- 10 Ways to Help Students Who Struggle With Anxiety
- 1. Practice those deep breaths
- 2. Take a break and go outside
- 3. Talk openly about anxiety
- 4. Get kids moving
- 5. Try walking and talking
- 6. Focus on the positive by having students keep a gratitude journal
- 7. Remind kids to eat healthy and stay well
- 8. Share a story with your students
- 9. Create a space where kids can express their anxiety
- 10. Offer individual accommodations
- Break Through Students’ Social Anxiety Barrier: A Strategy for Student-Teacher Communication
- A student-led strategy for socially anxious students and their teachers: write a note!
- Empower students to manage their social anxiety
10 Ways to Help Students Who Struggle With Anxiety
Chances are you’ve seen an increase in anxiety in your classroom and school— particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 7.
1 percent of children aged 3 to 17 (approximately 4.4 million) have been diagnosed with anxiety.
With symptoms such as trouble concentrating, an upset stomach, or sleeplessness, anxiety can be one of the most debilitating challenges students face in classrooms today.
We know anxiety is more than just “worries.” It can influence classroom performance just as much as any other learning disability. Kids who are worried and anxious aren’t doing it on purpose. The nervous system acts automatically, especially when it comes to worry (which often stems from fight or flight reflexes). That’s why phrases “just relax” or “calm down” aren’t helpful.
But with practice, kids can learn to slow down their anxious brains, and we can learn to help them. Here are a few ways you can help anxious kids in the classroom.
1. Practice those deep breaths
When people slow down their breathing, they slow down their brain. When I notice that one of my kids is struggling with anxiety, I’ll often lead the whole class in a breathing exercise.
It helps the child who is overwhelmed and usually a few other kids too. Sometimes, I’ll do it just because the whole class is squirrelly and we need to focus. Slow, deep breaths are the key.
This article about belly breathing describes the process I to use with my kids. It works every single time.
2. Take a break and go outside
Being out in nature can also calm an anxious brains. Sometimes just a change of scenery is what makes the difference. Breathing the cool air or making time to notice chirping birds can also calm an overactive worrier.
Asking students to carefully observe their environment can help them turn the focus away from their worries and toward something more tangible: How many different kinds of trees do you see? How many different bird songs do you hear? How many different shades of green are in the grass?
It doesn’t hurt for us to take a mental break sometimes too. Check out 20 Terrific Guided Meditation for Teachers.
3. Talk openly about anxiety
Don’t set anxiety up as something you want (or should) get rid of. It’s part of life, and it’s not realistic to think it’ll go away completely. You can help students see and understand this in your own actions. Check out this great article of what you should (and shouldn’t) do when working with kids dealing with anxiety.
4. Get kids moving
Exercise helps anyone who is feeling anxious. Anxiety can end up looking anger, so if you see this, try taking a movement break. You probably already have some favorite ways to do this, but if you’re looking for some ideas, check out our video above. You can also get the free set of printables for that right here.
5. Try walking and talking
Building on the moving idea, if you have a student that needs some one-on-one attention, try the “On My Walk” activity. I used to have a student who struggled a lot with anxiety, and this worked great with her.
After a couple of loops around the playground with me, everything would feel a little better. Our walk served three purposes: 1. It removed her from the situation. 2. It gave her a chance to explain the issue to me. 3.
It got her blood pumping, which clears out the anxiety-producing energy and brings in the positive exercise endorphins.
6. Focus on the positive by having students keep a gratitude journal
The brain is incapable of producing anxious thoughts while it is producing positive thoughts stemming from gratitude. If you can trigger a positive train of thought, you can sometimes derail the anxiety.
I knew a teacher who had his fifth graders keep gratitude journals, and every day they would record at least one thing they were thankful for.
When his students seemed overwhelmed by negativity or mired in anxiety, he’d encourage them to reread their journals.
Check out the video above for another inspiring teacher or these 20 videos to help kids understand gratitude.
7. Remind kids to eat healthy and stay well
For the most part, teachers don’t really have a lot of control over what students eat and how much they sleep, but these things do matter when it comes to managing anxiety.
Not surprisingly, a healthy diet and plenty of sleep make a difference in how well a student is able to handle situations that could be overwhelming.
It’s one of the reasons that snack and rest time are an essential part of the day for preschoolers!
For your younger students, check out 17 tasty books that teach kids about nutrition and healthy eating habits, for a list of picture books about healthy eating.
8. Share a story with your students
Often, when one of my kids is struggling, the school counselor will come and share a picture book about managing anxiety with the entire class. Some kids may not be receptive to direct, one-on-one intervention, but they will respond beautifully if they know the whole class is receiving the same information. Check out this list of great books for kids with anxiety.
9. Create a space where kids can express their anxiety
You’ve probably heard of classroom safe spaces, and this is a great option to offer if you have students dealing with anxiety. Another idea, which can stand on its own or be part of your safe space, is offering classroom fidgets. Sometimes this can work wonders in just giving kids an outlet. Here are some of our favorite classroom fidgets.
10. Offer individual accommodations
For older students, accommodations can make all the difference. Many students struggle with performance anxiety, especially when it comes to tests. When a student is feeling anxious, their brain simply can’t function as effectively.
When we can set up our tests and assignments so anxious kids are less stressed, they’ll ly perform better. Extended time and cue sheets could help kids who suffer from test anxiety.
For other accommodations for kids who struggle with anxiety, check out this list from Worry Wise Kids.
The good news about anxiety is that it is one of the most manageable mental-health struggles that children face in the classroom. With the right support and strategies, most children are able to develop strategies that help them manage their anxiety.
The Child Mind Institute offers a “Symptom Checker” to help inform you about a student’s possible diagnoses and information and articles to help facilitate a conversation.
Teachers also deal with anxiety. Take a look at the realities of Sunday night anxiety and what you can do.
Break Through Students’ Social Anxiety Barrier: A Strategy for Student-Teacher Communication
© 2021 Think Social Publishing, Inc.
What teachers frequently do not know is that the routinely “super quiet” or “unfriendly” student in their classroom ly struggles to initiate communication with the teacher because he or she is paralyzed by social anxiety and cannot ask for help, speak in class, or even communicate on a casual level.
The reality is that these students who seem engagement-adverse actually want their teachers to speak with them, ask them whether they need help, and interact in a personal way; but their social anxiety, often combined with a lack of social competencies, prevents them from engaging in face-to-face communication and shuts them down.
A student-led strategy for socially anxious students and their teachers: write a note!
Here’s a simple strategy that interventionists—parents and specialists—and their students can use to help teachers see through a student’s anxiety barrier socially anxious students struggle with face-to-face communication, so why not help them create a written message that alerts their teachers to the anxiety problem of which they may be unaware? An email message makes that vital interpersonal connection while allowing students with social anxiety to stay in control of their message, rather than have their social anxiety drown out their voice. When we write emails, we can spend as much time as we need to decide what we want to say, how we want to say it, and to whom. Generally, anxiety does not have as much control over our fingertips as it does over our voice in those moments of face-to-face communication.
Help your students teach their teacher(s) about their social anxiety through an email message:
- In your role as a parent, clinician, or friend, help your students explore the possibility that their teachers (or other adult professionals or friends) may not be aware that the students are anxious and may struggle to know how to communicate their message in the moment of communication. For example, students don’t know how to get a teacher’s attention, are not sure what they should say, don’t want to make an error, and so on.
- Help teachers avoid the assumption that students either don’t their teachers or are happy to be left alone. Show students how they can write a personal note explaining their point of view and experience with anxiety and social communication challenges, taking as much time as they need or want to develop the message. To encourage teachers to reach out and initiate communication, review with your students, prior to writing the note, what they want their teachers to know about them.
- Direct students to construct their notes. It can be any length they want. This is an important step because it gives students ownership of their message. Guide students in organizing their thoughts into a message to share with their teachers. It should be genuine and in their words, include a friendly message, and be as specific in the explanation and request as possible. Avoid writing this note for your students, both conceptually and physically.
- Review the message with the students’ permission. If they have written information in a manner that will be difficult for a teacher to understand, ask students to revisit and rewrite areas that may be confusing. If the message is “very good” or “good enough,” praise students for working on communicating their thoughts and ideas in a way that will be successful. Anxiety does not make one incapable, especially if students learn how to figure out workarounds while learning to manage it.
- Once written, decide how students are going to deliver it to their teachers. Will they send it via email or by having a helper slip a hand-written note into the teacher’s physical mailbox in the school office? If sending it by email, require students to research locating the teacher’s email address. Anxious students should be as responsible as possible in organizing and carrying out this task. Just because adults should help them realize that they can write this type of message does not mean the adult should take the lead in developing the message, unless it’s needed the first time it is being written or delivered.
- Confirm all aspects of the message before it is sent or delivered.
- Follow up with students to learn how teachers have responded to their request and discuss whether they and their teacher(s) are connecting more often–then consider what the next steps might look . For instance, how and when should students acknowledge the teacher when entering the classroom, approach the teacher physically to show intention to communicate (even if not yet able to talk to the teacher), and write down what help is needed and pass the note to the teacher?
- Encourage students to use this strategy routinely as the first step toward learning that people want to help when they know a student needs help and how they can be of assistance.
Below is an example of a note that a socially anxious student sent to his teacher:
“Hi, I want to let you know that I think you are a good teacher. I have social anxiety and it makes it difficult for me to get your attention, ask for help, or talk in class.
On occasion, in your class or when I attend your tutorial, could you approach me to ask if I need anything? I am working on developing strategies to say “hi” to you and approach you but I still need more time to learn how to do this.”
Empower students to manage their social anxiety
This strategy may be simple, but it’s a game changer for both students and their teachers. The email has the power to break down walls and foster a caring community for kids who struggle to establish themselves as active members within the classroom, let alone the larger school community. Here’s why.
Most teachers teach because they love the connections they have with their students.
But, they are humans after all, oftentimes with over thirty students in each of their classes, so when they have a student who appears unfriendly or to not want to engage with them or seems disinterested in the class, they tend to “honor” that and focus on the students who reciprocate.
When they receive a message the one above, it helps them overcome their own regrettable but natural reticence to “lean in” with their seemingly unapproachable students and sparks a greater awareness and insight into students who may not have been on their radar.
As a result, teachers realize they have an opportunity for a breakthrough with a student and can make a difference when it wasn’t apparent before. This is the holy grail of teaching! Better still, it’s proactive. The student has revealed a pathway for how to develop this personal and learning connection. It teaches students how to be accountable for initiating a relationship with teachers in a way that triggers less anxiety and empowers students in learning about and managing their social anxiety.