have opportunities in the classroom curriculum that include drama experiences or memorizing a short poem or a speech. In this way a child can practice speaking someone else's words, which may be less threatening.

Do these exercises in dyads or small groups rather than having to do it in front of the entire class.

Model ways to deal with social anxiety. Make statements such as "Oh it's going to be difficult in the beginning to get used to this, but before you know it we will all be comfortable with it!"

What to do about children with social anxiety problems in your classroom

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Connect with the parents. They can be a good source of information about how to help the child.

Find out if it's a family trait and if the child exhibits this behaviour at home. Find out how the family responds to shyness or reluctance to participate. Do they encourage the child or do they simply ignore the behaviour and hope it will improve on its own?

Pair up the child with someone who is more assertive and outgoing so he or she can have a good model for improved behaviour.

Plant seeds for future behaviour. Make statements, such as "I know now you feel shy and bit uncomfortable, but pretty soon you'll be feeling differently."


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As a general rule:

  • Document the behaviour. Report when it occurs and how extreme the behaviour is.

Do not attempt to label the behaviour or to make a diagnosis.
  • Avoid calling the child "shy." You can say you "feel shy," but calling the child shy may be experienced as a label and then the child may continue to behave that way because he or she assumes that is who they are.
  • Children who are anxious and withdrawn often have poor social skills.
  • For all children/youth, teach social skills as you go along. Show and demonstrate what appropriate behaviour would be in any given situation.
  • Recognize the child's attempts to be friendly and speak up appropriately. Congratulate them on their efforts!
  • Consult informally with colleagues to share ideas and strategies.

Working with Parents

Find out if the parents are concerned about the behaviour and what steps they have taken to address it.

Make a plan with the parents to help the child feel more comfortable at school.

Encourage the parents to find extracurricular activities so the child can practice socializing outside of school.

There is little time for children to actually learn social skills during the formal school program. They need time after school to accomplish this important task.


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Provide an atmosphere of acceptance so that he or she feels welcome and included in the group.

Talk about how everyone feels nervous about being in social situations from time to time. It is possible to feel that way and to find a way to not feel that way after some time.

Some conditions are extreme and do require expert intervention. Some children are so anxious in social situations that they don't speak at all. They may speak in some situations, usually at home with the family, but rarely or only minimally in other situations.

Progress with such children may take more time.

They might be willing to talk with one person but not in a group.

They might be willing to answer yes/no questions but not more open-ended ones.

In some forms of mild autism, there are serious problems with learning to socialize.

Children with this problem often want to socialize, but often act inappropriately and do not understand or readily learn social rules and conventions.

Expert help should be sought if a child shows serious problems like this and does not improve in any significant way in spite of a teacher's best efforts.


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Connect with the parents. They can be a good source of information about how to help the child.

Find out if it's a family trait and if the child exhibits this behaviour at home. Find out how the family responds to shyness or reluctance to participate. Do they encourage the child or do they simply ignore the behaviour and hope it will improve on its own?

Pair up the child with someone who is more assertive and outgoing so he or she can have a good model for improved behaviour.

Plant seeds for future behaviour. Make statements, such as "I know now you feel shy and bit uncomfortable, but pretty soon you'll be feeling differently."


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As a general rule:

  • Document the behaviour. Report when it occurs and how extreme the behaviour is.

Do not attempt to label the behaviour or to make a diagnosis.
  • Avoid calling the child "shy." You can say you "feel shy," but calling the child shy may be experienced as a label and then the child may continue to behave that way because he or she assumes that is who they are.
  • Children who are anxious and withdrawn often have poor social skills.
  • For all children/youth, teach social skills as you go along. Show and demonstrate what appropriate behaviour would be in any given situation.
  • Recognize the child's attempts to be friendly and speak up appropriately. Congratulate them on their efforts!
  • Consult informally with colleagues to share ideas and strategies.

Working with Parents

Find out if the parents are concerned about the behaviour and what steps they have taken to address it.

Make a plan with the parents to help the child feel more comfortable at school.

Encourage the parents to find extracurricular activities so the child can practice socializing outside of school.

There is little time for children to actually learn social skills during the formal school program. They need time after school to accomplish this important task.


Back to top


Provide an atmosphere of acceptance so that he or she feels welcome and included in the group.

Talk about how everyone feels nervous about being in social situations from time to time. It is possible to feel that way and to find a way to not feel that way after some time.

Some conditions are extreme and do require expert intervention. Some children are so anxious in social situations that they don't speak at all. They may speak in some situations, usually at home with the family, but rarely or only minimally in other situations.

Progress with such children may take more time.

They might be willing to talk with one person but not in a group.

They might be willing to answer yes/no questions but not more open-ended ones.

In some forms of mild autism, there are serious problems with learning to socialize.

Children with this problem often want to socialize, but often act inappropriately and do not understand or readily learn social rules and conventions.

Expert help should be sought if a child shows serious problems like this and does not improve in any significant way in spite of a teacher's best efforts.


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Connect with the parents. They can be a good source of information about how to help the child.

Find out if it's a family trait and if the child exhibits this behaviour at home. Find out how the family responds to shyness or reluctance to participate. Do they encourage the child or do they simply ignore the behaviour and hope it will improve on its own?

Pair up the child with someone who is more assertive and outgoing so he or she can have a good model for improved behaviour.

Plant seeds for future behaviour. Make statements, such as "I know now you feel shy and bit uncomfortable, but pretty soon you'll be feeling differently."


Back to top


As a general rule:

  • Document the behaviour. Report when it occurs and how extreme the behaviour is.

Do not attempt to label the behaviour or to make a diagnosis.
  • Avoid calling the child "shy." You can say you "feel shy," but calling the child shy may be experienced as a label and then the child may continue to behave that way because he or she assumes that is who they are.
  • Children who are anxious and withdrawn often have poor social skills.
  • For all children/youth, teach social skills as you go along. Show and demonstrate what appropriate behaviour would be in any given situation.
  • Recognize the child's attempts to be friendly and speak up appropriately. Congratulate them on their efforts!
  • Consult informally with colleagues to share ideas and strategies.

Working with Parents

Find out if the parents are concerned about the behaviour and what steps they have taken to address it.

Make a plan with the parents to help the child feel more comfortable at school.

Encourage the parents to find extracurricular activities so the child can practice socializing outside of school.

There is little time for children to actually learn social skills during the formal school program. They need time after school to accomplish this important task.


Back to top


Provide an atmosphere of acceptance so that he or she feels welcome and included in the group.

Talk about how everyone feels nervous about being in social situations from time to time. It is possible to feel that way and to find a way to not feel that way after some time.

Some conditions are extreme and do require expert intervention. Some children are so anxious in social situations that they don't speak at all. They may speak in some situations, usually at home with the family, but rarely or only minimally in other situations.

Progress with such children may take more time.

They might be willing to talk with one person but not in a group.

They might be willing to answer yes/no questions but not more open-ended ones.

In some forms of mild autism, there are serious problems with learning to socialize.

Children with this problem often want to socialize, but often act inappropriately and do not understand or readily learn social rules and conventions.

Expert help should be sought if a child shows serious problems like this and does not improve in any significant way in spite of a teacher's best efforts.


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Why is it important to do something about social anxiety in adolescents? 
If social anxiety is allowed to persist, the individual will miss out on many of the normal experiences of life.  Social anxiety can turn into a cycle of avoidance that builds on itself, so that the person can become extremely isolated and finally avoids school or work altogether.   An adolescent could face a life-long struggle with anxiety and become housebound.   Early interventions can prevent future problems.Mental health professionals have found strategies helpful in strengthening the shy adolescent’s social coping skills.


How can we understand and support those who shy away from social situations?
  
In your role as a teacher—be reassuring and supportive of these socially anxious adolescents.  Getting support from a teacher can be very powerful and long remembered; many adults recall with gratitude the teacher who was kind to them, who believed in them, whose message was, “I know you can do this, we just need to figure out what help you need.” For most, the anxiety grows less with age, because practice in those situations makes the unknown and frightening, familiar and comfortable.
 
 
Create an environment that minimizes social anxiety:
 
  1. Provide an atmosphere of acceptance so that all adolescents feel welcome and included in the group. Let it be known that you won’t tolerate put-downs, sarcasm, or rude judgements
  2. Talk about how everyone feels nervous about being in some social situations. With exposure to them, with practice performing in front of an audience, that anxiousness lessens, and leaves
  3. Create low pressure opportunities to speak or socialize. If the demands of the practice are limited in scope, they will feel safe. To minimize the social anxiety of shy students—do initial exercises in dyads, then in groups of three, then in groups of four. If possible, link them with a kind and caring student “mentor”
  4. Have opportunities in the school curriculum that include dramatic experiences or memorizing a short poem or a short speech. In this way students can practice speaking someone else’s words in front of the class
  5. Do not call on the anxious student until he or she is automatic in the recitation
  6. In drama exercises, masks are commonly used, the actor acquires the persona of the mask, and the ‘disguise’ produces less anxiety than being on stage as oneself
  7. Model ways to deal with social anxiety. Make statements such as “Oh, it’s going to be difficult in the beginning to get used to this, but before you know it we will all be loving doing it!”
  8. Send them to return forms to the school office, keep a score sheet in gym classes, or a lunch time event; help with the school newspaper; work in the library with sorting out books and journals
  9. Involve the adolescent in a ‘service club.’ It is hard to feel self-conscious while making up packages for disaster relief for Haitians or aids orphans or when helping halting young readers become more fluent
  10. Suggest a membership in the choir or athletic team if the adolescent has musical or athletic ability; if not, make him or her the manager. When the students they are helping through their managerial functions notice how hard they are working, they will start initiating social interactions
  11. Have the students make a “to do” list of the situations they are avoiding. Help them order the list from scariest to least scary. Then say, “Great! Now you just need to work through your list. When are you going to try this one?’   
  12. Suggest that the older adolescent make a list of the “what ifs” and “the terrible things that they think is going to happen.” Then you can come up with solutions, just in case those terrible things actually pan out. You can also discuss how unlikely a lot of things on the list are 
  13. Encourage them to ignore self-deprecating internal talk, suggest they block the negative chatter with personal affirmation statements
  14. Write down on index cards positive self affirming statements, such as “I’m just as good as other people.” “I know my lines just as well as others.” “Everybody, including me, makes mistakes sometimes.” Repeat these affirming statements often and regularly and right before the event that is causing the anxiousness.

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If older adolescents that you teach exhibit separation anxiety unduly, or it persists unduly, help them develop more effective strategies for coping with anxiety by using the following course of actions:
  • Try to figure out the source of their difficulty with separations. Are they not well connected in their new environment? Are they being bullied?
  • Permit them to work in the resource room or library for a short time, but make sure they don’t isolate themselves for too long
  • Pair them up with another teen who is kind and welcoming and has good social skills
  • Acknowledge their accomplishment so that they feel valued in the new environment
  • Strongly encourage them to join two extra-curricular activities of their choice and speak to the sponsoring teachers to ensure that the entry goes well
  • Keep records, suggest your student record and rate his or her feelings every day. Record keeping helps in two ways: the ratings demonstrate improvement or deterioration. The act of record keeping also gives a sense of control over the problem
  • Coach them to talk back to their panicky feelings, “You don’t have to listen to yourself!”
  • Teach them to replace the anxiousness with thought-blocking mantras“I can do this! I can do this! I can!”
  • If the source of their anxiety is outside of school, say a health or financial situation at home, refer them to the school social worker. If the adolescent resists help or persists with the signs of separation anxiety consult the Red Light Course of Action.
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If you have tried some of the course of actions in the yellow light section for easing separation anxiety in the late adolescent and the symptoms are not diminishing, then quickly involve a mental health professional. Without intervention, adolescents who have not learned effective separation anxiety management strategies will become adults with crippling anxiety disorders. Do all that you can to get the adolescent to a mental health professional.



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Older adolescents are routinely faced with many new independence situations that they can be prepared for, practised on, and coached through, but ultimately have to accomplish independently. Every one of them feels worry and even anxiety about achieving success, a few give into their anxiety and retreat home for safety. If they refuse to return to the situation quite quickly, this is very serious anxiety behaviour, potentially life crippling. Do all that you can to get the student to a mental health professional very quickly. Back to top