By Teachers, For Teachers
Anxiety is a topic that is near and dear to my heart, and that’s because not only have I had it, but both of my children have as well. In fact, many people suffer from anxiety at some point or another in their lives. According to research, anxiety is the most common mental health diagnosis among college students. And it’s not just college students who have anxiety: children as young as those in kindergarten have started to show signs of stress. While it may be high expectations or pressure in school, the feelings can become overwhelming for young children. Even though these feelings may be considered normal by psychologists, they still are creeping up on our children and leaving them feeling frustrated and anxious in school. As teachers, it’s our job to use teaching strategies to help ease some of this unwanted stress and help our students cope with whatever comes their way while they’re in our classroom. Here are a few teaching strategies that you can help your students struggling with anxiety.
The best thing that you can do for a child who is anxious is to distract them. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, children who have anxiety are known to be irritable, tired, have headaches, may refuse to go to school, have separation anxiety, and some may even be defiant. You must be aware of what a child with anxiety looks like. If you notice a student who is exhibiting any of these symptoms, try and distract them. Ask them to go to the office for you to get your mail or give them an important job in the classroom. Anything that will get their mind off of their anxiety for a few minutes will help. If that doesn’t work, you can ask them what they think will help them calm down. Playing a review game on a tablet for a few minutes may help to alleviate their mental and physical symptoms, or reading a book may do the trick. Once they’re feeling better, they can return to their normal class activities.
Another way to help anxious students cope in the classroom is to teach them a few stress reduction techniques. Whenever they feel their anxiety creeping up, they’ll know just what to do to help calm themselves down. Teach students to take a couple of deep breaths, and encourage them to breathe out their tension. Make sure that they are breathing in through their nose and out through their mouths. Encourage students to count as they breathe in and out to help them concentrate and not get distracted.
Another technique is to have students close their eyes and visualize whatever they need to do. For example, if they’re anxious about taking a test, encourage them to imagine themselves doing well on the test. This teaches students to control their negative thoughts and help turn them into positive ones.
Exercise has been known to reduce stress and anxiety. In fact, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America says that, “exercise and other physical activity produce endorphins — chemicals in the brain that act as natural painkillers — and also improve the ability to sleep, which in turn reduces stress.” Also, “scientists have found that regular participation in aerobic exercise has been shown to decrease overall levels of tension, elevate and stabilize mood, improve sleep, and improve self-esteem.” To help anxious students relieve some tension, have them get up and stretch after each activity or provide them with various physical brain breaks throughout the day. In addition to implementing exercise and brain breaks throughout the school day, try providing hands-on activities as well. This can help an anxious child feel less stressed, as well as help distract them from how they may be feeling in that moment.
To an anxious child, going into a scary situation can feel like you’re getting thrown into the water with a school of sharks. The best way to ease an anxious child’s mind is to try and decrease any or all situations that will induce stress for the child. For example, if a child is anxious that they’re going to be the last person to finish their test, then allow the child to take the test alone in a room where they won’t be distracted. If a child is anxious about putting on a presentation in front of their peers, then find a creative way for the child to present their project to the class, like videotaping their presentation and playing it for the class instead of speaking for the entire presentation. The more you decrease the fearful situation for the child, the easier it’ll be for them to cope.
When anxiety is high, allow the student to go to their “safe” space. This is a place where when the student is feeling anxious, it helps to calm them down. This place may be the hallway, nurse’s office, library, or even the back of the classroom where you have a chair or couch. In order for this to work for the students, you must make sure that you establish the rule that the student must come to you first and tell you that they need a minute to go to their quiet place to calm down. This way you know what’s going on with the child.
Not all students will be receptive to direct intervention about their anxiety with teachers or school counselors. Another approach teachers can take is to share stories about managing anxiety with their entire classroom. Some struggling students may feel more comfortable knowing the entire class is learning the same information as they are and that they aren’t being singled out. Another component of sharing stories is being able to talk about the subject of anxiety openly. Teaching students that anxiety is a normal part of life and nothing to be ashamed of can reduce any perceived stigma and encourage students to manage their anxiety when it occurs.
Anxiety can be a powerful force in a student’s mind, but so can positivity. Have students that struggle with anxiety keep a “gratitude journal.” Any time a student is feeling overwhelmed by a situation and is experiencing anxiety, have them write down at least one thing they are grateful for in their journal. Sometimes writing about a positive thing or experience can derail thoughts of anxiety. The student can also reread previous entries in their journal to help stave off oncoming anxiety or negative thoughts.
Anxiety is a common mental health disorder, and according to research, about 10 percent of children have it. If you notice one of your students may have anxiety, make sure to communicate your concerns with the student’s parents, as well as the school counselor. Together you can all find a way to help reduce the student’s symptoms and make them feel more comfortable while they’re in school.
Janelle Cox is an education writer who uses her experience and knowledge to provide creative and original writing in the field of education. Janelle holds Masters of Science in Education from the State University of New York College at Buffalo. She is a contributing writer to TeachHUB.com, TeachHUB Magazine, and Hey Teach. She was also the Elementary Education Expert for About.com for five years. You can follow her on Twitter @empoweringed, on Facebook at Empowering K12 Educators, or contact her at Janellecox78@yahoo.com.