Coping with Student Anxiety
Fears, worries and some level of anxiety are normal and form part of our everyday life. It is our body and mind`s natural reaction to something stressful or dangerous. There are certain things that can trigger a fearful reaction - for example starting at a new school or moving homes. Anxiety becomes a problem when this normal response increases in its severity, is persistent and is so out of proportion that it hinders our day-to-day functioning.
Anxious students may not be able to verbalize the specific cause of their anxiety; they just know they are experiencing excessive and ongoing worry and/or fear about something. They may avoid situations or activities in school. They may start to decline in academics and have trouble focusing and concentrating, which may be confused with ADHD.
Anxiety symptoms may present differently among students at different ages, who may not be able to express what’s causing their anxiety and may instead exhibit symptoms. It is vital to be on the lookout for any of these symptoms:
- attendance problems
- clinginess/separation anxiety
- panic attacks
- academic problems/decline in schoolwork
- frequent urination
- frequent crying
- difficulty concentrating/staying focused
- feeling weak/tired
- excessive worrying
- health problems such as headaches or an upset stomach
- avoidance of people/situations
- sleeping problems
- Unusual running away/hiding
- Constant ‘what if’ questions
- Needing constant reassurance and validation
Step to support students
Establishing a routine - the structure and predictability of what to expect helps reduce the anxiety - consistency is always key!
Do not punish or get upset with them for being anxious - this only makes it worse.
Limits and boundaries (saying no when appropriate) is extremely helpful in making children feel safe and secure.
Talk to your child. Give them a safe space. They need you to be with them and most importantly to simply LISTEN and ACKNOWLEDGE what they are feeling.
For younger children, you can get them to draw out or write down their worries and then spend time TALKING about them with your child.
Encourage them to externalize their fears and worries by channeling them through sport, music, art
Reassure them that you are there for them and there are other trusted adults that they can talk with too - help them to set up a healthy support system.
Monitor what they are watching and listening to - as this may help you understand their worlds a bit better
Worry monster: You can help them make their own, out of an empty tissue box! The child will either draw or write out their worries and then ‘feed’ it to the worry monster. Explain to the child that it is the worry monster`s job to take care of the worries so they do not need to worry about them anymore.
Worry jar: Similar concept to the worry monster, except this is for slightly older children where they can write down their worries and place them into a worry jar. They only get the jar once a week, where they have time to then sit down and go through their worries. By going through it with them, it helps them to see whether it is something they are still worried about or not and if they aren't they get to tear it up and throw it away.
Listening to music
Deep breathing: Slowing heart rate, lowering blood pressure and increasing oxygen intake all have a calming effect. Common exercises are belly breathing and the 4-7-8 breathing exercise (inhale for four counts, hold for seven, exhale for eight).
Grounding: Grounding can distract students’ mind from their anxiety and keep them grounded in the present. Common exercises include the 5-4-3-2-1 Sights Exercise:
If noticing each sense is tough for your student right now, try an exercise just with sights. Create categories and have students name what they see. Here’s an example:
5 colors I see
4 shapes I see
3 soft things I see
2 people I see
1 book I see
Imagery: When students create a detailed mental image of a safe and peaceful place, they redirect attention away from what is stressing them and toward an alternative focus.
Progressive muscle relaxation: This is the practice of tightening one muscle group at a time followed by a relaxation phase with release of the tension. Students tense and relax the muscle groups one at a time in a specific order, beginning with the lower extremities and ending with the face.
Positive self-talk and affirmations: This helps students challenge self-sabotaging and negative thoughts. Students can practice through journal writing, negative-thought stopping or snapping a rubber band during negative thoughts. You can help students select affirmations that speak to them. When students repeat the affirmations – and believe them – they can start to make positive changes.
Journaling: Journaling helps students clarify their thoughts and feelings, gaining valuable self-knowledge. Students can process their anxiety by fully exploring and releasing the emotions involved.
Strategies with Teachers
In addition to working with individual students, teachers can use strategies with an entire class. All the techniques above can easily be modified for classroom use. Teachers may find these activities useful at the beginning of the day, during transition times or before a test. Teachers can also serve as compelling role models for students. As teachers model relaxation techniques during class time, students internalize the importance of lifelong stress management.
School counselors are tasked with working with the whole student, not just academic, career or social/emotional development. It is crucial that students with anxiety learn positive coping techniques now to become healthy and productive citizens in the future.
There is no quick, easy fix for students with anxiety, especially those who are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. Offering support and flexibility, however, allows you to help students as they discover meaningful, effective ways to address their anxiety.