Social Anxiety and In-School Learning

Sample Case

Jules* is a bright adolescent who was struggling with the social demands of his classroom before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Bright enough to know that he was missing social cues and fluencies that others were actually enjoying, he struggled to navigate them successfully. These ongoing distractions kept him from concentrating during instruction, consequently missing assignments each day and causing him to fail most of his classes in spite of specialized support. In this case, Jules’s social anxiety was part of an autism spectrum disorder, but he is not alone–many other students with social anxiety experience the same challenges of in-school learning.

Then COVID hit.

Jules was forced to stay home and attend school by computer, which was a platform familiar to this gamer. Instruction was available without the demands of social interaction and all assignments were listed online. Jules thrived and aced all classes without any special education assistance for the rest of the year.

While Jules became successful and self-sufficient with online home instruction, not all students with social anxiety fared as well.

Social Anxiety and Remote Learning

Sample Case

Jaylen* also suffered from social anxiety but unlike Jules, she found the facial proximity of her online instructor intimidating, making it almost impossible to concentrate. While in-class instruction was onerous to her “because of the swarms of people,” she had learned to avoid interactions and do well in class in spite of the social milieu. But when the COVID pandemic started and she had to attend school online, she felt self-conscious and found the close face-to-face presentation almost impossible to bear.

Jaylen tried turning off her monitor but got in trouble. She hid her face with an overshadowing hoodie or let the bottom of the computer screen mask her, and was corrected for it. Jaylen failed most of her remote classes. Forced to take in-person summer classes to make up for her failed Honors courses, she excelled and gave credit to the structure of in-school learning, but also acknowledged the benefit of turning in assignments through a single online platform.

With no room for forethought or planning, the COVID pandemic forced the entire country to redirect education to a home-based environment (in some cases, as a hybrid model), and only now, as things return largely to in-school, are we discovering some of the side effects.

While the examples described here focus on students’ social anxiety, the mental health professional and education community know that students with other learning disabilities and/or psychiatric disorders can benefit from homeschooling as well. However, it is important to differentiate between online instruction only and other forms of homeschooling. Historically, programs offer a combination of both.

See also, how the pandemic has impacted executive functioning in students and professional return-to-learn strategies after COVID

Historic Reasons for Homeschooling

ThinkImpact, a group that researches trends in education, reports that:

  • 3% to 4% of the school-going population in the US is homeschooled, according to the most recent federal data
  • As of February 2020, a total of at least 9 million Americans had gone through homeschooling at least once
  • Between fall 2019 and fall 2020, the percentage of homeschooled students grew from 3.4% to 9%

And these are largely pre-pandemic numbers – 2021 Census data shows that homeschoolers have risen since. Historically, parents and educators have chosen homeschool for any of the following reasons:

  • Bullying: When parents, teachers, and students have tried in-school interventions and accommodations without success, homeschooling may be a viable answer, especially if it’s clear that the child needs social skills training, practice, and a time to heal before re-entry at a later date.
  • Mental Health: Depression, anxiety, or other unsuccessfully addressed mental health disorders can be reasons for homeschooling when interventions and accommodations have not succeeded. In these cases, time to heal and a tailored, reduced course-load carried out at home may help a student move through individual challenges with less artificial pressure to succeed in an otherwise social and time-driven school environment.
  • Concussion and chronic health conditions: Similar to above, time to heal paired with instruction geared to the student’s current abilities can support recovery while optimizing learning.
  • Highly mobile family life: Programs have been around for years that support the educational needs of the student who is unable to remain in one place geographically due to seasonal farming demands, international travel, or travel for students who compete in high-level athletics (ie, Olympic hopefuls), music, theater/dance, or the arts.

Technology advances – including those fast-forwarded during the pandemic – has made homeschooling easier than it used to be and there are now well-developed online curricula that make instruction delivery consistent across platforms.

Guidelines on Homeschooling for Mental Health Professionals

Questions to Consider Before Making a Homeschool Recommendation

Clearly, there are questions to consider when asked to make a recommendation for homeschooling for a client. For example:

  • Does my client need an environment, either temporarily or long-term, which reduces the social-emotional demands inherent in a classroom setting?
  • Does the student need additional time in their day to pursue therapies, interests, or family demands? Often homeschooling takes much less time than the traditional school day and other essentials can be addressed. Programs can be synchronous or asynchronous and tailored to the needs of the child and their family.
  • Is the family equipped with technology and access to optimize homeschooling opportunities?
  • Will an individualized curriculum, pacing, or topics/areas of interest improve my client’s chances of success?
  • Can we optimize dominant modalities at home in a way that cannot be addressed in schools (eg. computer-based vs. hands-on instruction, visual vs. oral instruction, high levels of movement)?

Each question should be considered in consultation with the child’s parents and educators (possibly including a child study team) to come to a solid understanding of the child’s educational needs and to design an appropriate plan of action. An educational consultant at a local public school can often help with determining the demands and designs needed to succeed.

Homeschooling Disadvantages to Address

When moving from an in-person learning environment to a home-based learning environment, some disadvantages may arise. To consider:

  • Missed social opportunities: Most homeschooling families are well aware of the risks of providing a highly insulated environment for their children. Opportunities for social interactions should be discussed, planned, and monitored in all cases to ensure the child can grow socially as well as educationally. Families often choose to address this by interacting with other homeschooling, athletic, music, dance, or art groups during the week as the student is ready.
  • Inflexibility: Having a highly individualized educational experience could lead to less flexible, or even intolerant thinking without exposure to other points of view. Curricula or strands that are designed to help students step out of their comfort zone and consider different opinions can certainly help. Engineered opportunities that help students gently step out of their comfort zone can help head off these issues.
  • Development of a narrow perspective: Individualizing instruction topics based on areas of interest can create overall perspectives that are potentially more narrow than would be offered in a traditional school setting. For instance, while penguins in the Antarctic can be fascinating and a good place to help engage the student in learning about science, it’s important to broaden topics eventually so the learner can relate to others effectively. Plans to address diverse perspectives should be included. There are programs and “learning strands” that can be woven into their educational plan.
  • Fewer community-based events with peers: In addition to education, schools provide lots of opportunities for community interaction, such as shared sports and volunteer events. Consider planning for these and/or develop a re-entry plan to attend school events when the time is right.
  • Fewer special education services: In some homeschool situations, a student with a 504 or IEP may not have access to special instruction or accommodations. More on this below.

Homeschooling and Special Education

According to Mark B. Martin, PA, an attorney of Maryland Education Law, Civil and Disability Rights explains, “When a child is homeschooled, the LEA [Local Education Agency] no longer has to provide FAPE [Free Appropriate Public Education] to the student. However, the parent may still go to the LEA for Child Find services such as evaluations to determine whether the student is eligible for special education. If they would like to consider returning the student to the public school they can also ask the LEA to draft an IEP [Individualized Educational Plan].”

Although schools are not technically required to provide a student with special education services, in some cases, clients have found that local schools agree to monitor or consult with parents to help students with special needs who are being homeschooled. In some cases, a homeschool setting provides enough support and accommodations by virtue of its highly engineered environment that some children have no need for school support. In other cases, this is just not enough. Free public-school therapies and specialized instruction may be essential, making homeschooling the nonoptimal choice in such cases.

Professional Homeschooling Resources

Consultants and homeschooling groups can help mental health professionals and parents explore options for programs and supplemental supports. For help in guiding clients through this endeavor, consider using the Defining a Dream Questionnaire, as well as the Planning and Reflection Guide, Figures 7.1 and 7.2 of Boosting Executive Skills in the Classroom by this author.

The entire homeschooling field is seeing a spike right now due to our collective pandemic experience, and there is no doubt that it will continue to grow and change and become a viable alternative to more in education. An open mind and careful planning are essential.

*Names and identifying details altered for privacy.


Last Updated: Oct 22, 2021