What's the right type of school for an anxious student?
Exploring your anxious child’s potential fit in 10 different school types
Kids vary widely in their emotional makeup. Don’t underestimate the importance of this on school choice: it can profoundly affect the kind of learning environment, and hence school, that’s right for them.
Anxious kids have a significant degree of daily anxiety. They may or may not have a diagnosed anxiety disorder, such as a social anxiety disorder or panic disorder.
Below, we identify key points you should reflect on when considering 10 different school types for an anxious child. Note: our aim isn’t to tell you whether a school type is right or wrong for you, but to highlight some critical factors you should consider when making your decision.
To learn about how to choose the right school in general, read the Our Kids’ step-by-step advice guide and our expert tips. To get school-choice advice customized to your child's unique traits, create a child profile through your user account.
Anxious kids’ fit in 10 school types
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- Small school (150 students or less)
- Big school (151+ students)
- Coed school
- Girls' school
- Boys' school
- Montessori school
- Reggio Emilia school
- International Baccalaureate school
- Language immersion school
- Boarding school
Small school (150 students or less)
Many small schools have smaller classes with lots of one-on-one support and close supervision to support kids with anxiety (and other emotional issues).
“Students with anxiety often thrive in smaller school settings,” say Ann and Karen Wolff of Wolff Educational Consulting. “These students often feel a sense of comfort and ease in knowing that all of the staff know them and understand their challenges. They can be supported in a trusting environment, and they won’t have to navigate as many social relationships with kids and adults.”
However, some small schools don’t support kids with certain anxiety disorders, especially severe ones. Ask what kinds of anxiety issues a school supports and how it delivers this support. Finally, make sure your child has access to resources they may need in class or out, such as on-site counselling.
Big school (151+ students)
Since kids with anxiety require special attention, ensure any prospective school has small- to medium-sized classes with plenty of structure, individualized learning, one-on-one support, and properly trained special education staff. This is especially true if your child has a diagnosed anxiety disorder.
“Big schools can be challenging for students with anxiety,” says Una Malcolm, director of Bright Light Learners. “Navigating a large student population and lots of relationships can compound issues with anxiety. And it’s sometimes more difficult for teachers and administrators to monitor students’ well-being in this setting.”
That said, many big schools provide a wide scope of resources to support anxiety (and other mental health issues), such as educational assistants, resource teachers, psychologists, social workers, and support groups. Ask exactly what kinds of support a school provides, both in class and out. For instance, does it provide counselling for kids with a social anxiety disorder or selective mutism?
A coed environment will require your child to negotiate the complexities of boy-girl interactions. Since this can be especially challenging for a child who struggles with anxiety, ask a school about its coed social dynamic.
Also, ensure a coed school has the right learning environment, support systems, and out-of-class resources for your anxious child. For instance, if they suffer from generalized anxiety, they’ll likely need a small class with lots of one-on-one support. Or, if they suffer from panic attacks, they may require regular visits with an in-house psychologist.
Of course, in a coed school, your child will have opportunities to work with and learn from the experiences of both boys and girls. This can widen their perspective and enhance their academic and social development.
Make sure a girls’ school provides the right environment for your anxious daughter. Depending on the type and severity of her anxiety, she’ll likely need smaller classes, lots of one-on-one guidance, and perhaps out-of-class support (such as in-house counselling or psychotherapy).
“Girls’ schools tend to have a strong understanding of the common causes and triggers of anxiety in girls,” says Stacey Jacobs, director of Clear Path Educational Consulting. “This gives them special insight into how to support anxious girls.”
Also, in a girls-only school, your daughter won’t have to negotiate the complexities of boy-girl relations, which can help her stay on track in her studies.
Make sure a boys’ school provides the right setting for your anxious son to thrive academically and socially. Most likely he’ll require smaller classes, lots of one-on-one guidance, and strong support staff, such as on-site psychologists.
“Boys’ schools tend to have a strong understanding of the common causes and triggers of anxiety in boys,” says Stacey Jacobs, director of Clear Path Educational Consulting. “This gives them special insight into how to support boys with anxiety.”
Also, in an all-boys school, your son won’t have to negotiate the complexities of boy-girl interactions, which can help him focus on his work free from potential distractions.
Many kids with anxiety will find the calm and quiet learning space of the typical Montessori classroom soothing. “Its close-knit, supportive environment can be empowering and reassuring for anxious kids,” says Una Malcolm, director of Bright Light Learners. “Montessori schools’ focus on self-direction and individualized learning can also enable them to feel more comfortable taking academic risks.”
However, some anxious kids may need more supervision, structure, and one-on-one support than some Montessori schools provide. Students with severe generalized anxiety, for instance, may not have the emotional resources needed to thrive in some Montessori environments, at least without extra support. Of course, since different Montessori schools have different approaches and environments, speak to school directors and staff to gauge whether your child is likely to be a good fit.
Reggio Emilia school
The warm, community feel of the Reggio Emilia classroom—which is set up to promote lots of interaction—can enable kids with anxiety to feel at home. It can help them connect with classmates, make close friends, and pursue engaging independent and group projects.
Just make sure the Reggio Emilia focus on group learning is the right fit for your child. Also, some anxious kids may require more structure and one-on-one support than some of these schools provide, especially kids with diagnosed anxiety disorders. Ask what support is available and how it’s delivered to gauge whether a school is likely to meet your child’s needs.
International Baccalaureate school
Due to their standardized curriculum and focus on group learning, not all IB schools can provide the structure, individualized learning, and one-on-one support many anxious kids need. Also, the highly academic environment of the IB can be a source of intense pressure for kids with anxiety, especially those with severe anxiety.
Of course, if your child has milder anxiety and is a hard worker who enjoys high-level academics and group learning, the IB Programme can be a nice fit. Speak to school reps about what support systems they have in place before you make your final decision.
Language immersion school
Anxiety can make it challenging to stay on track in a language immersion program. For instance, a child with severe generalized anxiety may lack the emotional resources and focus to keep pace with their peers in an immersion program. If a school doesn't offer intervention or support for this disorder, which most immersion schools won’t, this can lead to ongoing academic (e.g., literacy) problems and potentially exacerbate your child’s anxiety.
That said, kids with less severe anxiety who enjoy and are good at languages often welcome the cognitive challenge of learning in a different language. If they’re hard workers who are strong academically, a language immersion school can be a nice fit.
Make sure any school you’re considering has small enough classes to provide the structure and one-on-one support your anxious child needs. Also, since they’ll be living away from home, ensure support systems are in place to keep your child on the right track, academically and emotionally, and that they’re willing and prepared to take advantage of them. For instance, if your child has a social or generalized anxiety disorder, weekly visits with an on-site psychologist may be in order.
Also, “Consider whether your child will be comfortable and confident while living away from home, and while having to navigate the various, and sometimes unforeseen, social-emotional experiences, alongside the many academic challenges,” says Joanne Foster, education expert and author of ABCs of Raising Smarter Kids.
Of course, boarding school can be a great way for some anxious kids, especially those with milder anxiety, to develop confidence, independence, and resilience. Having to manage schedules and routines and advocate for oneself can be emboldening.
Anxious kids’ school fit: key take-homes
- Many small schools have smaller classes with lots of one-on-one support and close supervision to support kids with anxiety (and other emotional issues). Big schools can be challenging for students with anxiety: due their larger student populations, it can be harder to monitor student’s progress.
- Boys’ and girls’ schools tend to have a strong understanding of the triggers and causes of anxiety. This gives them a special insight into dealing with this issue.
- Many kids with anxiety will find the calm and quiet learning space of the typical Montessori classroom soothing.
- The warm, community feel of the Reggio Emilia classroom—which is set up to promote lots of interaction—can enable kids with anxiety to feel at home.
- Due to their standardized curriculum and focus on group learning, not all IB schools can provide the structure, individualized learning, and one-on-one support many anxious kids need. Also, the highly academic environment of the IB can be a source of intense pressure for kids with anxiety, especially those with severe anxiety.
- Anxiety can make it challenging to stay on track in a language immersion program. For instance, a child with severe generalized anxiety may lack the emotional resources and focus to keep pace with their peers in an immersion program.