Managing anxiety

Students can succeed with a treatment plan and support

I recently ran into one of my former students. We chatted about her children and career. We also talked about how she continues to successfully manage her anxiety.   

Kerry is articulate about her struggles to manage this condition, but this was not always the case. As I walked away that day feeling happy for her, I thought back to the struggles she faced in school.

Kerry is a funny and warm individual. But I realized immediately when I met her that trust was a big issue for her. By the time she entered high school, she didn’t trust any school personnel.

Not everyone could see Kerry’s strengths. She was disruptive in class, yelled loudly when frustrated, provoked or misunderstood. And this was most of the time. She swore at teachers or classmates when under stress. She would have crying jags and run out of her classrooms. By ninth grade, she refused to go to math or science classes on most days.

Even with support from classroom assistants, Kerry would frequently flee, charging down the halls crying and yelling at the same time. This is how we met.

My office was in the middle of the ninth-grade wing. After her first few distressed runs down the hall, I offered to Kerry’s team that at any time — as long as I wasn’t in a meeting in my office — she could use the space to cool down. The first few times Kerry came to my office, she flung herself into the rocker next to my desk, curled up into a fetal position, put her head down, sobbed and screamed.

I didn’t talk to her, but rather dimmed the lights, turned on calming music and continued with my paperwork. At the end of the class period, Kerry’s physical and emotional anguish had subsided somewhat.

Eventually, we began talking and she revealed the extraordinary amount of anxiety she was struggling with on a daily basis. Kerry had a strong flight/fight response when anxious, and had been feeling this way since first grade.

With time, development of supportive scaffolding and actively listening to what she was experiencing, progress began to be made. Kerry began to trust her team members. This led to evaluations that resulted in a generalized anxiety diagnosis, and the development of a treatment plan in which she was actively engaged.

There are a lot of Kerrys in our schools. As I visit schools around the state, I observe learners who act out when their anxiety kicks into high gear. These students too often are labeled “troubled,” “difficult” and “unteachable.”

Kerry initially was identified with a math disability, and for years struggled to progress in math even with specialized instruction. Once her anxiety was addressed, she was able to succeed in an academic area that had once seemed impossible.

Anxiety is exhausting. It makes you feel irritable. You lose sleep and your appetite. None of this is conducive to learning. If you think your child is anxious, make an appointment with a pediatrician and discuss the issue with the school. The great news is that anxiety is treatable. And the sooner it’s addressed the better.

Elizabeth Feingold retired from Kearsarge Regional School District, where she worked for over 30 years as a special education teacher and coordinator at the elementary, middle and high school levels. She is now a consultant and advocate. Email her at

More Learning Curve columns by Liz Feingold

60 days and counting

What to expect during your child’s evaluation period

Know before you go

What to expect at a disposition-of referral or evaluation meeting

Remembering my father, my teacher

Reflecting on the lessons he taught me everyday through his actions

The job of the advocate

To best serve the special education student, it takes time
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