Like many mental health disorders, anxiety and panic disorders can present a wide variety of challenges for students and may be present at different levels of severity. The level of severity often dictates the level of services that is appropriate for the student. Keep in mind that schools are mandated to provide reasonable accommodations for your child to have access to the general education or appropriate curriculum, it is not their job to ensure your child reaches their maximum potential. Besides that, providing too many accommodations, although it is done with good intentions, is not helpful either. It could lead to learned helplessness, hinder the child’s growth in independence, and possibly hinder their ability to work through and overcome some of their anxieties. At the end of the day, parents and schools both want students with anxiety to eventually overcome the challenges their symptoms present.
Students with Lower Levels of Anxiety
Students with lower levels of anxiety or less frequent panic attacks may only need accommodations that can be provided through best practices in the regular education setting.
Some examples of accommodations that could be provided through regular education include:
- Altered passing time (so they’re in the hallway with fewer children)
- Teacher check ins for understanding
- Pass for a break (take a walk or go to a buddy classroom, or talk to student services)
- Allowed to stand in back or pace in classroom when necessary
- Subtle hand signals or post it note system with the teacher to let them know they have questions, or are feeling overwhelmed.
Accommodations for Student with Severe Needs
Students with more severe needs may require interventions to be outlined in a 504 plan in order for them to access the regular education curriculum. A 504 plan is a legal document that identifies the student as a person that has a disability and outlines accommodations that must be provided for the student to gain access to the regular education curriculum. During the 504 evaluation, the team (guardians/parents, teachers, school psychologist and/or counselor, and sometimes the student) must do three things: 1) Determine what major life activities are being negatively impacted by the disability. 2) Determine if the school can provide reasonable accommodations to help the student access the regular education curriculum. 3) If the school can provide reasonable accommodations, what would they be and who would be responsible for providing them (typically the regular education teacher or student services).
Some examples of accommodations that could be provided through a 504 plan include:
- Breaking down large projects into smaller deadlines or extended time on projects/assignments (typically 1.5 extra time)
- Pre-prepared notes for the student to fill in instead of copying everything from the board
- Daily-weekly check ins with the counselor, school social worker, or school psychologist
- Small group that works on mindfulness and/or Cognitive Behavior Therapy
- Testing in a quiet alternate environment
- Use of earbuds/headphones when appropriate.
Special Education Accommodations
Students that have anxiety or a panic disorder that negatively impacts them to the point that they require different academic or social skills curriculum or an alternative setting may require special education which involves an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). The IEP team, during a special education evaluation, must do the following: 1) Determine if the child, “is a child with a disability” using a state disability criteria checklist 2) Determine if the child requires specialized instruction. If the answer to question 2 is “yes,” then the team sets up another meeting on how to draft the IEP document. The IEP is a legal document that outlines accommodations, changes to curriculum, specialized instruction, and/or placement that must be provided for the student to have an appropriate education. These changes and accommodations are provided by regular and special education teachers (i.e. the student receives specialized social skills instruction, specialized instruction in math, self-contained setting). The IEP will also include annual goals for the student to meet with the assistance of the school staff. Accommodations outlined in an IEP can include the same kinds of accommodations one might see in a 504, in addition to specialized instruction (i.e. a separate social skills class, specialized instruction on self-advocacy and utilizing coping skills in the regular education classroom, specialized instruction in math, etc.).
The accommodations and services outlined in this article is not an exhaustive list. It is generally in your child’s best interest to speak about these options and what works best for your child with their teachers, school counselor, school psychologist, or other trusted school personnel that can help you navigate what their school can reasonably provide. The purpose of this is to inform parents/guardians what is available and some ideas that could be conversation starters with your school staff. Keep in mind, not every child with a medical diagnosis of anxiety (or any medical diagnosis) requires a 504 plan or needs special education (an IEP). So if your child’s mental health provider recommends a 504 or IEP, discuss this recommendation with your school team. Sometimes the recommendations from the doctor or therapist are already being done, or can be achieved in the classroom without an IEP or 504 plan.