All educators, at one time or another, are likely to work with kids and young adults who struggle with anxiety. Sometimes we know about those challenges, and other times, we don’t. As a special educator, I have spent countless hours helping students work through their worries about homework, family situations, fights with friends, high-stakes testing, body issues, long-term projects, the changing of a schedule, getting to school, and so much more. Sometimes the worries can be small and easy to manage, and other times they can be pervasive and impact a student’s entire life.
Worrying itself is a normal emotion. We all worry sometimes. However, when those worries grow or don’t go away, it can be a real issue for kids and young adults. According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), over 4 million children aged 3-17 have been diagnosed with anxiety. Many more are likely struggling with anxiety that aren’t diagnosed. Quite often, anxiety can be an invisible disability, meaning we don’t “see” it at first glance. The same is true for kids struggling with severe worries who may not meet the clinical criteria for anxiety.
The fact is that all educators, at one time or another, will be working with learners struggling with worries and challenging emotions. As educators, we have to be prepared to help these learners cope with their worries so they can be successful in and out of the classroom. Here are a few ways to help those students:
Recognize worries don’t always look like worrying. In order to help our learners struggling with feelings of anxiety and worry, we have to understand them more. Anxiety and worries don’t always even appear as worries. This is a common misconception about anxiety that can be confusing. Sometimes, learners might exhibit defiant behavior, aggression, a lack of focus or stomachaches and pains. Other times, students might try to control situations or have extremely high expectations for themselves with their school work. When challenging behaviors occur, it’s helpful to consider what emotions are actually behind them. Note that the visual below isn’t intended to diagnose anyone, just to show that feelings of worry and anxiety can manifest themselves in many different ways.
Teach coping strategies. Coping strategies, or coping skills, are the abilities and activities we use to help us manage our tough emotions on the spot. Simply put, everyone needs these strategies. If you find that a student doesn’t cope well with their emotions, spend time practicing and teaching these skills explicitly. It’s important to note that all people are different; some students will calm down best by coloring or drawing, while others might need to get up and take a walk. It’s helpful to try many different strategies when the student is already calm so that they can actually use the skills when they are emotionally overwhelmed. If you aren’t sure how to teach coping skills, I’ve created this Coping Strategies Lessons & Activities set to help you get started.
Educate yourself. It’s healthy to admit you don’t know everything about a topic. If you’re unsure what anxiety is, take some time to research. It’s important to know the facts and see anxiety as a real mental health issue. There are many websites that give overviews and explanations, including the Child Mind Institute and the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness activities are something that benefit all kids and young adults (they even benefit adults, too). Spend some time practicing mindfulness with your learners before times that are high-stress, such as before a big test, after lunch, or just in the morning to start of the day in a calm way. Here are 10 mindfulness activities you can try today.
Use distraction. Sometimes, as educators, we have to do what works in the moment. That was actually a motto we used in my classroom: Do what works. When a student is struggling with worries in the moment, sometimes distraction can get them through. Talk about your student’s favorite game, sport, animal, or anything else. I was known for talking about my dog and sharing a silly story about him. Of course, this doesn’t fix the problem behind the worry, but it can be enough to help your student move past their immediate negative feelings in the moment.
Teach breathing techniques. Sometimes these seem silly at first, but they can make a big difference. By teaching kids and young adults to focus on their breathing, they can calm themselves down more quickly when overwhelmed. When you are focusing only on your breathing, you are also no longer thinking about the worry. I love this free breathe board you can tape to a student’s desk or put in their binder. It’s a great reminder to “just breathe!”
Encourage progress, not perfection. Kids and young adults are constantly under a lot of pressure to be perfect, both in and out of school. The truth that we know is that perfect doesn’t exist. Encourage learners to see their progress and feel proud when they try their best, even if things don’t always come out “perfect.”
Teach positive self-talk. Self-talk is the inner voice we use to reassure and encourage ourselves to accomplish tasks. A positive voice can make a huge difference in helping kids and young adults feel more confident in themselves. You can start by having students choose positive self-talk statements to say to themselves or write out using this free list. Read up more about how to teach positive self-talk and why positive self-talk is so important.
Prepare instead of avoiding. By completely avoiding activities that make kids feel worried, we can make it harder for them over time. Kids and young adults need to face their worries in a structured and supportive way. If a learner feels extremely worried during tests, it won’t fix the problem to avoid tests all together. Instead, discuss the child’s feelings, validate their concerns, help them develop strategies, and prepare them for the tests ahead of time. The same is true for kids who are school-avoidant. Rather than keeping them out of school for longer, help them develop skills and come up with strategies to easier their concerns about school so they can be successful. Start small if you need to and work towards the ultimate goal of the student feeling comfortable on their own.
Allow calm down time. Kids and young adults can feel overwhelmed with emotions in the moment. Allow students the time and space to use their coping strategies when needed. Consider creating a calm down area in your classroom where learners can use strategies to help them regain their calm.
Encouraging journaling. Writing our thoughts out can be an extremely helpful way to make sense of things. For kids and young adults with lots of worries, sometimes their brains have too many thoughts going on at once. By writing these thoughts out, learners sometimes can recognize the true issues and identify steps for what they can do to help. Journaling about other topics can be helpful, too. Have students write about their favorite activities, 5 things they love, what they are grateful for, or a pet they love.
Collaborate with support professionals. It’s always best when all team members are working on the same skills in a cohesive way. Talk with the school counselor, school psychologist, and/or social worker and discuss best strategies for your learner in the classroom to help them manage their worries. These are definitely the experts in this realm and their knowledge is extremely valuable! If your student is seeing an outside therapist, consider getting consent from parents to talk with them, as well. A team approach always is the best option, especially for kids struggling with worries that can impact all areas of their life.
Listen. Whether or not the worries or fears are a big deal for us as adults, they are very real to our learners. With that, it’s extremely important we hear our students out when they are worried. Listen and try to understand first. Sometimes we have to know the whole story before we can even start the problem-solving practice. Once you hear your student out, you might say something like, “I can tell you’re worried about that. I’m here for you. We’re going to come up with some strategies and we’ll get through it.”
Talk it out. Help students make sense of their feelings by talking situations out with them. Sometimes, worries are just based on wrong information or assumptions that don’t make sense. Talking the worries out can help your learner recognize those inconsistencies.
Identify problem-solving actions. Worrying is the worst when you feel you have no control over the situation. With this, it’s helpful to give the student something they CAN do. For example, if a student is worried about an upcoming schedule change, help them identify what they could do going forward. Perhaps they can have a new schedule printed or talk with the new teacher they are going to have before they go in the class. Ask questions like, “So what might your next steps be?” and “What strategies can you use to help you deal with that?” With time, this can help turn your student into a problem-solver, skills they can assuredly use on their own throughout their entire life.
Be structured, but flexible. All kids need rules and expectations, of course. Still, there may be times when it’s important to give a little to help your learner move in the right direction. Be open-minded about solutions to help students make progress.
Take baby steps. If a student is really worried about something, it’s often helpful to start small and get the momentum going. Making some progress is always better than none. If a learner has extreme fear about presenting in front of the class, consider if they could start by presenting in front of just a teacher. If that goes okay, consider doing a small group next time. Starting small can help work towards success.
Teach problem-solving skills. Being able to solve problem is a life skill that can help learners cope with all sorts of challenges. During break time or morning meeting, spend time teaching these skills. One way you can start is introducing problem-solving scenarios. Have students discuss the scenario and consider what they could do to solve the problem. For example, you might say: “You get to school and realized you forgot your project. What could you do?” Students can discuss and develop skills to help them problem-solve and deal with the dilemma, rather than just feeling anxious and worried. I love this set of problem-solving task cards for younger students and this problem-solving set for older kids.
Have learners reflect on progress. At the end of a day, have your student identify what went well, what strategies they used, and what they are proud of themselves for. Allow students to reflect and build on the positive to help them recognize they can overcome their challenges.
Remember that change takes time. Just like with any challenges, kids struggling to manage their worries need time. Keep believing in them, supporting them, and guiding them. With time and effort, you will see your learners grow.