Anxiety – friend or foe

First and foremost, I am someone who struggles with anxiety…especially when I have to catch a flight. I’m afraid of flying, being high up in the air, away from the ground, being trapped in a small space and all of those apply when I fly. I’m also a parent, a teacher, a social entrepreneur and an education consultant with a PhD in Inclusive Education.

I discovered that I had anxiety as a child, we never knew it and therefore my parents never seeked out any support or treatment. It always reared its ugly head at the beginning of every new school year when there was change and a different teacher and the first time I remember struggling was in Std 3. I had a major panic attack and had to go home. That experience terrified me and I had the added fear of it happening again.

I began studying, reading and researching about it because I was seeing so many cases at our school and when chatting to parents in interviews and consultations. I realised how massively this disorder can affect a person’s life. It really is becoming a national crisis, another pandemic.

Parents are looking for alternative schooling options because their child is not coping with the “traditional” schooling approaches. There is just too much pressure, the pace is too fast, and competition is not healthy, learning barriers are not accommodated, etc. So I chose to do this research and doctoral study in 2018, how ironic that it happened pre covid.

Anxiety is referred to as an invisible disability. It’s not always easily “seen”or “picked up” and some kids hide it better than others. Boys show fear/anxiety differently to girls.

The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) state that as many as 8-11% of children and adolescents suffer from an anxiety that affects their ability to get on with their lives. These anxieties can also develop into specific phobias, social phobias, generalized anxiety disorders and obsessive behaviour. Childhood and adolescence is the core risk phase for the development of symptoms and syndromes of anxiety that may range from transient mild symptoms to full-blown anxiety disorders.

These anxiety disorders are among the most common psychiatric conditions in young people and “they typically have an adverse impact on educational achievement, family life and leisure activities” They also often co-occur with other anxiety disorders, depression and behavioural disorders.

We talk about internalising behaviours vs externalising behaviours which are often what we see at school…lashing out, school avoidance/absenteeism, aggression, irritability (bad behaviour) or withdrawal, sadness, lack of engagement. What parents might see at home is a child that avoids interaction, prefers to be alone, lack of enthusiasm, fighting with siblings, irritability, and withdrawal.

Sometimes the child is only anxious at school and not at home (school phobia or refusal, which is what I struggled with)

My research included one main objective which was to facilitate the implementation of an education support plan, to enable learners with anxiety to participate in learning activities, and provide guidelines on the effective teaching and learning strategies for learners with anxiety disorders.

A case study was chosen, which provided an in-depth analysis of anxiety disorders in learners and adolescents in their natural school setting during 2019. Questionnaires given to parents, teachers and learners to complete. Observations during classtime, recess and certain sporting events took place and fieldnotes were written up after each observation session.

The answers from questionnaires were then grouped into themes, such as the most commonly experienced symptoms of anxiety, the most common feelings from parents about their child’s AD and successful treatments used.

Teachers agreed that the learners needed support in the form of an adult to whom they could communicate, for example, either a teacher or a counsellor with whom they could discuss specific interventions or solutions. All the teachers indicated that the learners would try to avoid the activity or task that made them feel anxious. In addition, all the teachers referred to occasions and situations where they had made accommodations for learners suffering anxiety.
The teachers indicated that by really getting to know their learners and responding to their needs, they could reduce feelings of anxiety in their learners.


Having a proper admissions procedure and policy.
Support – SIAS policy and categories of support.
The importance of honest and effective communication cannot be over-emphasised.

Parents/caregivers play a pivotal role in the early identification of barriers, where observations and comments can lead the teacher into locating the exact nature of the barriers that a learner experiences.

Anxiety is the most treatable of the mental illnesses.
If not treated, it can have a devastating effect on the person’s adult life.
It is persistent and has a very loud voice.
There needs to be an Integrated system between school/work, home and treatment.

The learner questionnaire results revealed that 50% of the respondents indicated that their teachers knew how to help them when they were anxious or scared. Learners with anxiety disorders, may have needs that go beyond the scope of what can be provided in the school setting and school personnel may need to make a referral for further testing to determine if a learner is eligible for special concessions or accommodations. The teachers indicated overwhelmingly in their questionnaires that by really knowing their learners and responding to their needs, they could reduce feelings of anxiety in their learners.


By Dr. Philippa Fabbri
Director of Communication, Funding and School Design

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