5 Ways Anxiety Can Affect Reading For Kids (& How to Help)

9 Ways Anxiety Can Affect Struggling Readers

I'm a Mom to three, and my youngest has several different anxiety disorders that affect his life in many ways, and particularly in the area of reading and learning.

Looking toward the next school year (whenever or however that may be), I thought it would be a good idea to jot down my thoughts about ways I can help him cope with and even overcome this disability, so that he can reach his potential.

My hope is that teachers who read this will begin to think of ways they can plan for success during the school year for kids like mine, who can flourish if only set up to succeed. My son't teacher this year has been an inspiration to me in the amazing way she has uplifted him and helped him, so some of these ideas come from her.

And while I write this, we are going through the pandemic, so who knows what fall may look like for school. I imagine lots of kids are going to be experiencing anxiety with a new school year, after so much time missed.

I suspect we are going to have to deal with our kid's anxieties and stresses in positive ways, if we want them to learn and grow, and become healthy adults. Reading is so very central to all learning, and for leading a full life. So that's what this article will focus on.

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9 ways anxiety can affect reading

9 Ways Anxiety Can Cause Struggles in Beginning Readers

  • Anxiety can cause an inability to concentrate on the text.

If your child is anxious and worried (about anything - fellow students, other subjects, home life, or just with reading), focusing on the text before him may prove to be too difficult.

The words run together, they become overwhelming, and it's a chore to refocus with each distraction, having to find the way back to the right place in the text.

Here are a few things that might help:

In a classroom: Teachers can quiet the room, and help make as "focusing-possible" an environment as the situation allows for. Let the child put dividers up on the desk, or make sure the she is seated in the area she feels most comfortable in. (You might want to ask her, privately).  

You can have the student pull a piece of paper down the page as she reads, so that the text on the page isn't so overwhelming, and a little easier to concentrate on.

A teacher going above and beyond can take the time to see if a child has an empty stomach. I know for mine, he isn't going to get any work done at. all. if he has an empty belly. He can't concentrate without protein, and it's no joke. Maybe keep some non-allergenic protein snack in your desk? 

At home: On that note, make sure your child is getting a small snack every few hours or as needed, especially with a protein, to keep those blood sugars stable. 

Talk to your doctor and cover all the bases to make sure that there isn't an underlying cause for inattentiveness, like a problem with hearing, vision, ADD, or something else.

Noice cancelling headphones can also help a child to focus. If your child goes somewhere to school, you can send headphones with them, and explain to teachers why you feel they are necessary.

  • The student might have a fear of reading aloud.

If your child has a fear of reading aloud (and many do), that anxiety can cloud a whole day of school. Even excellent readers might dislike reading aloud in front of peers, and even more so if a student struggles in reading

Here are a few things that might help:

In a classroom: Is it necessary to force the child to read aloud in front of the whole classroom? Probably not. Reading aloud is good for kids for teaching fluency, and so the teacher can assess, but maybe in a smaller group setting would be a better idea, particularly for the struggler.

When you do choose a passage that you require a child to read aloud in front of others, don't give text that is above their level. If they are forced to read aloud in front of peers, you want them to feel successful.

At home: If you have a pet at home, you have the perfect audience for your child to read aloud to. And pets are proven therapy for anxiety (at least the right pets are! 🙂

If your child feels stress when reading aloud, be specific about what his read aloud time's purpose is. If it is to assess, then have him read aloud just long enough to assess. 

Until your child feels strong in reading, I suggest he listens to others read more than he reads aloud. Meanwhile, go back over phonics basics aloud with him instead of laborious passages. Make sure he has a strong phonemic awareness foundation. Fill the gaps that make reading so difficult.

Then, when he is ready, you'll be hearing him read aloud a lot more!

  • Anxious students may be intimidated to answer questions about the reading.

If a child can't concentrate on the reading, how can we expect him to answer questions and have great comprehension skills? This goes back to the stress some children feels about having to speak aloud in front of others.

Really consider what your goal is for this child. Is it to learn public speaking? Or is it to learn comprehension skills, and be able to answer questions about a text? 

Here are a few things that might help:

In a classroom: IF you have an anxious child in your class, if they can't answer any question aloud correctly, consider that the answer might be anxiety to answer aloud. Or, they may have been so stressed out with trying to read the words, that they were focused on the mechanics of the letters and words, and not paying attention at all to their meaning.

Perhaps tackle this in the same way as reading aloud. Find other ways to see if they comprehend. After they read aloud a passage, re-read it to make sure they know how to answer.

Give the student time to write the answer down, and then read their own answers aloud. Or, just be sure to give an anxious student a question that can be answered easily, with a "yes" or "no" response.

At home: Just like the classroom teacher above, make sure your child has heard the words in a fluent way in order to be able to translate it into comprehension before requiring answers to questions. You may have to repeat the sentence or paragraph before asking questions to do this. 

If your child struggles to answer questions about what he just read, he may still be struggling with fluency, and this brings anxiety and stress when he can't answer your questions. 

So, ask simple questions, or discussion question that don't feel so much like a "test". As he grows into a stronger reader, the comprehension will grow, too.

Boy reading

  • Self-esteem may be affected, causing the student to quit trying.

It's so humiliating when you read poorly, and your friends are passing you by in skill level. The problem can just seem to get worse and worse as the days and weeks go by. This can do such damage to a child's self-esteem and increase their anxiety level.

Here are a few things that might help:

In a classroom: Teachers hold a lot of power in this area. You have the ability to set up a child for success, or to cause their self-esteem to plummet. (No pressure!) But really all it take is a bit of kindness. 

Your most low self-esteem kids are probably the ones acting out. The ones with the irritating habits. Finding ways to encourage and set them up for lots of small "wins" throughout the day can go such a long way in giving them the confidence they need. 

And, if you can give praise and encouragement in front of their friends and parents, that is gold. I still remember some of my elementary school teacher's praises toward me (and unfortunately when they humiliated me too. Don't you?)

When a child feels confident, they'll be ready to tackle the academics.

At home: It's the same for a parent. The only difference is, you never get a break! If you have a child whose low performance with academics has caused low self-esteem, you need to start focusing on what they love, and what they are good at.

And then slowly start to fill in the gaps where needed. If it's reading, do some assessments to see where they are lacking (possibly phonics or phonemic awareness. Maybe an appointment with a reading specialist to rule out dyslexia, or any learning disabilities.

Celebrate all the wins, big and small. Be your child's biggest fan. Remind your child that together, you are a team.

  • Your student may not test well.

Your child may test poorly if the stress and anxiety of taking a test or being assessed in any way completely overwhelms him. I'll use my son as an example. We left one school at the end of a year and in the fall had joined a charter school. 

The teacher we were assigned to meet with every few weeks came in right before the beginning of school to give him benchmark testing. But, this was one of the reasons we left the public school to begin with.

So I warned her that the testing would be very stressful for him, and that she probably would not see accurate results to his ability. She reassured me that she would take lots of breaks, and go as slow as needed.

He completed the test, but sure enough, when those results came in, he made like a 18% in performance. So she assumed he could't even read. She came prepared to teach him how to read from the very beginning.

But - when she asked him to try to read some passages in the first lesson, he read them very well.. and she was shocked! I had tried to explain that he would "fake" the test due to his anxiety, and that's exactly what he did.

His test results did not reflect his ability in any way.

Here are a few things that might help:

In a classroom: If you have a student (or several students) who don't test well because of anxiety, focus on making it as relaxing a process as possible. The less it feels like a test, the better.

Some kids just can't perform under the pressure of time. So, take that out of the equation if you can, and let them have as long as they need. If you must keep it timed, consider breaking it into very small chunks and testing just a little bit each day.

Make sure your student is situated in a place they feel comfortable. Even in another room alone, or at the back of the room if needed.

If you are required to administer testing, do your very best to prepare your students for that day. Full bellies, rested, with a quiet room and a peaceful setting will help. Also, practicing tests ahead of time in very small doses might help prep for a bigger test.

At home: If you are homeschooling, you are blessed in the fact that really - you assess your child every day. You already know what they know, and what they don't know. So - frequent testing may not even be an issue.

You might consider that test-taking is a skill needed in life, though. With this in mind, you might give your child opportunities to take tests to see how they do, and what it feels like. You can even make it fun!

If your child is in school and has to take tests frequently with anxiety, be sure to communicate with your child's teacher, letting her know the struggles. Be bold to ask for accomodations. And do what you can to prep your child for test day.

  • Student may struggle with problem-solving because of their anxiety.

Stress and anxiety can have a profound affect upon learning. It can wreak havoc on your memory and concentration, making it very difficult to learn and do well at school.

When we ask a child to problem-solve in any way, we are asking him to perform several brain functions in a row, and in the right order. 

If a child's stress is causing his mind to go blank, feel jumbled up or foggy, asking him to problem solve might just make the problem worse.

And what is reading with comprehension? It's a series of tasks we require our brains to perform, from seeing the text, to recognizing the symbols and sounds, to decoding those symbols and sounds in words, then sentences, and finally paragraphs on pages.

Comprehending what you just read and taking meaning of it, then applying it to your own experience and responding to it, is quite the problem-solving task. A child experiencing anxiety, panic attacks or stress might not be able to do this.

Here are a few things that might help:

In a classroom: Teacher, just understanding this could be possible is a huge step. Keep in touch with parents and get to know your children. If you have a child experiencing this, the goal should be to get them help for their anxiety, so that the problem solving can begin.

Have compassion.

Don't put them in situations that exacerbate the anxiety, and do what you can with what you have to reduce a stressful environment. Have a good talk with your student, and come up with a "code word" they can use to let you know they are feeling stress without having to say it in front of friends.

Ask the school counselor to get involved. 

At home: Take your child to the pediatrician. Really, anxiety is a problem that can be worked on if you have the right tools. Be patient. Anxiety can take years to mitigate. 

Teach your child stress-reducing techniques and tools, like learning slow deep breathing, squeezing a stress ball, or learn other calming activities.

In regard to problem-solving, teach your child how to tackle a problem, taking it one baby step at a time. Help them learn to ask themselves, "Okay. What step do I take first?"

Family Reading

  • Anxious students may struggle with short-term memory.

Anxiety can actually physically affect short-term memory. And in a classroom setting, this can create frustration for teachers, while unfortunately increasing the anxiety in the student. 

Here are a few things that might help:

In a classroom: Give a child the benefit of the doubt. Usually there is some underlying cause for irritating behaviours. If it seems like a child is never listening to you, consider that if they have anxiety, they may forget quickly. 

So again, compassion. Rote memorization will help, going over and over concepts. Don't be afraid to repeat yourself constantly. Understand that some children need this, and that they really are listening. They may just forget quickly, especially if they are experiencing anxiety.

At home: At home we can do the same as a teacher in a classroom will. We can be patient to repeat over and over again the concepts and teachings that we need our children to learn.

Having an understanding of how the body responds to anxiety even to the point of short-term memory loss, can be empowering to give us more patience and keep us going to help our kids.

  • Anxious students may not handle other emotions well.

Anxiety takes so many shapes and forms. And most them are not fun. Kids might act out or show aggression. According to ChildMind, disruptive behavior is often generated by unrecognized anxiety. 

And of course, if you have an anxious child whose behavior spills outward in this way, it not only affects her own reading and learning, but that of others.

Here are a few things that might help:

In a classroom: It's difficult to deal with these kinds of behaviors, especially when you don't know what is actually the underlying reason. In the moment of course, you must keep other students safe, and contain the situation as you would any discipline issue.

My encouragement for ongoing behavior is to view your student with as much compassion as you can. When you understand and know that a child is not just "bad", but that they are trying to communicate that something is wrong - it gives you such a better insight and chance to help them.

We are here to educate, but a child has to be in a position of ability for that to happen. So if we need to help parents seek solutions to behavior issues, then let's do that to the best of our ability.

Do you know what it means to have a "trauma informed classroom"? If not, then that would be a good term to research.

At home: Just like the teacher in the classroom, recognize that outward behaviors are the way our kids communicate. Behaviors can be caused be environment, food, structure, and yes - clinical anxiety.

How can we teach our kids to read, write, and learn if we have not truly tackled these issues? Start looking at the way your child is communicating to you with behaviors, and begin to research to make the changes they need.

  • Anxious students may regress.

Today as I write this article, we are sheltering at home under a quarantine for Covid-19. It's a life-changing event for all of us, and our children too. We might see a regression in reading if our kids are feeling the stress and anxiety of a pandemic.

And - it's not just a pandemic! Kids can regress in reading skills during any time of a life crisis - a divorce, loss of a loved one, a move to a new city. Any event that brings anxiety to a child can cause regression.

Here are a few things that might help:

In a classroom: You and your class may be the comfort a child needs during a time of great stress. You can encourage this comforting atmosphere with all the images, lights, sounds and smells that you fill your room with. 

It's in these small things, and the kindness, compassion, and patience that you show that can help a child through a hard situation, so they can begin to learn from you.

At home: Be the safe haven that your child needs. And build as many supports around them as you can. Find other adults to be strong support for your child, whether it is a family friend, a therapist, or another healthy safe adult.

Talk to your child! I find that open discussions (appropriate for age level) are so key for my son to reduce his anxiety. And a lot of times, he just needs to talk to me - and I just need to listen.

Learning to read is a lifelong process. And our children go through tough times and feel anxiety. If we are patient and fill in reading gaps as they grow, reading will become a calming tool in and of itself to help our children when they are grown.

Here are a few items to consider in your home or in your classroom to keep around for kids who are feeling stress and anxiety. 

I know you can find success with a little planning!

Of course, anxiety can be just one cause of reading struggles. But, it can be a big problem for some kids. We can help, especially if we know that anxiety is the issue!

Let us know in the comments below if you have experienced a child with anxiety, and if you came up with some great solutions that you didn't see mentioned above.

I hope this was helpful for your little readers and learners, even under the stress we all deal with.