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How do I help my student with anxiety?

Updated: Oct 21, 2022

Are you wondering how to support your student with anxiety? In this response to a concerned parent, I detail out the steps you can take that include:

  • Advocating for additional assessments from the school

  • Providing easy to use templates for communicating with teachers when in-person communication is overwhelming

  • Discrete breathing exercises that can help students self-regulate

  • Drafted IEP goals that help students with anxiety that causes executive function challenges

Four anxious teenagers working on homework and school assignments at their desks with their computers and textbooks.
How do I help my student with anxiety?

Table of Contents:


Letter from parent

Hi Sean,

My daughter is in her freshman year of high school and feels constantly overwhelmed.

For example, in her Spanish class she has not been submitting homework and has failed every exam.

According to her IEP, her teachers should be doing regular “checks for understanding” and reducing assignments, but unless I email the teacher or her case manager, it doesn’t happen.

Even though her IEP has all the accommodations I thought would help her, I’ve noticed she will not ask for them on her own.

I scheduled a meeting to discuss this with her school team and both her teacher and counselor implied that now that my daughter is in high school it is time she takes ownership of her learning.

I know that she would if she could, but her anxiety gets in the way.

I’ve tried finding a therapist to work with her, but I was put on the waiting list for every practice I reached out to.

I feel so frustrated!

How do I get the school to play their role in supporting my daughter?

Anxious in Sedona


Dear Anxious in Sedona,

Nothing short circuits our executive function skills like anxiety.

While the school is correct that high school is an important time to develop more independence, it is also their responsibility to provide an educational experience that facilitates that outcome.

Step 1: Request additional assessment to be completed by the school

Given you are already seeking therapy to address your daughter’s anxiety, I suggest you request additional assessment to be completed by the school (at no cost to you) so they can deem you eligible for school-based counseling to help your daughter manage her anxiety.

Here is an article with the steps on how to do that which also includes a letter template that you can fill in detailing your attempts to problem solve with the school.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires the school district to present you with an Assessment Plan for your consent within 15 calendar days from the date the school district receives your letter.

Step 2: Communicate needs via email by using templates

While you advocate for a better individualized plan for your daughter, she needs an easy way to advocate for herself and get back on track.

And since her anxiety is making speaking directly to her teachers overwhelming, it will be easier for both of you to start by communicating her needs via email.

This will also create a “paper trail” of her attempts to problem solve with her teachers and will strengthen your case for a modified learning plan.

Try using an email along these lines to start the conversation with each of her teachers:

Hi (Teacher Name),

I hope you are doing well. I noticed that my grade in your class is currently a (grade). My goal is to earn a (desired grade). My plan is to complete the following missing assignments in this order:

  1. Assignment you will complete first

  2. Assignment you will complete second

  3. Assignment you will complete third

Is there anything else you suggest I do to work toward my goal of earning (desired grade) in your class?

Additionally, I plan to use my IEP accommodations of…(insert preferred accommodations such as extended time, reduced assignment, etc) on all assignments going forward.

Will I be able to earn full credit if I complete the assignments above and submit them to you by (choose date)?

Thank you for your guidance ,

(Your Name)

Instead of having your daughter write this same email over and over, have her save it as a template on Gmail so that she can modify it for each class.

Here is a short video on how to create Gmail templates:

To help your daughter prepare for tests, clarify directions and request additional accommodations, she can use the templates I’ve created for students just like her by visiting this link:

Step 3: Create a menu of self-regulation strategies

Now that you are working with the school to improve her IEP and helping her self-advocate, the last thing you’ll want to do is to help her develop some practical strategies to improve her self-awareness and self-regulation skills so she can manage the school day more effectively.

One strategy that a student can do discretely while sitting at their desk during class is called finger breathing.

To “finger breathe,” your daughter can trace the outline of one hand with the pointer finger of the other, while breathing in as she ascends a finger, and out as she descends it.

I also suggest spending 2 minutes before school completing a mediation with your daughter.

You could try this breathing practice in the car before you leave the driveway and once again when the school day is over.

Come up with a plan to help your daughter “check in” about her feelings each day.

For example, maybe you text her at lunch time and ask her to share what she is feeling.

When she gets in the habit of identifying her feelings, she will start to see that feelings change each day and anxiety will pass like all feelings do if she is able to recognize it and accept it.

Step 4: Revise the IEP to add in a goal around self-advocacy

Once the school completes additional assessment and adds school-based counseling, request a goal written in the area of self-advocacy.

Lastly, writing an IEP goal around self-advocacy.

An self-advocacy goal could be the following:

By (date), with no more than one prompt from a staff member, (student name) will ask for guidance on how to submit or complete any assignments that are missing as measured by once-weekly randomized reviews of students' learning management system by an education specialist. Progress will be monitored by a weekly checklist with a "completed / not completed" designation.

Final thoughts

Throughout all this, remember to take care of yourself, too!

Parenting a child with executive function challenges can be overwhelming at times so make sure you are getting rest, asking for help from your loved ones and treating yourself to something nice, every day.

With love,

Sean G. McCormick


About the author

Sean McCormick, a white man with a blue dress shirt and a black tie.
Sean G. McCormick

Sean G. McCormick is a parent, husband and international executive function coach. He is the founder of Executive Function Specialists, an online coaching business which guides middle, high school, and college students in overcoming procrastination, disorganization and anxiety by teaching time management, prioritization and communication skills so they feel motivated, prepared, and empowered.

He has also spoken about executive function at prominent venues including the Association of Educational Therapists' National Conference (2021), The Executive Function Online Summit (TEFOS 2022) and at Marin County Psychological Association.

Sean is regularly featured across media channels for his expertise on executive function, ADHD and special education.

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