Anxiety has become the most significant obstacle to learning among my adolescent students. In a teaching career spanning more than 30 years, I have watched as it has usurped attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, which itself displaced “dyslexia,” as the diagnosis I encounter most often among struggling students. In contrast to dyslexia or ADHD, for which I have developed effective teaching strategies, anxiety in students leaves me feeling powerless. As a new school year kicks off, I am left wondering how anxiety has become so prevalent so quickly. What can I do about it? Might my teaching actually contribute to it?
Until recently, I felt confident I could engage, challenge, and succeed with a wide range of learners, both at the high school and college levels. My history classes are interactive, fast-paced, and student-directed. Discussions, projects, art, trips, speakers, and the occasional rap throw-down make up my method. My students and I read and make sense of the most challenging authors together—Nietzsche, Foucault, Dostoyevsky. I work closely with learning-support teachers to assist students needing help. Students signaled that they liked my approach: voting for me to receive awards, giving positive evaluations, writing end-of-year thank-you cards.
Things have changed. School “refusal” has surfaced. Last year, half the high school seniors in my global-studies seminar missed a month of class time; 20 percent were out for more than two months, risking loss of credit.
Absenteeism also proved concerning in the two college classes I taught; a few students stopped coming altogether and failed. I had only limited success staunching the exodus of undergraduates by implementing a policy linking unexcused absences to grade reductions. It pained me to do so, but my department chair said almost the entire faculty had done likewise.
Explanations for absenteeism varied. There were the usual suspects: illness, death in the family, sports. But other themes emerged: “I just couldn’t face school today.” “I had two projects and felt overwhelmed.” “I couldn’t get out of bed,” or “I had a counseling appointment and was in crisis.” The best student in my college class offered this surprise: “I’ve never taken an evening class before, and I forgot we were meeting.” These comments suggest overscheduling, emotional distress, distraction.
It was a rare day when every student turned in work on time—that happened just twice during the spring trimester. My policy is to work with students who may occasionally be too busy to meet a deadline; I ask for 24-hour notice, an email requesting an extension, and a description of extenuating circumstances. Even so, I often found myself tracking down students who failed to turn in their assignments.
I seek new ways to discuss anxiety with students and parents. I don't want to make things worse, but my gut tells me that sidelining anxious students in the classroom is counterproductive."
When students were called to account, two types of responses stood out: “I couldn’t start; my mind went blank,” and expressions of apprehension from my 12th graders about college readiness. I interpreted the first as a kind of paralysis. The second is a new phenomenon among the students I teach and suggests powerful ambivalence for life postgraduation.
Other signs emerged. I observed students traveling abroad suffering panic attacks, separation anxiety, insomnia, nervous stomachs, phobias, and similar symptoms. Over the last few years, some students could not complete trips to distant parts of the world and came home early. Overnight retreats or a trip to New York City were problematic; so were theatrical performances involving violence or sex.
Of course, travel and art should push people’s comfort zones. Yet, I was struck by both the frequency of symptoms and that this debilitating anxiety was cropping up in seemingly “solid” kids. Enhanced vetting to assess potential overseas travelers’ emotional health still proved inadequate. Many of my high school students were just a year away from college. I wondered how they would cope.
It is more difficult to employ my go-to tools—questioning and listening—to engage anxious students. Administrators instructed me not to discuss attendance or missed work with some (or their parents) because they feared raising familial stress. My interactions with families were therefore often mediated, with administrators and counselors serving as go-betweens. I understood the rationale, but things did not necessarily improve. Students failed. Grades declined generally.
Research confirms a rising trend. National Institute of Mental Health data show that 38 percent of 13- through 17-year-old girls and 26 percent of boys the same age have an anxiety disorder, according to a New York Times report. Those statistics contrast with studies from just a decade ago, when an estimated 3 percent to 5 percent of teenagers manifested anxiety disorders.
Positively, the authors of Primer on Anxiety Disorders, a 2015 book that compiles writings from leading researchers in the field of anxiety disorders, suggests that “Big Science” and “Big Data” are having revolutionary effects in addressing this national crisis. Advances in brain science and decoding the human genome make it easier to diagnose and treat anxiety. Better detection signals progress and is a precursor to relief.
However, other scholars point out that illness always derives from historical and societal factors. Histories of anxiety describe its uptick as the Cold War fueled fears of nuclear annihilation and pharmaceutical companies invented and marketed “tranquilizers.”
Anxiety diagnoses are thus symptomatic of a cultural matrix that is a hothouse for producing more anxiety.
Psychologist Stephen Hinshaw has described anxiety in teenage girls as stemming from an existential crisis: a reaction to a culture that makes impossible demands and offers little meaning beyond achievement. Hinshaw suggests beating teenage anxiety necessitates a sweeping reordering of families, schools, and the cultural packaging of adolescence.
My students’ words and behavior support this view. Thus, I intend to do more to show them how developing their intellectual lives can bring existential meaning. I am also rethinking how I challenge my students. Maybe my classroom, with its variety and speed, should feel slower. Our culture prioritizes “rigor,” but what if the cost is paralysis, massive attrition, or—my worst fear—violence or suicide? Such outcomes are unacceptable.
I seek new ways to discuss anxiety with students and parents. I don’t want to make things worse, but my gut tells me that sidelining anxious students in the classroom is counterproductive.
I’m also coming to terms with my limits. Socioeconomics, genetics, ethnicity, personality, gender, social media, and family may each play more important roles than school in determining adolescent anxiety, studies show. Teachers cannot shoulder all the burden, or blame, for anxious students. This epidemic demands societal responses.
A version of this article appeared in the September 13, 2017 edition of Education Week as Teaching in the Age of Anxiety