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Seeing anxiety in children can be difficult because we want the children in our lives to flourish and be happy. Anxiety, if not treated by a professional can be paralyzing for kids. However, even though students with anxiety disorders need help beyond what a teacher can give, there are many things we as educators can do to make life for a child with anxiety easier. Read on to find out my tips and tricks for helping kids with anxiety.
Anxiety can be paralyzing. I know from experience. My own anxiety got very bad in my early adulthood, and for a long time if I wasn’t going to school or working I was on my couch watching Grey’s Anatomy, trying to remind myself to breathe and that I hadn’t ruined my life.
Really I’ve had anxiety my whole life, but because of the caring adults in my life, like my mother and teachers, I was able to manage it throughout childhood, without therapy.
I don’t recommend this, as it leads to a rough transition to adulthood, like in my case. If you suspect one of your students has an anxiety disorder make sure it gets diagnosed and treated by the proper people on your special ed team.
And if you’re curious and want to learn more about how I manage my own anxiety, you can check out my blog post on teaching with OCD by clicking here.
Even though kids with anxiety will need counseling, there are still things we as teachers can do to make sure they flourish and feel comfortable at school.
In this post, we’re going to cover my tips and tricks for helping kids with anxiety manage their educational lives.
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First Up What kind of Anxiety?
The first thing you are going to have to do is establish what kind of anxiety your student has. This is why it’s so important for them to get diagnosed by a professional.
The reason they need to get diagnosed for you to know the best strategies is that each anxiety disorder has its own recommended support systems, and, as strange as it may seem, sometimes what helps one anxiety disorder makes another one worse.
Let’s take OCD and Generalized Anxiety Disorder for example. People with both will likely ask others around them for reassurance that everything is okay or that something bad isn’t going to happen.
Reassuring someone with Generalized Anxiety Disorder will be comforting and helpful, without hurting them in the long run. While reassuring something with OCD will make them feel better for a while, but eventually, that anxiety is going to come back and it will be worse this time around.
I’m not saying to avoid reassuring children when they’re nervous. Reassurance can be a great thing in most cases, and until a child has a diagnosis, it’s all you can do really.
However, it is important to make sure to get a diagnosis and treatment plan from a knowledgeable professional to make sure that your reassurances aren’t hurting your student in the long run.
Once a diagnosis is made, read recommendations on any reports carefully, and ask their counselors for ways you can help in the classroom.
Have a Calm Demeanor
This one I stole from my days as a play therapist, and if you follow this blog, you know I say it a lot. That just means it’s super important.
When your student freaks out, don’t freak out too.
I have a lot of kids with anxiety and noise sensitivity. I also have anxiety and a high startle response, which means I can jump at loud unexpected noises.
Once I was working with a student in their classroom. This student is very sensitive to noise and extremely anxious. There was another student in that class, on the autism spectrum, who would sometimes randomly bang on tables and call out in the middle of lessons.
I was able to ignore it and keep cool probably ninety percent of the time, but because I don’t leave my high startle responses at the door, occasionally I would jump.
I noticed that whenever I jumped, my student would start crying. Her fear would become uncontrollable, and we had to leave the room. If I didn’t jump we were able to move on.
Why did it matter if I jumped?
My theory is that my student relied on me to be the calm one because if she looked at me and saw I was relaxed, it provided social feedback to her that everything was actually okay. She had known me a long time and trusted me.
If I was nervous though then something must be wrong because I was not the nervous one (at least as far as she knew).
In his book the Autism Breakthrough, Raun Kaufman calls this being the calm in the storm. You want to be a safe place for your kid to find safety with. If you’re freaked out, that means there is no safe place, which just makes anxiety worse.
What if I do freak out?
At my play therapy job, we used to make this joke all the time. When people would come out of a session with a student saying all kinds of self-deprecating things and listing everything they messed up, someone would say, “Well you broke the kid, so good job!”
Everyone would laugh because of course, they were being sarcastic. Children are made of pretty hardy stuff, and worrying about making mistakes or not being perfectly calm, is not going to help you be calm.
The important thing is to learn from your mistakes, be kind to yourself, and reflect on them.
Take the example of me jumping at the yelling student. After I realized that, do you think I never got startled again in that classroom?
Of course, I did, because I have a high startle response. I made a conscious effort to do it a little less and reintegrated my breathing exercises before going into that case, but it still happened on occasion.
When it did, and my student started crying, we’d take a walk. But we always came back after five minutes, and it didn’t ruin her.
Don’t try to avoid all mistakes. It’s about learning from the ones you do make.
Learn Strategies to Help Calm Kids Down
I love a mantra. Again if you read this blog a lot that is no secret. Oddly though I can’t use them on myself because people with OCD quickly turn them into compulsions.
But for my kids with general anxiety, they are wonderful.
A great example is my student who was afraid of pigeons. We live in New York City. They are everywhere. (And to be fair to him are gross).
So we made up a mantra to say whenever we saw pigeons on our daily community walks. “I am brave. This is not a big deal.”
It applied to a lot of little things he was afraid of. Eventually, he stopped even registering the birds were there.
I usually have a general mantra that can apply to lots of things. You can also make a more specific mantra as well.
If I was only focusing on the pigeons and not the anxiety in general, I might have made a mantra like, “I am bigger than the pigeons. They should be scared of me.”
Ideally, the mantra should make the student feel safe and powerful at the same time.
If mantras aren’t your thing though, there are tons of other techniques to deal with anxiety that I use on myself or my students.
For me slowing my breathing down is a big one. My therapist once measured how quickly I breathe, and it was way too fast. We once spent an hour just working on making sure I only took six breathes a minute. I have never been more relaxed than after that session.
There are other meditative things adults can include in their classroom, like meditative coloring books, relaxing music, progressive muscle relaxation techniques, and a lot more.
Have the option to leave available
Sometimes that anxiety can be so overwhelming your student might enter fight or flight. Make sure to have a plan for if this happens, and an available adult who can take the student somewhere else they feel safe to calm down.
In my case, this one is easy, because I’m a one-on-one interventionist. If my kiddo gets freaked out in class, I can just take them on a short walk around the building to take a minute.
On that walk, we might repeat mantras or do some breathing techniques.
If I am working with a student in their home, I make sure there is a safe place they can go to hide where I can still keep an eye on them.
One day after a lesson, on my kiddos got so scared they hid in the closet. I didn’t rush him to come out. Instead, I simply told them him to leave the door open a crack so I could know he was safe. I sat on the floor a few feet away and waited for them to come out.
If you’re in a classroom and don’t have the option of taking a walk or letting your kid hide safely then invest in some noise-canceling headphones and beanbags. They might not be able to leave the room. You can let them go to a different spot and not have to see whatever is upsetting them.
Give Encouragement not to let the anxiety hold them back
When my students encounter something they are afraid of, I try to get them to engage with it at least a small amount before backing off.
For example, with the student who is afraid of pigeons, I did not expect him to go walking through a flock of them on day one.
We would agree on a set number of feet we’d keep between ourselves and the pigeon and walk at that distance. After we walked by at that number of feet, I would celebrate a how brave he was.
It always made him smile.
Over time we decreased the distance little by little until the pigeon was the one who flew away from us.
Agree with your student on little ways to engage with what scares them. It can be only for a set period of time instead of distance, but make sure it is something super small and attainable.
Be enthusiastic when they are successful and praise how brave they are acting. Again, you want your kid to feel big and powerful.
Always check with counselors about this process, as you don’t want to ask your student for too much or push them more than they are ready. Think baby steps that are so small it looks like you aren’t moving.
Start small and build upon that success.
There were some teachers and adults in my life I never approached when I was feeling anxious.
I could feel judgment and annoyance whenever I did. I avoided that as much as I could.
They behaved, as though my anxiety was inconveniencing them. It made me feel ashamed, of what I know now is a part of my brain chemistry.
Even if you’re super annoyed or busy, never make a student feel afraid to come to you with a problem. You want to be a safe place for them where they can grow and make mistakes and be afraid.
Remind yourself that it’s not their fault they’re so nervous. Getting angry isn’t going to help.
Understand what is behind the anxiety and do your best to help that.
Helping kids with anxiety is a long-term goal and not something that can be achieved overnight. I wish I could say it’s easy, caring for a kid’s mental well-being requires a lot of effort.
Remember teaching kids techniques to help themselves is going to make a big impact. But it’s also important to control the way you react to things around them.
The most important thing is to maintain a good relationship with your students. Make them feel safe coming to you and learning from you.
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