On any given day I may receive a phone call from a teacher to check in with one of my students. It may be a student who frequently complains of stomach aches or got angry and yelled about an unexpected schedule change. It could be a student that has isolated herself from others at recess or is having difficulty concentrating in class. Anxiety manifests in a variety of ways, and for our youngest learners it can be difficult to identify because they often can’t articulate the worry behind the behaviors.
When I am working with an anxious child, my goals are always to support them in the moment and empower them to overcome their worries in the future. I work with them to build a ‘tool kit’ to help them overcome their worries. Just like Mary Poppins’ magical bag, my students would tell you that I have a never-ending supply of strategies for them to choose from. While it is true that I do know a number of helpful strategies, the true ‘magic’ comes from the relationship with the student.
No two individuals are alike and as such may not experience anxiety in the same way. My job is to help my students to understand their anxiety and to find what works for them. My office is a safe haven where they can express their feelings freely knowing that I will never be disappointed in them. It is also a place where they know they are not alone. When I was a child, I experienced a great deal of anxiety, which allows me to empathize with my students. I will occasionally share my examples of anxiety with the students to help reduce the stigma surrounding mental health and prove that this is something they can overcome. It is this trust and understanding that truly helps my students soar.
Anxiety is one of the most common mental illnesses in America, with 7.1% of children diagnosed between the ages of 3 and 17. Supporting these students in school is critical to their ongoing success. Below are some helpful strategies to add to your ‘tool kit’ to help your students:
- Simply telling a child to ‘calm down’ or ‘don’t worry’ is not nearly as helpful as showing them how to calm down. Practicing belly breathing or relaxation with them are two quick strategies to try.
- If a child is having a panic attack, distraction tactics can be helpful. Coloring is an effective distraction activity.
- Children’s books about anxiety can be helpful for younger students because it is easier to identify with a character than to reveal it themselves.
- With younger students it is also helpful to be a ‘worry detective’ to catch those worry thoughts so we can replace them with helpful thoughts.
- Analogies can be useful for older students. I often use the analogy of surfing a wave-regardless of how big the wave (anxiety) is you know you will always make it back to shore.
- Mantras (repeated words or phrases) can also help during intense moments of anxiety. (The title of this blog is actually the mantra I use when I experience anxiety.)
These are a few strategies parents and teachers can employ in supporting students that are experiencing anxiety. This support is critical to students’ ongoing success.
Julie Richardson serves as a school psychologist at Henry Barnard Laboratory School in Rhode Island. She is a U.S. Department of Education School Ambassador Fellow.