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Do’s and Don’t Checklist for Anxiety Disorders & ADA Student Accommodations: A Student’s Perspective

DO:

  • Assume that the student is doing his/her best and that he/she is capable of doing better.
  • Know there is a distinction between experiencing anxiety and having an anxiety disorder.
  • Show interest in understanding a student’s difficulties. This alone often relieves a great deal of pressure.
  • Create disability accommodations tailored to function like a crisis plan, making sure all related parties understand, agree to, and are involved in constructing it.
  • Express your concerns directly to the student in a manner that is respectful and private.
  • Validate the student’s experience. (Remember, the student’s anxiety response is the problem not the anxiety itself. Understanding and communicating this is critical.)
  • Foster a cooperative relationship in solving additional problems that may arise.
  • Remain calm and non-judgmental in the event of frustration.
  • Be assertive, attentive, and consistent in responding.
  • Ask for assistance from college disability counselors when needed.

DO NOT:

  • Assume that a student’s disability outweighs a student’s ability.
  • Make things more complicated by adding extra steps to initiate assistance.
  • Minimize the student’s difficulties by comparing to other students.
  • Overwhelm students with information or ideas not directly related to accommodations.
  • Undervalue the effect of acknowledging effort and encouraging more.
  • Discuss a student’s disability in class or to others without asking first if it is okay with the student to do so (In some instances, a release of information may be required. Check school policies.)
  • Use ultimatums or penalties, doing so tends to only increase anxiety and encourage further avoidance and participation withdrawal.
  • Underestimate the effects anxiety disorders have on academic progress.
  • Respond with solutions that may inadvertently encourage withdrawal or avoidance.
  • Adopt the misconception that there is a difference between physical health and mental health when planning or providing disability accommodations.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, only 8% of persons with diagnosed mental disorders are functional college students. This low number appears to have less to do with students having mental disorders than colleges having the ability to respond to students who have mental disorders. The following recommendations aim to create a basis for improvement from the perspective of psychology student with agoraphobia/panic disorder who has consistently found schools prepared to approve yet not to provide appropriate disability accommodations.

In the case of anxiety, it is important to keep in mind that experiencing anxiety and having a professionally diagnosed anxiety related disorder has similar yet profoundly different affects. While normal anxiety has the ability to heighten reactivity (typically referred to as the fight or flight mechanism) and positively affect a person’s ability to respond to critical situations, for the individual diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, the anxiety response is invariably dysfunctional, creating an array of problematic behaviors that can effectively reduce a person’s ability to function in some to many different aspects of daily life like attending college, for instance.

For these students, excessive worry, irrational fear, crisis generating behaviors, and avoidance in response to stress (i.e. tests, deadlines, large projects, class presentations, etc.) are issues that typically disrupt a student’s academic progress. Furthermore, students with anxiety disorders frequently set unreasonably high goals and/or have unrealistic expectations of themselves, which makes working closely with an academic advisor, a college’s disabilities counselor, and course instructors even more critical in helping a student in meet expected learning outcomes.

When a student’s maladaptive solution for dealing with anxiety is to avoid sources of anxiety, it is unreasonable to assume that such students can effectively ask for help when asking for help is part of the problem. Shame and embarrassment appear to reinforce the urge to avoid and, without intervention, a student is more likely to withdraw and ultimately abandon academic goals. Because students diagnosed with anxiety/panic disorders usually have difficulty confronting situations that increase anxiety, they are prone to avoidant behavior. This makes providing appropriate disability accommodations for these students more challenging and critical.

In conclusion, it seems that individually tailored disability accommodations relying on instructors rather than students to intervene and initiate assistance are preferred. An instructor appropriately informed of anxiety related disorders can be powerfully effective. By simply communicating concern directly to a student in crisis with a prompt, assertive, and non-judgmental manner, the risk of perpetuating crisis behaviors like avoidance reduces and the student’s capacity to achieve his or her academic goals increases.

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