District takes new approach to help kids with social anxiety

District takes new approach to help kids with social anxiety

(Va.) Teachers at this small, specialized school do not attempt to make eye contact or start up small talk with students in the hallways. An opaque film covers classroom windows so that no one can look in from the outside. And tall partitions separate students to offer more privacy.

In Fairfax County, Virginia, students with social anxiety disorder who attend the specialized public school, Quander Road, prefer to learn in classrooms with such amenities and limited interaction.

Students with the disorder are often so nervous before, during and after any public interaction that they may begin showing physical symptoms and miss school–sometimes for weeks or even months.

“In a lot of cases, students with social anxiety won’t even make it to school because they’re worrying so much about the possibilities that come with interacting with others that they make themselves sick that day from being so stressed out by the ‘what ifs,’” Jerry Bubrick, senior director of the Anxiety & Mood Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute, said in an interview.

“At the core of social anxiety is the fear that you’re being or will be perceived negatively by others, which is something most kids and teenagers already deal with, but when it’s to a heightened degree it can effect almost every social situation imaginable,” Bubrick explained.

One child in five school-aged children is or has suffered from a “seriously debilitating mental disorder,” according to the National Institute of Mental Health, and some studies show that as many as 10 percent of students experience extreme social anxiety at some point in their pre-teen or teenage years. For kids with the disorder–also sometimes called social phobia–that could present as avoiding places where there are other people, feeling nauseous or sick to one’s stomach when other people are around, having difficulty holding a conversation or finding it especially difficult to make or keep friends.

For many students, the disorder presents challenges far beyond the typical feeling nervousness before delivering a speech in front of classmates. Some may fear eating with peers in the cafeteria, using public restrooms or even going to school. In some cases, students can miss months or even years’ worth of classroom instruction, severely impacting the likelihood that they will graduate on time, if at all.

In Fairfax County, almost 20 high school students participate in the program for children with social anxiety, and most have missed more than six months of instruction time. There are a number of accommodations made for these students to help them catch up academically and keep their focus on their work instead of their fears.

Students are able to access classrooms by quietly knocking on a backdoor instead of using the main entrance and walking through busy hallways; teachers are asked not to make eye contact or initiate conversation outside of class; and students take online courses separated from one another by patricians.

Several therapists and social workers are also available onsite to help students develop coping mechanisms to help them transition back into a traditional school setting. Often times, this therapy can involve normal activities that expose children to their fear head-on without allowing them to avoid it, such as returning a piece of clothing that doesn’t fit to a store instead of keeping it to avoid interacting with a cashier.

According to Bubrick, avoiding school due to social anxiety is like scratching a mosquito bite – it relieves the sensation for a moment but ultimately makes the problem worse.

“Avoidance is a way to temporarily reduce the anxiety, but it only makes things worse over time, and it can have catastrophic outcomes,” Bubrick said. “The very thing you’re doing to make it better in the moment makes it worse in the long-term.”

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