You might feel just as anxious as many of your students on the first day of school. As teachers of little humans, though, we all know that the first day of school brings excessive anxiety for some students. Children who have spent very little time away from parents over the summer, shy students, and highly anxious students are at risk for showing signs of distress from the moment they enter the classroom.
In the midst of greeting your new students and parents (ahem…. chaos), juggling all the demands of establishing routines and procedures, and helping your students feel safe and welcome, here are three quick and easy steps that you can use in a pinch when you’re faced with an anxious student who is having difficulty calming down.
Reflect exactly what you see with the anxious student.
At first glance, this might sound difficult or confusing, but you don’t need to be a trained counselor or psychologist to use this technique. It simply involves making observations about what you see. “I can see that you feel really sad today, Heather. I wonder if you might be worried about how you’re going to make it through the day without your mom.” This gives your anxious student the gift of understanding, which might be all she needs. When that child knows that you understand how she is feeling, she will be much more likely to connect and calm down.
Connect with the emotion of your anxious student in some way.
Whether you want to share a time when you felt the same way, or validate their feelings, an empathic comment sends additional confirmation that you understand their plight. “I know it takes courage to come to school when you’re feeling nervous and scared. I woke up with butterflies in my stomach this morning too!”
Distract the anxious student with something engaging.
After you’ve shown the student that you understand their anxiety, it’s very appropriate to try to distract the student by engaging them in some way. Perhaps you draw in another student who can be that child’s new buddy, or you turn the child’s attention to a fun, hands-on activity.
There are inevitably students who take longer to respond and it’s okay to walk away from the student even if the tears and distress continue. The most important thing is that you’ve acknowledged the child’s feelings and offered empathy and redirection. It’s a good idea to continue to connect nonverbally with the child throughout the day by offering a pat on the shoulder, eye contact with a smile, or a thumbs up. Even if it appears that no progress is being made with that anxious student, you are inevitably making a huge difference in that student’s experience.
On a side note:
After a healthy 5-10 minutes with parents in the room, I kindly let them know that I appreciate them for walking their child to class, but that it’s now time for us to begin our day. Students who are crying and latching on to parents especially need their parent to leave. It WON’T get better if the parent hovers over the child or sneaks around in the hallways. The sooner they leave, the better.
Kudos to you for choosing the most important profession in the world! Whether it’s the first day of school or you have a student that regularly struggles with anxiety, hang in there! You have the potential to transform a traumatic experience into something really positive for that child.
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