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Social anxiety in children with disabilities.

Humans experience social anxiety to different degrees and in different areas. In schol settings, this can be a barrier to learning. The school is a social place and to experience anxiety arond peers can be challenging, especially if the student also has a learning disability. Social anxiety problems are often associated with learning disabilities. Unfortunately, students with special needs are frequently lacking necessary social skills needed to adpat to their environment. These qualities in a person may lead to a student developing social anxiety. As a result, students may feel apprehensive in their educational setting which can lead to major problems in their learning. By being aware of social anxiety that can exist is students with learning disabilities, teachers will have a better chance of helping their students overcome their fears and succeed in their educational endeavors.


Social anxiety continues to affect numerous special needs students throughout our educational system. Many educators are unaware of what social anxiety is and how it affects their students. Social anxiety is a term that is used to describe an experience of anxiety regarding a social situation, interaction with others, or being scrutinized by other people. People who feel social anxiety are often overcome with timidity, bashfulness, diffidence, apprehension, intimidation, lack of confidence and/or lack of assertiveness. Research has shown that some students have become so overwhelmed with social anxiety disorder that they are afraid to speak and interact within an educational setting (Social Anxiety Disorder: Children and Education, 2008). When students possess social anxiety, it greatly affects their ability to succeed inside and outside of the classroom environment.

Social anxiety problems may often associated with learning disabilities. Unfortunately, students with special needs are frequently lacking necessary social skills needed to adapt to their environment. "Individuals who have learning disabilities may be less observant in their social environment, may misinterpret the social behavior of others at times, and may not learn as easily from experiences or social 'cues' as their friends" (Social Adjustment Problems Associated with Learning Disabilities, 2009). These qualities in a person will likely lead to a student developing social anxiety. As a result, students may feel apprehensive in their educational setting which can lead to major problems in their learning. By being aware of social anxiety that can exist in students with learning disabilities, teachers will have a better chance of helping their students overcome their fears and succeed in their educational endeavors.

Social anxiety can be a debilitating and shameful feeling. However, this disorder is not something that people have to live with. There are some basic fundamental strategies that can help overcome social anxiety in almost any setting. A good starting point would be initiating conversation or arming oneself with pre-planned topics for conversation when attending social events (Sena, Lowe and Lee, 2007). Along with pre-planned topics, preparing questions to ask of others will help alleviate social anxiety because asking questions of others is a way to get the focus off oneself. In addition to these, it is better to arrive early to functions in order to meet a few people without having to break into large, already-formed groups (Lein, 2008). Entering a situation or place with a trusted person, someone you feel comfortable with, will help to guide and reassure a student that there is nothing to fear.

Prepare an Environment for Comfort

By incorporating simple steps into your teaching mannerisms such as acting friendly, smiling, speaking in a soft tone, and giving compliments will help the socially anxious student feel more at ease in the classroom. Establishing a "peaceful place" open to all students in the classroom, whether it's a corner with a bean bag in it, or a quiet section tapped out on the rug, provides a safe place for students to go and sit quietly to gather themselves if they feel threatened or stressed in a social situation (Young, 1991). Providing positive reinforcement when the student does engage in a situation that he or she may have considered fearful is another way for teachers to help students grow out of this social fear. The student should be gradually encouraged to work with another classmate, and eventually in a group with several peers as they begin to build self-confidence.

Social anxiety is not a life sentence and can be remedied with the support and patience of trusted individuals surrounding the person. The individual must have the courage to gradually push themselves outside of their comfort zone in order to see progress. This progress will result in increased self confidence and open doors to peer relationships.

Characteristics of Social Anxiety

Individuals with social anxiety exhibit several characteristics. They often avoid social contact because they are introverted and feel large amounts of anxiety in social situations. The characteristics surrounding social anxiety may emerge in adolescence and continue throughout a person's life. Individuals experiencing social anxiety have persistent and irrational fears of embarrassment in social situations and are often depressed (Gilboa-Shectman & Shahar, 2007). Two main types of social anxiety exist; each type exhibits different characteristics. The non-generalized (or specific) type person normally exhibits performance anxiety and shows a fear of speaking in front of groups. While the non-generalized type exhibits characteristics in specific situations, the generalized type shows a "persistent fear and avoidance of most social situations" (Antai-Otong, 2008). Individuals experiencing the generalized type of social anxiety are usually anxious and uncomfortable in all social situations (Social Phobia/Social Anxiety, 2009).

Students who have social anxiety within the classroom are likely to experience a strong sense of anxiety during social situations because they fear being judged. Students who have social anxiety will be confused by their feelings, and their peers will most likely be confused as to why their classmate does not want to associate with them. Often, people with social anxiety will be upset and distressed in situations where they are the center of attention and have to meet new and important people. It will be important that the teacher understands that this student has social anxiety and the beginning of the school year will be an especially hard time for that student. Because individuals with social anxiety believe that everyone is watching and judging them, they can never truly relax around other people. If, in the beginning of the year, a teacher notices a student that seems especially shy, unfriendly, nervous, disinterested, and aloof, then it should be a warning that this student is exhibiting characteristics of social anxiety. These students often report that they are constantly anxious, have nervousness, negative thoughts, and muscle twitches as well (Social Phobia/Social Anxiety, 2009). Social anxiety is treatable even though this disorder is not usually publically mentioned. Teachers will need to work with these students and help them to overcome their anxiety in the classroom. It would be in the student's best interest to not force them to give presentations or introduce themselves as it could cause an anxiety attack. Eventually, students will have to learn to deal with their anxiety in these situations, but that comes later - after diagnosis with treatment.

Degrees of Social Anxiety in Students

Humans experience social anxiety to different degrees and in different areas. For example, an actor may by loud and bold on stage, but shy in an interview. Most people experience social anxiety at some point in their lives, the degree to which it occurs will vary from person to person. Social anxiety could be genetic or passed down from parents, a chemical abnormality in the brain, or it could occur after a humiliating experience. For students with disabilities, it could be a combination. According to Fisher, Allen, & Kose (1996), students with disabilities function under higher levels of anxiety than students without disabilities. Situations that students without disabilities could categorize as enjoyable or fun, students with disabilities could see as a situation that may end up becoming humiliating or awkward for them, which results in an escalation of anxiety. For example, in school when a teacher chooses to play a game where the students may have to come up in front of the rest of the class and write something on the board, or say something to their classmates, students with disabilities may view that to be an unfamiliar situation and become anxious or nervous and not want to participate. Students without learning disabilities view the situation as a chance to have fun in the classroom and get up and be able to move and have the attention on them.

Social anxiety could also come from the amount of time a student with disabilities is in the general education classroom. Some services pull out students with disabilities for only part of the day or for certain academic areas, in which they may need extra assistance and some services may pull out students with disabilities for a majority of the day or most of the academic areas. This may result in students with disabilities that are only pulled out for part of the day to have a lower degree of social anxiety. The reason for that is because they are more comfortable around their peers and they are more familiar with the daily routine of the classroom, which leaves less of a chance for surprises or unexpected events that may cause the social anxiety. Students with disabilities also worry about failing in the classroom. According to Stein, & Hoover (1989), the increased demands of the general education classroom raises the opportunity for failure, which creates higher levels of anxiety. Everyone experiences social anxiety to some degree about something during their lives. Students with disabilities often experience anxiety at higher degrees due to different situations, especially in the classroom, than students without disabilities.

Social Anxiety Disorder varies from gender to ethnic background. Research estimates that 12% of the U.S. population meets the criteria for Social Anxiety Disorder with rates in other countries varying (Lee, 1999). Women are more likely to develop the disorder than men are. In other populations; however, the anxiety may present itself differently. Americans in many ways see the pursuit of their own personal goals as a sign of good mental health. As for other cultures, group goals are more important than individual goals. In cultures where the group is seen as more important than its individual parts, social anxiety disorders develop differently as people often become increasingly distressed about how they may affect others (Sanders, 2000).

For students with special needs it has been found that as a result of feeling social anxiety they are more likely to have more difficulty in skilled social behavior. This leads to the students not having very many friends which they feel is a result of their personality rather than of their lower self-confidence and social anxiety. The extent of this can be seen in a study conducted by Bierman & Erath (2007), children varies from age 13-19 year olds with spina bifida, 31 (53 percent) had had no social contact with a friend of their own age for at least a month prior to the interview. Also, Anderson (1982) found that just 6 percent of the able bodied group were leading limited or very restricted social lives, as against 29 percent of those with exceptionalities. Overall, due to their lower self confidence as well as the social anxiety they face, students with special needs feel as though many students do not like them when many times it could be the uneasiness brought about by their lack of social skills (Best, 2009). It is important for students with special needs to be given increased opportunities for interactions with their peers so that they are able to thrive in social situations throughout their lifetime.


Social anxiety causes individuals to fear situations. Many shy people feel so anxious when they are around others, that they start going out of their way to avoid any social situation. Many shy people avoid social situations altogether so they will not feel anxious and panic. By doing this, they will not have to worry about what they say sounding stupid, or most importantly, what others are thinking of them. Overall,because of these feelings, many shy people experience a lot of feelings of shame and embarrassment and negative self criticism due to them looking down on their own social anxiety. Social anxiety can also be seen in students with special needs. They are more likely to face this social anxiety due to the low self-confidence they feel about having an exceptionality. For example, when an adolescent student with special needs does go into a social setting in which they fear such as a party, they will usually stand off to the side to avoid conversations. The downside to doing this though, is that many people are uneasy with social anxiety in others. They perceive shy people who avoid conversations or walk away quickly from social encounters to be rude or stuck up. These feelings can clearly be observed in an article written by Alm and Frodi (2008). Similar to how many people feel uneasy, these participants explained they feel stressed out by shy people and upon meeting, the conversation is usually boring and uninteresting. The participants explained that they feel stressed because the shy people do not always contribute to what they are thinking or feeling. Consequently, these students with special needs miss out on socialization with their peers due to their own social anxiety.

Similar to fearing situations such as parties, social anxiety can be experienced in children with special needs throughout the average school day. For example, a study conducted by Younger, Schneider, and Guirguis (2008) studied 227 children from the first, third, fifth, and seventh grades what behaviors characterize shyness in their peers. The categories of behaviors most frequently described by these children included the following: doesn't talk, stays by self, walks/runs away from others, looks away/avoids eye contact, and gets mixed up when talking/stutters. Overall, similar to the students in this study these behaviors exhibited by students with special needs, result in increased loneliness. This is due to the fact that they do not have many friends due to their social anxiety and the awkwardness that others feel when around them. In the end, school may become a place of apprehension for shy children with special needs because they will have limited social interaction with other students their age. As a result of this, they believe their shyness is a negative trait which in turn lowers their self-esteem.


Teachers can help students grow out of social anxiety by working towards smaller goals in order to reach the larger one of building self-confidence. If the teacher creates a comfortable and protected classroom environment, the student with social anxiety is more likely to feel safe and secure, resulting in a better chance of opening up (Young, 1991).

If we, as educators, can focus on the anxiety that these students face and find ways to give them the safety and security to feel comfortable in the learning environment, then these students will have an opportunity to find success in the classroom and at the same time develp ways to help themselves in the wider world.


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Antai-Otong, D. (2008). The art of prescribing social anxiety disorder: Characteristics, course, and pharmacological management prevalence. Perspectives in Psychiatric Care, 44(1), 48-53.

Best, S. (2009). Teaching individuals with physical and multiple disabilities. Upper Saddle River NJ: Prentice Hall.

Bierman, K.L. & Erath, S.A. (2007). Social anxiety and peer relations in early adolescence: Behavioral and cognitive factors. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 35(3), 405-416.

Fisher, B., & Allen, R. (1996). The relationship between anxiety and problem- solving skills in children with and without learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 29(4), 439-446.

Gilboa-Shectman, E. & Shahar, G. (2007). Depressive personality styles and social anxiety in young adults. Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy, 21(4), 275-284

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Sena, J., Lowe, P., & Lee, S. (2007). Significant predictors of test anxiety among students with and without learning disabilities. Journal of Leaning Disabilities: Sage Publications Inc.

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Stein, P., & Hoover, J. (1989). Manifest anxiety in children with learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 22(1), 66.

Young, D. J. (1991).Creating a low-anxiety classroom environment: What does language anxiety research suggest? The Modern Language Journal, 75, 426-439.

Younger, A., Schneider, B., & Guirguis-Younger, M. (2008). How children describe their shy/ withdrawn peers. Infant & Child Development, 17(5), 447-456.

Peter A. Cowden, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Niagara University.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Dr. Peter A Cowden at
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Author:Cowden, Peter A.
Publication:Journal of Instructional Psychology
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2010
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