Students with social anxiety disorder have an excessive and persistent fear of social and/or performance situations such as school, parties, athletic activities, and more. They are extremely worried that they may do something embarrassing, or others will think badly of them. These students constantly feel “on stage,” which can lead to a great deal of self-consciousness, distress, and avoidance. Some students are only afraid of speaking or performing in public, while others fear and avoid a wide range of social situations. Finally, being a shy or quiet child is not the same as having social anxiety disorder.
How social anxiety impacts the student at school
In the early school years, young students tend to experience a number of physical symptoms such as stomachaches or complaints about feeling ill, in anticipation of, or when expected to be in, a social or performance based situation. In addition, these students may cry, whine, freeze, or cling to parents/caregivers, begging the parent/caregiver to stay. These students may even refuse to participate in various activities or to attend school, either by not going, or if they are forced to go, by not speaking (e.g., to the teacher, peers, or administrative staff).
In middle school, students are starting to become more self-conscious, and may begin to expect things to go “badly” when they are around peers or at school. They might be overly concerned about others looking at them or talking about them in a bad way. In addition, these students recognize that school is becoming important and may begin to fear the perceived negative judgment by others, of their work. While these students may continue to experience many of the same feelings and behaviors as in younger students, now they are starting to be able to identify what is so upsetting for them.
In high school and beyond, students are typically more self-focused and may have harsh negative thoughts about themselves. They may be more likely to mumble or avoid eye contact. These older students often struggle with academics as they are unable to participate fully in class or to engage in group and oral projects. This can lead to “skipping” school and/or using drugs or alcohol in order to cope. Finally, students may also have trouble dating or experience social problems due to extreme social fear or embarrassment. Unfortunately, not all students are able to recognize that their anxious response may be unreasonable given the situational demands, making it hard for teachers to encourage students to take a different perspective and gain courage to confront their fears.
Unfortunately, for many years the prevailing belief was that some students are simply shy, and prefer not to participate like their more gregarious peers. This is inaccurate. Generally speaking, students with social anxiety want to be in school and to graduate. They also want to have some friends and to date. They might even want to participate in activities that have a performance aspect, such as drama, athletics, or choir. However, anxiety prevents them from doing so, and because they are often quiet and reserved, they may go unnoticed by teachers who believe these are shy kids who prefer it this way.
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