This year I am battling something that is foreign to me: students with severe anxiety and depression. While in years past, I had students that have had testing anxiety or the occasional worry wart, this year has been a whole different ball game. In my class alone, I have several students on anti-anxiety medication. One was even hospitalized over the summer for anxiety and an eating disorder. Let me remind you, I teach 5th grade.
In my school, we are seeing a rise in our population of students with diagnosed anxiety. Data backs up our observations. According to the CDC, approximately 4.4 million children ages 3 – 17 have been diagnosed with anxiety. Approximately 1.9 million have been diagnosed with depression. While these numbers are already high, they continue to rise (CDC data).
I was one step ahead because I did not have to identify the problem. But, encountering my first uncontrollable crying spell was eye-opening. After this, I was frantically looking for ways to make my classroom a place where students felt at ease. But, when we did encounter stress, we had these strategies in place to help ease the tension of students with anxiety.
Create a Routine Environment and Set Clear Expectations
While creating a routine is something that I have stressed in the past. I found it critical for my students with high levels of anxiety. “Anxious children are prone to distress when there are unexpected changes in routine (WayAhead.org).” I knew that I had to have and keep a solid routine to make sure that my anxious children knew what was coming. When I know our routine will be disrupted, I try to let my students know in the morning. I even make notes on the board to remind the students of the changes throughout the day. I found that the children were more relaxed when they knew what was about to happen in the classroom.
Along with routines, students with anxiety need clear expectations. Clear expectations allow the student to know exactly what is required of them. When students must make a choice, offer a small number of options instead of many choices (WayAhead.org). This allows your student to still be involved in the decision making, but lessens the anxiety of “making the wrong choice”.
Model Healthy Strategies
Children mimic adults and peers. It is important that we model and teach healthy strategies for coping with stress. I am guilty of passing my stress off to my personal children and students. Something goes wrong in the morning and I’m snappy and a complete nightmare to be around. I have had to learn how to take control of my stress and push past it to be the best example for students. This has not been an easy task for me to do when my first instinct is to “pop off”.
Since taking control of my stress, I have noticed a difference in my classroom demeanor. When students begin getting stressed and flustered they are allowed a short break. When tensions are high, I have had great success giving students play-doh. The dough allows them to squeeze and release their anxiety. Katie Hurley’s article stresses to practice the strategies you want children to use. In my class, before a situation I know may cause stress, we collectively take a moment of meditation. We focus on our breathing and calming our nerves. This has centered my children and they are visibly more relaxed.
Bottom line is we have to practice what we preach. When we teach children these strategies; we must allow time to practice them. This way they become second nature.
Allow Stressful Situations
This may seem like a backwards tip. We want to HELP our students with anxiety. Why in the world would we want to allow these students to experience stress?
I recently saw a blog post talking about the “new” trend in parenting. The “Lawn-Mower Parent”. These parents do whatever it takes to “mow” down any and all obstacles their children may face. This is exactly what we are doing when we make it so our students with anxiety face none of their stressors. Many articles I researched warned about this. Avoiding stressors may temporarily help students, it does nothing to help them long-term.
This is especially difficult for me because I am a nurturer by nature. I hate to see my students struggle and in distressing situations. But, I know we learn through the struggle. That is why I put texts in front of my students above their level to push them to be the best.
Dealing with stress is the same thing. I’m not saying to ever put a student in a situation that would cause extreme stress. But allowing the student to cope with stress alongside you can be a growing experience. If we allow students to learn through stress, they will know how to handle it when they face them on their own. Which is the goal of teaching – Students to be competent without us.
Engage in the Arts
This magazine is all about the arts, so I couldn’t write this without talking about the effects of the arts on stress! The arts are a wonderful way to manage stress. There are countless research studies on the use of the arts to ease stress in both children and adults.
The arts allow students to express negative emotions in a healthy way. This is important for students with high levels of stress. When students are under high amounts of stress, we need to allow them outlets to handle this stress. Creativity is one of the channels we as teachers should explore.
My arts integrated classroom has allowed my students to embrace their personal creativity. This in turn has enabled them to go to the arts for comfort. Many of my students use music as an outlet. So, when I bring music in a classroom lesson, the calming effects happen.
The need for stress management in our classroom is no longer a “good idea”, but a need. Our students are facing more and more stress, and the effects are overlapping into our classrooms. We must be diligent in learning our students and the best ways to help them.
Benefits of Expressive Art Therapy for Children. (2016, August 2). Retrieved from https://www.georgetownbehavioral.com/expressive-art-therapy-for-children
Bernstein, J. (2016, January 23). The Rising Epidemic of Anxiety in Children and Teens. Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/liking-the-child-you-love/201601/the-rising-epidemic-anxiety-in-children-and-teens
Data and Statistics on Children’s Mental Health | CDC. (2018, December 20). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/childrensmentalhealth/data.html
Goldstein, C. (2018, December 10). What to Do (and Not Do) When Children Are Anxious. Retrieved from https://childmind.org/article/what-to-do-and-not-do-when-children-are-anxious/
Hurley, K. (2018, November 25). How to Help Children with Anxiety. Retrieved from https://www.psycom.net/kids-coping-skills-anxiety
Strategies to Support Anxious Children in the Classroom (Publication). (n.d.). Retrieved http://understandinganxiety.wayahead.org.au/download/strategies-to-support-anxious-children-in-the-classroom/?wpdmdl=1669
Michelle is a 5th grade ELA teacher in Pensacola, Florida. Originally from Mississippi, she has over seven years of experience in grades 2nd – 5th. She holds a Education Specialist Degree in Curriculum and Instruction from Delta State University. Michelle is an avid lover of the arts and believes in using them as a gateway to broaden her students’ understanding and compassion.