What can teachers do to help students with anxiety?

"When I look over 504s I am impressed by the creativity and compassion I see in so many of them."

Dawn Friedman MSEd

“What can teachers do to help students with anxiety?

Teachers can do a lot. A lot. Namely they can recommend that their anxious students get on a 504 plan. This requires collaboration between the teachers and the administrators and the parents, which is a great way to get eyes on the child and everyone on board to helping that child be successful. 

Let’s talk a little bit about 504s.

If a child has anxiety or OCD then they may qualify for a 504 plan. A 504 plan refers to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which is the civil rights legislation that protects individuals with a disability from discrimination in programs that receive federal funds from the Department of Education. What this means is that students with anxiety severe enough that quote limits one or more major life activities end quote qualify for support. A 504 may require a formal diagnosis — that would be their doctor or a counselor, clinical social worker or psychologist — but some school will offer supports on the recommendation of a school counselor alone. The anxiety must cause “substantial limitation.” The specifics on how this will play out will depend on the school but generally refers to how well the child is functioning in comparison to their peers and who better to know that than the teacher who is seeing the whole classroom. If a child’s anxiety is getting in the way of their functioning, if they are melting down, missing class, or having trouble finishing their work due to their anxiety then they would qualify. Note: that federal funding part may mean that a child may not get a 504 if they go to a private school that does nor receive federal funding. But that doesn’t mean that teachers there can use a 504 model to support their students. Oh and charter school do use 504s. 

Ok back to the question.

Teachers can refer a child to a 504 plan as can counselors and other support staff and parents can request a referral, too. 

A 504 plan is different than an IEP or individualized education program. An IEP addresses 13 specific diagnoses, which includes ADHD or autism. I mention these because anxiety is often a feature of those diagnoses and if your child has ADHD or autism, you may want to pursue an IEP. IEPs provides special education. A 504 plan is more broad and provides services and supports to remove educational barriers. A 504 plan also tends to be but isn’t always less formal. School receive additional funding for children on an IEP but not so for a 504. 

An example of the difference might be a child on an IEP might receive help from an aide or pull out services while a child with a 504 would not. 

On rare occasions a child with OCD or anxiety as a stand alone diagnosis might meet criteria for an IEP but again, if they can stick with their peers with accommodation and don’t need special services, then an 504 is the way to go.

I know it’s confusing but most of the time, kids with anxiety will qualify for 504s not IEPs.

There are not standard accommodations for anxiety and its presentation is different in different kids. But some common accommodations include:

  • getting a heads up about a pop quiz, so no surprise testing
  • a reduction in homework or more time to finish
  • the ability to leave the classroom to see the school counselor, get a drink of water, or otherwise get a break
  • fidgets or comfort items at their desk
  • Classroom seating to help the child feel safe in some way (such as near a window or near the teacher or near a friend)
  • Allowing the child to listen to music or wear headphones to block out noise

Ok, I wanted to stop here for just a minute to talk about the word “accommodation.” In the anxiety and OCD literature when we’re talking about accommodations, we’re talking about the things that keep kids stuck in anxiety. But when we’re talking about 504s, we’re using the word to address policies that remove barriers to the child’s success in the academic setting.

Here is what is tricky. Sometimes academic accommodations in a 504 plan are supportive and helpful and sometimes they are accommodations in the clinical sense, that is to say they keep kids stuck. 

For example one support often listed in 504 plans is allowing the child to record a presentation instead of standing on front of the class to read it. Now we could argue that keeps the child stuck in their anxiety about public speaking. And yes, frankly, it does. But if we’re working on social anxiety there is likely better places to put our efforts and meanwhile that child needs to not be falling behind in school. So as a support, I’d say that one’s ok especially if we have plans to work on social anxiety in other ways. That can be part of a 504, too, like helping a child connect with peers by having the child attend a lunch bunch group. Or helping create connections by assigning work groups or dyads.

By the same token, if we’re working with a child who has separation anxiety who often goes to the nurses’s office to get a ride home because their stomach hurts, that might be a great place for the school and parents to work together to interrupt that behavior. It may be in the 504 that instead of sending the child home, the school will give them a break from the classroom with the expectation that they will return. So maybe the child gets a pass to spend 15 or 20 minutes practicing some breathing exercises with the nurse or the school counselor before heading back to class.

Again, 504s are individualized and parents and teachers can be thinking about which supports make long-term sense (like being able to take an exam in the library where it’s quiet) and which should be short-term with a plan to move the child away from them and toward greater independence (like having the child sit near the teacher for now while the school actively works on helping them connect to other kids socially).

I’ll tell you one thing, when I look over 504s I am impressed by the creativity and compassion I see in so many of them. And I have found that many teachers when they work with a family to create a 504 plan for one student end up discovering that the whole class benefits. 504s give us a chance to look at some policies and procedures critically. For example, lots of kids do better when they can check out a fidget to take to their desk. And lots of kids do better when they can wear listen to music during study time. 

If you are interested in talking to your child’s school about creating a 504 plan, I encourage you to reach out to your child’s teacher and the school counselor to get it started. They’ll help you figure out next steps. And even if your child doesn’t qualify for a 504, you can still talk about better ways to meet your child’s needs. 

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