Tools to Help Students Cope with Anxiety and Worry
Children today experience high levels of stress and anxiety. When students feel worried or anxious, it’s almost impossible to concentrate on science, math, or reading. Research shows that high stress levels impair learning.
That means to be effective educators, it’s important to help our students cope with worry and anxiety. If we can help children relax, they’ll be able to focus, learn, and reach their fullest potential.
Not sure how to help your students calm down? Here are some simple strategies that are easy to implement in the classroom.
The 5-4-3-2-1 technique, also called grounding, is a mindfulness strategy. When a child’s mind is bouncing between worries and anxious thoughts, this technique helps ground them in the present.
Here are the steps:
- Notice FIVE things you see around you.
- Notice FOUR things you can touch.
- Notice THREE things you hear.
- Notice TWO things you smell.
- Notice ONE thing you taste.
If these steps are tough to remember, you can post signs around your classroom. Some teachers even give students hand-outs to keep in their desks that list calming techniques.
Visualization techniques help us control worrying thoughts and reduce anxiety. There are many anxiety-reducing visualizations, but the simplest methods work best for children.
One idea is to ask children to visualize a favorite spot, somewhere they feel safe and relaxed. Alternatively, tell children to picture a beach. Imagine lying on the sand, looking at the clear blue sky and listening to the waves. Feel the warmth of the sand and let go of your tension.
Other visualization techniques include:
- Visualizing a STOP sign to stop unwanted thoughts
- Visualizing people chattering outside your window, then calmly closing the window to quiet anxious thinking
- Visualizing “quiet” as a liquid filling your head and pouring down your body, silencing the “noise” of stress and worry
You can also create your own visualization techniques based on the age of the children in your class and their interests. Different exercises work for different children, so feel free to experiment.
Stress activates the body’s “fight or flight” response. Deep breathing shuts off this response, allowing us to calm. Effective deep breathing means:
- Breathing in through the nose with the belly going out
- Breathing out through the mouth with the belly going in
- Exhaling longer than the inhale
Sometimes, children don’t know how to practice proper deep breathing. Techniques to teach them include:
- Tell children to breathe in, then blow a pinwheel.
- Breathe in, then blow bubbles.
- Hold up your finger and instruct, “Smell the flower, then blow out the candle!”
- Tell children, “Pretend your belly is a balloon. Breathe out and make the balloon bigger, then breathe in and let the balloon shrink.”
For younger children, have them lie on the carpet. Place a stuffed animal or small object on their bellies, then ask them to make the object move by breathing in and out.
Once children have mastered deep breathing while they’re calm, they’ll be able to access this strategy when they’re anxious or worried too.
Using mindfulness or meditation to help students cope with anxiety is also helpful. This post, Teach Your Students About Mindfulness and Meditation in Just 10 Minutes a Day, is a great place to start. You can also access a free mindfulness and meditation activities in my VIP library of resources. Sign up here.
Music and Movement
Music and movement can help students cope with anxiety because it helps them feel more relaxed. Be sure to incorporate music and movement throughout your day. In times of high stress (like standardized testing), sprinkle in a little extra.
If you notice that children seem worried or uncomfortable, you can adjust on the spot. Call for a stretch break, play a few classical tunes, or add some movement into your current activity (e.g. have students skip to the next station, or ask them to act out their answer to a question).
“Fidgets” are sensory tools that help children calm while improving their focus and concentration. These include fidget spinners, stress balls, and a variety of other items that can be squeezed, squished, or touched.
Some teachers keep baskets at each table with fidgets students can choose if they’re feeling anxious. You may also opt to keep a few fidgets at your desk, encouraging children to ask to borrow one if needed.
Classroom safe spaces are places where children can go to be alone, calm down, and recharge so they are prepared to learn.
The safe space is usually a cozy nook in the classroom equipped with pillows, stuffed animals, stress balls, journals, books, photos of families, etc.
Children who recognize that they’re too upset or anxious to learn can choose to go to the safe space. There, they take deep breaths, choose calming activities, and quietly relax until they are calm enough to rejoin the class with renewed focus.
Sometimes, children simply need a few minutes to cool down and relax. Allow children to drink some cold water, doodle for a bit, or write about their feelings in a journal.
It may help older children to walk down the hallway to a bathroom, stretch their legs, and splash some water on their face.
After introducing children to these techniques, have students reflect on what works for them. Ask them to write a journal entry completing the following sentences:
- I feel sad when
- I feel mad when
- I feel worried/stressed when
Then, ask them to complete the sentence: I feel better when _______________ or I feel calm when ______________.
It’s important for children to reflect on their emotions and how they can best manage them and reach a calm state.
This information is also extremely helpful for you! Learn what triggers your students and what helps soothe their worries, and you’ll see classroom management become easier, teaching time increase, and student achievement soar.