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Chances are you’ve seen a significant increase in the number of students who struggle with mental health over the past several years. According to JAMA Pediatrics, even before the pandemic, the rate of child and adolescent anxiety increased 27% between 2016 and 2019. By 2020, more than 5.6 million youths were 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. Educate yourself about anxiety
The more you understand about anxiety, the more you can arm yourself with strategies to help your students. This article from district superintendent Jon Konen provides a definition of anxiety, its causes, how to recognize it, types of anxiety disorders, and, most importantly, how you can help as a teacher.
2. Create strong bonds
Building strong bonds and connecting to youth can protect their mental health. Schools and parents can create these protective relationships with students and help them grow into healthy adulthood. Try these 12 Ways To Build Strong Classroom Community.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. Tackle the topic with a good book
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.
7. 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.
8. 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.
9. 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 22 videos to help kids understand gratitude.
10. Validate students’ feelings
Before trying to problem-solve with students who are in the midst of racing thoughts or have completely shut down, Phyllis Fagell, a school counselor and therapist based in Maryland and Washington, D.C., recommends validating their feelings. For instance, saying, “If I was afraid I might look dumb, I’d be worried about raising my hand too,” may reduce the impact of anxiety and help a student relax, develop trust, and feel understood. Fagell also reminds teachers not to shame anxious students. For more, check out the full article from WGU.
11. Remind kids to eat healthily 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.
12. Encourage families to make sure their children are getting enough sleep
With all the extracurricular activities available to kids, not to mention the allure of high-stimulus technology, many kids are just not getting the amount of healthy sleep they need. According to the CDC, children ages 6-12 need as much as 9-12 hours of sleep each night. Preschoolers need even more (10-13 hours), and teens need between 8 and 10 hours. A solid night’s sleep does wonders for improving mood, concentration, and outlook. Good sleep quality is also essential. Encourage healthy sleep habits in your students with these Tips for Better Sleep.
13. 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. A safe space is a comfy zone in the classroom where kids can go to decompress and regroup. Many teachers include glitter jars, headphones, books, or other items to help kids get back on track.
14. Use fidgets
Another helpful idea, which can stand on its own or be part of your safe space, is offering students classroom fidgets. Sometimes this can work wonders in just giving kids an outlet for their amped-up energy. Here are 39 of our favorite classroom fidgets.
15. Try aromatherapy
Aromatherapy is thought to help activate certain receptors in the brain, potentially easing anxiety. Whether in the form of essential oil, incense, or a candle, natural scents like lavender, chamomile, and sandalwood can be very soothing. Check for sensitivities among your students before introducing a scent to the whole class. An alternative could be an unlit candle, dried herbs, or a sachet treated with essential oil kept in the classroom safe space for students to use individually.
16. Teach kids to recognize their warning signs
Everyone experiences anxiety differently. For children, signs may include shortness of breath, stomachaches, or inability to settle down and concentrate, among others. Coaching students to recognize their unique triggers and warning signs can help them know when to take a step back. Integrate social-emotional strategies throughout the day to help students learn to manage their anxiety.
17. Incorporate Zones of Regulation strategies
Students with anxiety need concrete, easy-to-use strategies to help them cope. Rooted in cognitive therapy, Zones of Regulation is a curriculum developed to help kids understand and learn to manage their emotions. This informative article offers 18 helpful strategies.
18. 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.
19. Mind your classroom management
Schools play a critical role in helping students manage anxiety by creating environments where all students feel that they are cared for, supported, and belong. Certain classroom management approaches strengthen school connectedness. From teacher expectations and behavior management to student autonomy and empowerment, these strategies make a difference.
20. Teach inclusivity
Poor mental health is a growing problem for children and adolescents. According to a JAMA Pediatrics meta-analysis of 29 studies including 80, 879 youths, the prevalence of depression and anxiety symptoms has significantly increased, remains high, and therefore warrants attention.
And some groups are affected more than others. In a report by the CDC, feelings of anxiety and depression were found to be more common among lesbian, gay, or bisexual students and female students. Almost half of lesbian, gay, or bisexual students and nearly one-third of students not sure of their sexual identity reported they had seriously considered suicide—far more than heterosexual students. It is essential that schools put serious effort into creating safe, inclusive classrooms and invest in curricula that supports equity. Here are 50 Tips for Facilitating a More Inclusive Classroom and 5 Ways Social-Emotional Learning Can Help Your Class Become a More Inclusive Community.