School anxiety can take on many forms. It can be easy to detect, like an upset stomach or acting out aggressively. But it can be hard to identify some of its manifestations, like excessive worry, irrational fears, or social anxiety. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 4.4 million children between the ages of three and seventeen have been diagnosed with anxiety, so chances are you've seen it in your classroom—or will.
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Meghan Ghetti, a school psychologist based in Cleveland, Ohio, deals with student anxiety every day. According to Ghetti, there are several strategies teachers can use to help students cope with school anxiety. Here are a few suggestions.
1. Hold Daily Meetings
According to Ghetti, "The best strategies for mitigating anxiety in the classroom are preventative." She suggests having "short daily conversations or social circles about emotions and what helps each student feel better."
She also says to model coping strategies with a think-aloud technique in the classroom. For example, "I feel very frustrated because the smartboard is not working correctly. I need to pause and take a deep breath to calm myself down." Teacher modeling will help students practice and learn important communication and social skills.
2. Prepare a Student Checklist
Have students fill out checklists regarding preferred ways to calm down prior to any escalation. "Some students may check off they will need a hug, others will check off they do not like being touched," said Ghetti. Sometimes the triggers are not obvious to teachers. For example, some students may not feel safe around people in uniform, may not like hearing certain phrases, or have personal space needs. Ghetti suggests having students complete a checklist of things that cause them additional anxiety to help teachers determine the non-obvious triggers.
Some organizations, such as Teachers Pay Teachers, offer free "calm down checklists" to help students understand self-soothing behaviors.
3. Create a Calming Corner
"Have a calming corner and calming caddy of items (stress balls, fidget toys, squishies, etc.) in your classroom," Ghetti recommends. "Teach students how to use these items and allow exploration of these items. When students need to take a break, hopefully there will be an item that soothes them."
Lindsay Jakubowski, a Kindergarten teacher from Blasdell, New York, suggests having social stories and books ready to go. Social stories are used to help encourage self-calming strategies that can help a child learn to manage their emotions. Books like When I'm Worried by Michael Gorden can help children learn how to handle their feelings in healthy ways.
4. Hold Restorative Circles
Ghetti suggests holding a restorative circle—a technique that restores relationships through equal sharing and listening. According to Ghetti, "Daily restorative circles can help repair any harm and air any issues that have occurred in the classroom." She suggests having smaller restorative circles for small group problems. "Students with anxiety need to know that they are loved and accepted and that we are all imperfect," says Ghetti.
5. Create a Daily Check-In and Check-Out Sheet
A typical teacher will generally take the time to check in with their students. However, Ghetti suggests creating a more formalized system such as a daily check-in and check-out sheet for students who have high anxiety.
According to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, students who are at-risk would benefit from a more formalized system where caring adults can provide students with positive reinforcement. Ghetti says, "Building relationships with one trusted adult in the school makes a student more likely to be successful." Therefore, a daily check-in/check-out sheet can assist students in forming positive relationships with school staff as well as supporting students' mental health needs.
6. Support Students with Internalizing Behaviors
Ghetti says, "In classrooms, we always notice the externalizers. The students whose behavior demands our attention." She suggests that teachers should be on the lookout for the internalizers. These are the students that try to be perfect, not make a fuss, and worry excessively. She says, "They, too, deserve support."
According to the Hanover Research, "Teachers should be prepared to appropriately identify and respond to internalizing behaviors to support students." They can do so by using the traits listed in the "Student Risk Screening Scale-Internalizing and Externalizing Overview" created by Michigan's Integrated Behavior and Learning Support Initiative (MIBLSI). Teachers rate the frequency of the students' displayed behaviors and scores are calculated and used for interpretation of risk.
7. Normalize Counseling
Teach for America says it's important to normalize and prioritize students' mental health. One way to do so is for teachers to begin to normalize mental health through daily classroom practices (journaling, check-ins, etc.). In addition to that, Ghetti suggests we also normalize referring students to the guidance counselor or mental health support person for counseling. She says, "Learning strategies early is the best way to prevent future problems from interference with a child's life."
8. Create a Safe Environment
The CDC says, "School environments that are safe and supportive connect adolescents to a network of caring peers and adults, including parents, other primary caregivers, and teachers." It also says feeling connected can help reduce mental health issues. Ghetti thinks it's important to "have a safe way for students to message you privately about what they need or are having difficulty with. It can be electronic or a secure paper location where others cannot access it. This allows the quiet students to express their needs without drawing attention."
Further Reading: 4 Ways to Help Students Overcome Their Math Fears
Luckily, school anxiety is a manageable mental health struggle. With support, and specific tools and strategies from teachers, students can learn how to manage their anxiety and have a successful school experience.