Helping Students with Anxiety

7 ways to help students cope with anxiety that gets in the way of their schoolwork

By in H5

Having anxiety is a normal part of growth and development. Children experience some form of anxiety with school and athletic performance, social acceptance, separation anxiety and other normal fears. Although anxiety is a normal feeling for children to have, when it becomes excessive it can make school much more difficult for students, even to the point they cannot participate in class.

As the school nurse, I often see children in my office with anxiety manifesting with physical complaints such as headaches, nausea and stomach aches that are attributed to anxiety. One person I work closely with to help these students is our licensed school counselor. Today I spoke with Amy Mann, L.S.C. for her take on anxiety with kids and seven ideas to help students cope.

What do you see children having anxiety about?

Students are facing anxiety due to friendship issues, family changes and test anxiety. I am also seeing some students who can’t even put a name to their anxiety.

How can a teacher help a student who has anxiety?

Teachers can help by working with the student, school counselor and parents to come up with a plan that can help to de-escalate the situation when a student starts feeling anxious. This might include giving reminders, allowing some sort of fidget tool, or allowing breaks.

What are some strategies that you use to help students with anxiety?

Sand Tray – For this strategy, I fill a small tray with clean sand and have two totes of small toys. The students can play in the sand with their fingers and toys to calm themselves down. I also use this strategy in scheduled sessions with the students to build me “their world” so I can see what is going on in their daily life. This is one of my most effective tools.

The Worry Box – This is a very easy idea to implement. Decorate a small box (or have the child who is struggling create one) and have them write down what they are anxious about. They drop their worries in the box and tell them to “leave their worries behind.”

Glitter Bottles – I make DIY glitter bottles with recycled plastic bottles filled with glue, water and glitter. When students are upset or anxious, they can shake the glitter bottles as hard and as long as they want to express their anger/stress. Then they can watch the glitter fall as they deep breathe and calm themselves.

Playing a Game – Having the student play a game can help cause distraction, which can be effective in relaying worry. One game I particularly like is Dr. Playwell’s Worry-Less Game. It helps the student learn to deal with persistent worry.

Deep Breathing – This is a well-known technique in helping student calm himself or herself and release anxiety. Have the student slowly breathe in through their nose and exhale through pursed lips. Deep breathing has proved to decrease blood pressure and muscle tension, slow breathing and heart rate and calm the mind.

Self-Soothing Touch – Self touch can help soothe anxiety. Touch has a great impact on our nervous system. When you touch a part of the body, it triggers the brain to focus on the area being touched and away from the anxiety. Teaching the student simple touches such as holding their hand on their belly, the back of their neck or soft stroking on their upper arm.

Progressive Relaxation – This is another well known therapy for anxiety. Have the student tighten one body part such as their fists for 10 seconds, then have them release them slowly while exhaling for ten seconds. Continue with different muscles/body parts (shoulders, arms, legs, stomach, feet etc.) until they are in a relaxed state.

As Catholics, we also have another amazing tool in our belt to help students: the gift of prayer. Personally when kids are in the nurse’s office and struggling, I often times offer up a small prayer for them. Also, teaching kids to use repetitive prayers like the rosary or the Chaplet of Divine Mercy can help calm their mind. Younger students can simply recite “Jesus, I trust in you” while deep breathing. Another favorite prayer of mine is the “Surrender of Worry” prayer by Fr. Dolindo. The simple prayer is “O Jesus, I surrender this to you. You take care of it” and can be repeated over and over again as the student calms himself.

Working together as teachers, nurses, school counselors and parents, we can help create a plan to help students with anxiety perform in school and relieve anxious feelings by teaching them effective ways to cope with excessive anxiety.

Michele Faehnle, RN, BSN is the school nurse at St. Andrew School, Columbus, Ohio and co-author of Divine Mercy for Moms and The Friendship Project.