This week’s blog was contributed by Darla DeCarlo, PsyS, LMHC, PAR’s regional manager–educational assessments. Darla is a certified school psychologist who spent more than 30 years providing professional services in a variety of settings.
Anxiety is not always a bad thing. In fact, our ancestors could not have survived without it. Fear and worry are aspects of the human condition that we need—to some degree—in order to survive and thrive. However, when anxiety interferes with daily activities and becomes overwhelming, it can be restraining, debilitating, and even paralyzing.
School shootings, the pandemic, increased societal violence, and a generally chaotic world have set the stage for an increase in mental health issues in children. As school psychologists and educators, we worry about the impact this has on our students—and about the subsequent impact it has on their ability to learn and succeed in school.
A recent study conducted by the Wisconsin–Minnesota Comprehensive Center (WMCC), in conjunction with the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE), confirmed what educators and administrators have been reporting in recent years: Student mental health is suffering, and anxiety is playing a large role.
Parents further confirm this. The Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago studied 1,000 parents from around the U.S., and what they learned was astounding: 71% of parents said the pandemic had taken a toll on their child’s mental health, and 69% said the pandemic was the worst thing to happen to their child.
The increase in mental health issues among students predates the pandemic. A recent U.S. Department of Health and Human Services study showed a significant increase in reported mental health conditions in children ages 3 to 17 years between 2016 and 2020. During this time, anxiety diagnoses in this age group grew by 29% and depression diagnoses increased by 27%.
Every child is unique, so responses to stressful situations vary from child to child. Perception also differs from child to child, so what one sees as unmanageable another may see as a challenge.
Keep in mind, these signs and symptoms are not only associated with anxiety. We might see these same symptoms for completely unrelated reasons.
• Upset stomach or stomach pains
• Chest pain, palpitations, or increased heart rate
• Decreased appetite, comfort-eating, or binge-eating
• Pretending to be sick to avoid activities
• Mood swings
• New or recurring fears
• Increased crying, anger, stubbornness, or aggression
• Decreased concentration or motivation
• Regressing toward comforting behaviors from early childhood (i.e., thumb-sucking, nail-biting, sleeping with a stuffed animal)
• Social isolation, withdrawal, or unwillingness to participate in formerly enjoyed activities
• Increased irritability
• Difficulty falling or staying asleep
• Difficulty separating from parents
• Refusal to go to school or participate in other activities, including those for fun
• Difficulty meeting new people
• Not speaking to people outside of the family
• Nervous tics
PAR offers a variety of assessment products to address anxiety throughout the life span. Learn more.
This week’s blog was contributed by Jeremy Sharp, PhD, licensed psychologist and clinical director at the Colorado Center for Assessment & Counseling and the host of the Testing Psychologist Podcast. Dr. Sharp earned his undergraduate degree in experimental psychology from the University of South Carolina and earned his master’s degree and doctorate in counseling psychology from Colorado State University. He specializes in psychological and neuropsychological evaluation of children and adolescents and provides private practice consulting for psychologists and other mental health professionals who want to start or grow psychological testing services in their practices. He lives in Fort Collins, Colorado with his wife (also a therapist) and two kids.
Upon returning to school in fall 2021, my 8-year-old daughter started showing signs of separation anxiety almost immediately. She would not go into the classroom on her own and developed a compulsive habit of checking the weather before school each day to see if it was going to rain. Over the course of a couple of weeks, we spent hours on the playground before (and during) school, attempting to cajole her into feeling safe. We eventually enlisted the help of the fantastic school psychologist who helped our daughter get over her fears and go in on her own within another two to three weeks.
Though her separation anxiety seemed to come out of nowhere, hindsight would say otherwise. The biggest clue was that she started a new, much bigger school this year. She was also having trouble making friends, which was different for her. The final piece of the puzzle was learning that a classmate had shared information about a flood warning with my daughter, and she became scared that there might be a flood while she was at school—hence the checking of the weather every morning.
Related post: Jeremy Sharp on trauma-informed assessment
My daughter is not alone. Depending on what you read, estimates on prevalence of anxiety disorders in kids ages 3–17 range from about 2% to more than 30%, with a recent meta-analysis settling on about 7%. That’s two kids in your average classroom who are experiencing clinical anxiety, with even more who have subthreshold anxiety.
There are many reasons that kids might feel anxious at school, but let’s break it down into three areas for the sake of simplicity. Those areas are:
Separation from caregivers
Separation anxiety is the most common form of anxiety in kids under 12. The core theme of separation anxiety is “excessive distress” when separated from or thinking about separating from a primary attachment figure or caregiver. At school, this looks like unwillingness to get out of the car, clinging to a parent’s leg, not leaving the caregiver to go into the classroom, and other similar situations. As in my daughter’s case, it can also show up as a fear of an event that would cause separation from the primary attachment figure. Separation anxiety often ramps up after breaks, like when returning to school after the holidays or summer vacation. Even a typical Monday can increase anxiety, as kids have gotten used to being with caregivers over the weekend.
Social interaction is another area of potential distress in kids. The clinical diagnosis of social anxiety disorder is estimated to occur in about 9% of adolescents (ages 13–18 years). Social anxiety is characterized by the fear of being judged by others paired with avoidance of certain situations that cause anxiety. An example is eating lunch alone due to a fear of saying something “dumb” while sitting with peers.
Lastly, academic demands can lead to anxiety in kids. Research suggests that around 20% of students experience test anxiety overall, though it differs depending on several demographic factors. For instance, female-identifying students and ethnic minority students are more likely to experience test anxiety. Regarding personality factors, there is a consistent negative relationship between self-esteem/self-concept and test anxiety. Students with disabilities (i.e., ADHD) are more likely to experience test anxiety than students without an identified disability. Additionally, test anxiety’s negative impact on performance is highest in middle school and decreases in high school. It’s important to note that text anxiety is not the only form of performance anxiety in school, however. Some students feel a variation of social anxiety or fear of being called on in class as well.
This information confirms what we already intuitively know: as “front line” workers in pediatric mental health, school staff plays a very important role in kids’ social and emotional wellbeing. Indeed, the research is clear that kids learn better when they also have skills to manage their emotions. But it’s not always easy to know which students need help! Anxiety is an internalizing disorder, meaning that kids tend to feel it in their minds or bodies without necessarily expressing it overtly to others. What we do know is that kids from lower income homes and ethnic minority kids are at greater risk of “flying under the radar” and not receiving the support that other kids get. We also know that school is a great place to implement interventions given that so many barriers to accessing treatment are removed when kids are already there.
So, what school-based interventions actually work? A recent meta-analysis of prevention programs showed that cognitive-behavioral strategies make up the vast majority of interventions in the academic environment. The effect sizes across all forms of intervention were small but statistically significant, indicating that prevention programs are certainly helpful in addressing anxiety. The study looked deeper into whether the type of program (universal vs. targeted) made a difference and found that it did not. Similarly, it didn’t matter whether school staff (i.e., teachers, school counselors) or an external mental health professional delivered the intervention. The research suggests, however, that intervention be delivered as early as possible, in a preventative context, given the relatively early age of onset of anxiety.
To summarize, a substantial minority of kids will experience some form of anxiety at school before finishing high school, but there are ways to help. School counselors and teachers are in a great place to do so. Being mindful of anxiety as an internalizing disorder and paying attention to kids who tend to fly under the radar are excellent places to start. Knowing the different types of anxiety and the places they show up are valuable as well. On a broader scale, prevention programs are helpful and effective, especially when delivered earlier rather than later.
Catch up with the Testing Psychologist podcast on their website, via Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or on Spotify.
Related: School resources to help you address trauma, anxiety, and more.
As children return to school, many may exhibit signs of anxiety and stress. Your job is to find out whether these are existing issues or whether they are related to the pandemic and quarantine.
Help is here.
The Pandemic Anxiety Screener for Students–12 (PASS-12) is a 12-item checklist developed by FAR, FAM, and FAW author Steven G. Feifer, DEd, designed specifically to evaluate the impact of a pandemic on a child’s school-based functioning.
Related article: OUR STORIES: STARTING THE NEW SCHOOL YEAR
A parent rating form, it allows you to rate the severity of anxiety symptoms specific to the pandemic and quarantine and provides information to help school professionals make important decisions.
To learn more or order, visit parinc.com/PASS-12.
Test anxiety is part of life for many college students. After all, it’s natural to worry about performance and want to do well, and mild nervousness before a test can actually improve performance. For most, the symptoms disappear when the test is over. But for students with an anxiety disorder, test anxiety can be overwhelming and all-consuming, leading to symptoms like difficulty concentrating, rapid breathing, dry mouth, and even panic. For these students, the symptoms don’t stop when the test is over.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses in America, with an estimated 42 million adults diagnosed. About 46% of Americans will meet the criteria for a diagnosable mental health condition sometime in their life—and half of them develop conditions by the age of 14. Some of these young people will enter college not knowing they suffer from a treatable condition.
Students with undiagnosed anxiety are likely to struggle with physical, emotional, behavioral, and cognitive symptoms. They could even be at risk of failing—or dropping—out of school.
The Kane Learning Difficulties Assessment (KLDA) is a self-report screening tool developed to identify college students who struggle with a condition that affects learning such as an anxiety disorder, ADHD, an executive function deficit, or a specific learning disability.
The KLDA can help your students get the help they need to succeed in college. In just 15 minutes, it evaluates key areas including reading, writing, math, organization, time management, anxiety, and more. Administration is available on PARiConnect 3.0, the fastest and most reliable online platform in the assessment industry, so students can complete it on their own time, 24/7.
The KLDA report provides valuable information about the student’s individual learning strengths and weaknesses—and includes tailored interventions and accommodations that address them—and identifies students who are at risk of an undiagnosed condition like anxiety.
Help your struggling students keep their college careers—and their lives—on track with the KLDA.
Many new college students are away from home for the first time, and, for the first time, they must manage and organize their lives themselves. Coupled with the rigors of college academics, these students can easily get overwhelmed. Students with anxiety disorders or learning disabilities may struggle even more. But what about students who aren’t aware that they have a condition that may affect learning? These students may even be at risk of dropping—or even failing—out of school.
The Kane Learning Difficulties Assessment (KLDA) is a self-report screening tool developed to identify college students who struggle unknowingly with a condition that affects learning, such as an anxiety disorder, ADHD, an executive function deficit, or a specific learning disability.
More than 40 million adults in the United States ages 18 and older have an anxiety disorder—yet only 37% of them seek treatment—and up to 44% of individuals with an attention deficit disorder were first identified at the postsecondary level.
The KLDA can help your students get back on track. In just 15 minutes, it evaluates key areas including reading, writing, math, organization, time management, anxiety, and more. Administration is available on PARiConnect 3.0, the fastest and most reliable online platform in the assessment industry, so students can complete it on their own time, 24/7. The KLDA report provides valuable information about the student’s individual learning strengths and weaknesses—and includes tailored interventions and accommodations that address them—and identifies students who are at risk of an undiagnosed learning difficulty so they can get the help they need.
Help your struggling students keep their college careers—and their lives—on track. Learn more about the KLDA.
College can be difficult even for the most prepared of students. For some, it’s the first time away from home and the first time they’ve had to manage and organize their lives independently. The academic year is now more than halfway complete, and many of these students have adapted successfully to college life and are thriving.
But for students with an undiagnosed anxiety disorder or ADHD, poor coping skills and feelings of incompetence, low self-esteem, and helplessness may persist. Their grades may have slipped, and they may even be at risk of dropping—or failing—out of school. They likely don’t realize that their academic difficulties are related to treatable medical conditions.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 40 million adults in the United States ages 18 and older have an anxiety disorder—yet only 36% of them seek treatment. Moreover, up to 44% of individuals with an attention deficit disorder were first identified at the postsecondary level.
The Kane Learning Difficulties Assessment (KLDA) is a self-report screening tool designed to identify students who struggle unknowingly with a condition that affects learning such as an anxiety disorder, ADHD, an executive function deficit, or a specific learning disability.
The KLDA can be administered by any instructor, counselor, tutor, or coach and takes just 15 minutes to complete. It evaluates difficulties with reading, writing, math, listening, concentration, memory, organization, time management, oral presentation, self-control, and anxiety. The test is scored online via PARiConnect and provides a report with valuable information about the student’s individual learning strengths and weaknesses. It also identifies if the student is at risk of an undiagnosed learning difficulty so he or she can seek treatment.
The KLDA report helps both students and teachers by providing specific interventions and accommodations that address the student’s identified academic weaknesses.
Help struggling students get the help they need to get their college careers—and their lives—back on track. Learn more at www.parinc.com/KLDA.
Test anxiety is a fact of life for most students. They may worry if they studied enough, if they’ll remember everything they studied, and if they’ll pass the class.
College students may feel extra pressure to succeed from their parents (who may be funding their education), their coaches, and their instructors.
For most students, the symptoms of test anxiety (sweaty palms, feelings of helplessness, and difficulty concentrating) end as soon as the test is over. But for students with an undiagnosed anxiety disorder or another issue that affects learning, such as ADHD, depression, specific learning disability, or executive function deficits, the symptoms persist.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 40 million adults in the United States ages 18 and older have an anxiety disorder—yet only 36% of them seek treatment. Many may not even realize they have a treatable medical condition.
College students face enormous amounts of stress, and not just from tests. For some, it’s the first time away from home and the first time they’ve had to manage and organize their lives independently. These students can easily get overwhelmed. If they have an undiagnosed anxiety disorder or ADHD, they may have poor coping skills and suffer from feelings of incompetence, low self-esteem, and helplessness. Their grades may slip and they may even be at risk of dropping out of school. Teachers and other staff may notice but may not know how to help.
The sooner struggling students can get the help they need, the sooner they can get their college careers back on track. Learn more at www.parinc.com/KLDA.