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Mental Health

Helping Students with Anxiety at School

January 14, 20209 min read

Anxiety is the body’s natural response to stress; and everyone, including children, feels anxious now and then. It is a feeling of fear, unease, or apprehension about what’s to come, and it manifests in the form of fear or worry. Anxiety is an understandable and common reaction to change or a stressful event. Anxious kids may be clingy, cry or have tantrums, startle easily, sleep poorly, and have stomach aches or headaches. It is normal for kids to feel anxious or worried from time to time, such as when they are moving to a new neighborhood or starting school. When kids experience anxiety, educators and parents can play a role in helping to alleviate those feelings. Children with more serious anxiety may need to speak to a counselor for professional help. 

Here is a list of common sights and sounds that can trigger anxiety in children of different age groups:

Anxiety in Elementary School Students

  • Loud noises

  • Fear of insects

  • Sleeping alone

  • Fear of strangers

  • Fear of supernatural beings, like monsters and ghosts

Anxiety in Middle School Students

  • Fear of heights

  • Fear of doctors or dentists

  • Fear of being trapped

  • Biological changes, such as puberty

Anxiety in High School Students

  • Fear of dating 

  • Fear of being judged 

  • Fear of giving presentations

  • Fear of being rejected by peers

  • Concerns about college prep (tests, applications, acceptance)

Anxiety can adversely affect a kid’s academic performance, including:

  • Avoidance of homework or school, which can lead to falling behind in class and can make anxiety about school worse

  • Being uncomfortable in the school environment, adversely affecting their ability to learn and retain new information 

  • Lack of engagement in the classroom

Because of these potential negative effects of anxiety on students, helping children with anxiety at school is crucial to maintaining their academic performance. 

Helping a Student with Anxiety

School can be challenging for students with anxiety, such as social anxiety or separation anxiety, which means it can be challenging for the educators who teach them. If you’re a teacher of a student with anxiety, it is essential to know how to foster and encourage a good environment for learning in the classroom.  Below are strategies to help ease anxiety in children.

Providing Emotional Support

  • Allow your students to use a self-calming object, such as a blanket or stuffed toy, if they have separation anxiety.

  • Encourage your students to use anxiety-reducing techniques or self-calming techniques that they have learned from a therapist.

  • For students with separation anxiety, building in “call home” breaks can work well.

  • If a student is feeling anxious, advocate for her to get help from a designated staff member who has mental health expertise. 

Promoting Relationships in Class

  • If the student with anxiety is younger, invite him to be your special helper and  give him a specific role in the classroom.

  • Encourage and foster friendships between students with anxiety and their friendly, outgoing classmates.

  • Pair students for specific activities instead of allowing them to choose pairs; this will prevent the student with anxiety from being left out.

  • Allow the student with anxiety to sit with classmates with whom she is familiar.

Classroom Setup, Routines, and Schedules

  • Provide the most comfortable classroom seating to the anxious student (such as near a friend).

  • Create a plan for catching up after a sick day or extended absence.

  • Provide advance notice of changes in routine, such as planned substitute teachers.

  • Assign your student a designated friend for recess, lunchtime, and hallways. 

Introducing New Lessons and Concepts

  • Provide notice of upcoming tests (no last-minute surprises).

  • Permit use of aids, such as cheat sheets, word banks, or fact cards, for class tests. 

  • Provide notes through email or a school portal so the student can preview them.

  • Reduce the amount of homework.

Calming Strategies for Students with Anxiety

Although anxiety doesn’t necessarily impact students’ academic abilities, it can negatively impact their ability to learn in the classroom. The good news is that teachers and parents can work together in order to help a kid succeed. There are several strategies to help students with anxiety that teachers can leverage to make the school day easier and less stressful for those students. Keep in mind that anxiety strategies for elementary students can differ from that of middle or high school students, depending on the specific situation. 

Deep Breathing 

When you notice that one or more of your students is experiencing anxiety, a breathing exercise can be immensely helpful. Deep breathing on a daily basis, particularly when kids are calm, helps them learn to control their breathing. Slowing down the breathing can also calm down the brain. When students are anxious, using deep breathing techniques will slow their heart rate and help regulate their physical response to anxious feelings.

Balloon Breathing:

This is a simple exercise. Ask your student to close his eyes and imagine himself blowing up a balloon. Ask him to choose the color of the balloon, and explain that blowing the balloon too fast or too hard will cause it to pop right out of his mouth. He has to inhale and exhale slowly to inflate the balloon. Cue him to breathe in for a count of three or four, hold for a count of three or four, and exhale into his balloon for a count of three or four. Repeat this exercise three times. Finally, ask your student to “write” one worry on his balloon and just let it fly off into the sky.

Rainbow Breathing:

Have your student gently close her eyes and then imagine that she is lying under a rainbow. Tell her that she will practice breathing the colors in and out while thinking specific thoughts. Cue your student to inhale, hold her breath, and exhale while you count out loud; however, add just one color per breath. Then tell her that when she takes a red breath, you would like her to picture as many happy red things as she can (such as strawberries, kites, and watermelon). Repeat this exercise for all seven colors of the rainbow. Finally, talk about the relaxing things or rainbow she created while working on her breathing. 

Self-Talk

Children can gradually learn to control their worries and anxiety by reframing their thoughts and then using self-talk to feel better and empowered. One such strategy to employ is to have your student practice saying empowering statements to himself like, “You do not control me! I can handle this presentation or test!” Help him create specific scripts in order to target certain anxiety triggers.

Mindfulness Exercise  

One helpful mindfulness exercise is to stop lessons for a couple of minutes and do a few stretching exercises in between lessons. This relaxing technique can help reduce anxiety and stress. Counting is another simple and effective way to ease your students’ anxiety. When anxiety is washing over your student, ask her to find a comfortable and quiet place to sit, close her eyes, and slowly count to ten. Ask her to repeat and count to twenty or a higher number. 

These anxiety-reducing activities for kids can be helpful in putting your students at ease.

Helping a Child with Separation Anxiety at School

Parents might find that their children have separation anxiety when they’re at school and away from their parents. As a parent, you can take the following steps to reduce separation anxiety in your child.

  • Attention: When separating from your child, give him full attention, affection, and love prior to leaving. Say goodbye quickly despite his antics or cries for you to stay.

  • Practice being apart: Send your child to grandma’s home, allow friends and family to provide childcare for you, and schedule playdates on the weekend. Your child will get used to separation, and you may gradually leave for longer periods and travel farther.

  • Keep your promises: For your child to develop the confidence and calm that she can handle separation, it is important that you return exactly at the time you promised.

  • Minimize disturbing TV: Your child is less likely to be anxious and fearful if the shows and movies you watch aren’t frightening.

  • Schedule separations after feedings or naps: This is because babies are more prone to separation anxiety when they are hungry or tired.

  • Have a transitional object available: Provide a special baby blanket or toy when you leave, and keep your goodbyes short and sweet.

Easing Test Anxiety in Students

Students of all ages and grade levels, from elementary through high school, experience test anxiety. Here is how you can help your child reduce test anxiety.

Give Them a Sneak Peek at Certain Test Formats

Test anxiety elementary students experience may come from being unfamiliar with test-tasking. Knowing exactly what to expect will help take away some of your child’s fear of the unknown on test day. Keep a sample of each kind of quiz and/or test, and then review these samples with your child.

Equip Them with a Few Basic Strategies

Many children have test or quiz anxiety because they do not understand the basics of taking tests. Go over some simple strategies, as it can help your child prior to testing. For example, remind him to first read through all the questions carefully.

Help Them Feel Their Best on Test Day

Test anxiety in high school students could come from not feeling rested with their already busy schedules and heavy schoolwork loads. Note that not getting sufficient sleep can negatively affect the way your child feels on test day. Make sure she gets enough sleep the night before a quiz or test. 

Help Them Prepare in Chunks

Note that studying in chunks is likely to make the study task more manageable, making your child less nervous and more confident. As soon as you know when your child’s tests will be, work backward and schedule daily study times.

How GoGuardian Can Enable You to Help Kids with Anxiety

Anxiety and depression often co-occur, and both conditions are associated with suicide risk. For schools that are concerned about their students’ mental wellness, Beacon is a self-harm and suicide prevention tool that identifies students whose mental health may be at risk. By using advanced machine learning to monitor and analyze students’ online activity, Beacon proactively delivers warning signs from that activity and sends alerts to the chosen responders. Schools that opt for Beacon 24/7 also receive the support of round-the-clock safety specialists who review and escalate the most serious alerts. 

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