By Lani Aquino
Anxiety is a prevalent issue that knows no age restrictions. While some students are self-aware and may have their own coping mechanisms already in place, there are likely others within the classroom that could benefit from the implementation of some teacher-directed strategies to battle anxiety. These strategies should not replace the involvement of support personnel and the possibility of a documented intervention plan for some students, but finding ways to cope with anxiety and/or big emotions can be beneficial to all students within a learning community.
Focused Breathing- The key with deep breathing exercises is not to introduce them in the moment. A student won’t know how to find a calm center if they haven’t already experienced it. Deep and focused breathing techniques are an excellent whole-class strategy that can be introduced at any point in the year and used when the collective group needs to get more grounded or by small groups or individuals when a need arises. Belly breathing is a great technique to use depending on the size of the learning space and students for its initial introductions (heading to an open or weather-permitting outdoor space may be warranted for the first introduction), and the 4-7-8 Breathing Exercise is another technique that can easily be introduced in any space.
Connect through Literature- The power of the written word is an amazing thing. Books allow students to find themselves and/or see others in more empathetic ways. Go-to book lists are always perfect resources for teachers to utilize and share with families. This list of 12 titles from Coping Skills for Kids is a collection created by a therapist that highlights books for younger kids and teens. As a read for the entire class or simply a suggested title for a student in need, finding the right book can be life changing.
Small Group Activities- Sometimes the thought of large-group participation can be daunting to kids with anxiety. Allowing students to work in smaller groups can help ease some of that angst. Teacher-selected groups also take away the possibility of anxiety arising over finding a partner or group for working. With a limited number of group participants, a quieter and anxious student is more likely to find his/her voice.
Post the Schedule- When a daily agenda is posted for students to see, it removes some of the stressors that can come from the unknown. When students don’t have to worry over what’s next and are aware of time limitations and transitional activities, they often find more comfort in the flow of the day. This does not mean that the classroom has to run in automaton mode, but the awareness of what’s expected and even a side-bar about an unexpected event or new routine addition can give anxious kids a smoother playing field.
Showcase Options- Yes, there will be a time and a place where whole-class presentations need to occur, but it doesn’t need to be the culminating activity for every unit. There are so many ways for students to shine and showcase their learning that don’t involve standing solo in front of a group and speaking. Digital presentations can alleviate some stressors; even a pre-recorded speech can take away the large-group audience component. There are endless tools and platforms with meaningful ways to showcase mastery and understanding; by making these available options, teachers can hold anxiety-producing situations at bay.
Peer Support- Is anxiety being caused due to a limited or nonexistent peer network? The possibility of a buddy bench on the playground or a method for ensuring that everyone has someone to sit with at lunch can make the school day much brighter for many kids. The Sit with Us app could be introduced in middle and high schools, lunch buddies make perfect pairings or groupings at younger levels, and schools that encourage rotations of table groups with get-to-know-you activities have seen lots of positive results. Helping all students make peer connections is a win for everyone.
Create a Playlist- Music and sound can help bring a sense of calm and ground students, and auditory elements can also remove some of the distractors that make kids anxious about focusing and completing work. Some calming instrumentals or white noise can be a great addition to a quiet study area within the learning space, or a kid-friendly playlist can be added to a personal device for some soothing sounds via headphones/earbuds.
Encourage Movement- When the body is in motion, it can help to calm some of the anxious feelings that are bubbling under the surface. Stretch breaks, running a quick errand, doing some laps on the playground, and/or motion seating alternatives like exercise balls, bouncy bands, standing desks, etc. can help diffuse some of the anxiousness. When students are moving, their anxiety can’t be “all in” because some of the focus is centered elsewhere.
There is no perfect strategy for dealing with anxiety because the triggers and the emotions associated with it are unique to each student. By utilizing a variety of anxiety-reducing methods, teachers are helping students find the coping mechanism(s) that work for them. Some students may have diagnoses while others may occasionally show symptoms, but any strategies that help produce a sense of calm and grounding will be beneficial for all.
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