Identifying the warning signs: Tips for teachers for a child who is distressed

Worries soared following the return of Term 2 deadlines. Students will now have received marks and question their capacity. It is not surprising that students will feel unsettled.
Dr Danielle Einstein
Jul 21, 2020
Warning signs
Anxiety should be expected in current climate

We are now in a period where academic worries will be top of mind for many students. Worries soared following the return of Term 2 deadlines. Students will now have received marks and question their capacity. It is not surprising that students will feel unsettled.

What should a teacher look out for, and how should they handle signs of distress?

First, notice how your students present in school:

  • Do they seem fatigued? Are there dark rings under their eyes? Have you noticed that they place their head on the desk from time to time? Do they frequently arrive late?
  • Are they less engaged than before? Is a student who used to be involved now frequently quiet and less responsive?
  • Do they look down rather than hold eye contact if you speak to them one on one?
  • During class, do they stare at book or computer without producing work? Do they seem more apathetic than usual?
  • Do you detect a defensive attitude in a teenager, different to the pre-pandemic period. Are they more guarded than before?
  • Are they struggling to hand in assignments or complete school work? Are they asking for frequent extensions? Are they handing in lower quality work?
  • Are they constantly using their phone, either in the playground or in the classroom?

Don’t dismiss these signs. They are red flags. This term has unearthed a variety of different worries in students. Some students, for example, may be feeling envious of other schools’ abilities to keep up over COVID. These feelings lead to self-doubt and depression. There may be conflict at home with parents managing financial insecurity or attempting to re-instill screen time limits. Notice the signs and respond to them using the pastoral and wellbeing structures in your school. Speak to the year coordinator or school counsellor. It will be important to work closely with parents to understand the home situation.

In one on one mentoring discussions with students, avoid the trap of providing excessive reassurance as reassurance feeds anxiety. Recognise anxious 'What if' thoughts and label them. Within conversations, support students using 'What can I do now' problem solving. Step 2 in this model explains how to support students by providing ideas in a healthy way. This problem-solving routine provides teachers with clear guidelines to navigate the boundary of support and reassurance.

The impact of Covid is not over. School holidays will provide a short reprieve from face to face pressure for all of us. The 'hits' and 'dips' of screen use will provide an easy go-to coping strategy to bury concerns. At the beginning of Term 3, self doubt will resurface and there will be a more realistic and sustained chance for students to reset their work ethic. We will need a combination of support and limit setting to help our students return to normal.

Term 3 will be a time for increased understanding and support. The most important wellbeing learnings will be to recognise how reassurance feeds worry and anxiety. In the wake of Covid, teachers from a range of schools explain that this understanding provides a refreshing way to support their own Wellbeing. A two-hour online Teacher Wellbeing course has been informed by these teachers and is available on our website. 

Dr Danielle Einstein is the founder of Chilled and Considerate, which provides short and effective teacher, student and parent wellbeing programs to manage worry and self doubt. Visit to get in touch.