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% 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 like “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 like 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 brain. 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 like 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. And this 20 Videos to Help Kids Understand Gratitude article for ideas on how to develop a healthy attitude of 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 were an essential part of the day when I was teaching preschool. (It probably would have benefited my older students too, even if they might not have admitted it!)
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 from WeAreTeachers about 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 likely 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.