Have you ever had trouble concentrating, an upset stomach, sleeplessness, worry about something you have no control over, an upcoming test or exam? Anxiety can show up in a lot of ways and to varying degrees in our students. Anxiety can be one of the most debilitating challenges that students face in the classroom and at home. It is also considered to be one of the most hidden and unknown!
Anxiety is an emotion that most people experience at some time in their lives. It is the feeling of apprehension that comes from the belief that something bad will happen that you will be unable to manage or control. Anxiety becomes a problem for children when it is experienced most days for a prolonged period of time; and interferes with daily functioning including learning, play, sleep and enjoyment of life.
According to the Child Mind Institute, which is also supported by many other recent studies, health care providers have seen a 17 percent increase of anxiety in children over the past ten years. There is a strong chance you have seen the increase in anxiety in your own child at home, maybe around test and exam time, if they have experienced grief or loss, as well as during the current uncertain times surrounding the Coronavirus (COVID-19).
Children who are worried and anxious are not doing it on purpose. The nervous system acts automatically, especially when it comes to worry (which often stems from fight or flight reflexes). That is why phrases such as “just relax” or “calm down” are not particularly helpful. But with practice at school and at home, children can learn to slow down their anxious brains, and teachers can learn to help them. Here are a few strategies you can use to help your child at home if they are feeling anxious.
1. Practice deep breaths
When people slow down their breathing, they slow down their brain. It helps the child who is overwhelmed and usually a few others as well. Slow, deep breaths are the key.
2. Talk about anxiety
Do not set anxiety up as something you want (or should) get rid of. It is part of life, and it is not realistic to think it will go away completely. You can help students see and understand this in your own actions.
3. Get children moving
Exercise helps anyone who is feeling anxious. Anxiety can end up looking like anger, so if you see this, try taking a movement break.
4. Take a break outside
Being out in nature can also calm an anxious brain. Sometimes just a change of scenery is what makes the difference. Breathing the cool air or making time to notice chirping birds can also calm an overactive worrier.
5. Try walking and talking
Building on the moving idea, if you have a child that needs some one-on-one attention, try the walk-and-talk method. I used to have a student who struggled a lot with anxiety, and this worked great with her. After a couple of loops around the basketball court with me, everything would feel a little better. Our walk served three purposes: 1. It removed her from the situation. 2. It gave her a chance to explain the issue to me. 3. It got her blood pumping, which clears out the anxiety-producing energy and brings in the positive exercise endorphins.
6. Remind children to eat healthy and stay well
Not surprisingly, a healthy diet and plenty of sleep make a difference in how well children are able to handle situations that could be overwhelming.
Reading a book can be quite soothing for children as it can be a distraction and an opportunity to think of other things.
8. Think positively by keeping a gratitude journal
The brain is incapable of producing anxious thoughts while it is producing positive thoughts stemming from gratitude. If you can trigger a positive train of thought, you can sometimes derail the anxiety. Some time ago in my Year 4 class, I had students keep gratitude journals, and every day they would record at least one thing they were thankful for. If they seemed overwhelmed by negative thoughts, I would encourage them to reread their journal entries.
There is often no single cause of anxiety. There are risk factors which include having a parent with anxiety, stressful life events, health issues, frequent lack of sleep, learning disabilities and temperament. Anxiety does tend to ‘lock up the brain’ which means it is difficult to change children’s mindsets, therefore employing some of these strategies at home will be useful and you may be surprised how successful they are.
Head of Junior School