Fears are common and expected in childhood; however, for some students, their fears can become very severe over time, and even develop into a phobia. A phobia is an intense and unreasonable fear of a specific object or situation. This means having an extreme anxiety response towards something that is not causing immediate danger. Someone may have a phobia of needles, spiders, or elevators, for example. Research suggests that phobias can run in families, and that both genetic and environmental factors (nature and nurture) can contribute to developing a phobia.

Some students develop a phobia after being exposed to a traumatic or frightening event such as a fear of needles after an upsetting school vaccination. However, other students may develop a phobia by observing others’ anxious response to objects or situations. It is not uncommon for a student to develop a spider phobia after watching another student or teacher scream and run when in contact with a spider. Although a combination of nature and nurture likely play a role in the emergence of a phobia, many students cannot explain how or why their phobia begun.

How Specific Phobias impact the student at school

In order for a student to feel anxious about a feared or phobic object or situation, the student must be in direct contact, or anticipate imminent contact, with that object or situation. Many common examples of phobias are not naturally occurring in most schools and therefore may have little relevance in the life of a student. For example, a student with a phobia of dogs would be unaffected in school unless someone brought a dog to school, or there was a classroom project on canines. However, there are several examples of phobias that are more likely to be present in schools. These include, but are not limited to, elevators or enclosed spaces, needles, blood, insects, storms, water, vomiting, or costumed characters. When a student encounters a phobic object or situation s/he may have a panic attack, or scream and run away from the situation, refuse to return, or leave school entirely. Such reactions can be difficult for the student because not only is s/he afraid of the object or situation and has to manage the related symptoms of anxiety, s/he may then also have to manage the outcome of having engaged in a strong reaction in front of peers and staff. As a teacher, being supportive of the student is important, as phobias are more than just a minor fear of creepy crawlies, or feeling uncomfortable in the school elevator. If the phobic object or situation is likely to arise repeatedly, it will be important to help the student get the help s/he needs to remain in the classroom and at school.

Downloadable Resource: Coping Strategies for Supporting Students

To learn more about SPECIFIC PHOBIAS in children, please click here.