Helping Students Cope with Anxiety – Tips for Educators
Think back to your own school days. You’ll quickly recall an adult or two who helped you get through the most stressful situations. These are the people who impact us for the rest of our lives! The wonderful part about being an educator is you get to pass that along. Whether you’re a teacher, sub, aide, nurse, custodian, front office assistant, administrator, or counselor, you’ll be that adult for at least one child. When anxiety strikes, here’s how you can be there for your students!
Here, we cover:
- Signs of anxiety in students
- Causes of anxiety in students
- How to help students deal with anxiety
- What to say to students with anxiety
Signs of Anxiety in Students
While every individual is different, there are some tell-tale signs to be aware of in the classroom that may signify anxiety among youth (New Jersey School Counselor Association).
Students who are feeling anxious may:
- Avoid people, activities and situations
- Decline in academics
- Struggle to concentrate
- Miss school frequently
- Feel sick or miss school on test days
- Show irrational or negative thought patterns
- Demonstrate separation anxiety or clinginess
- Have panic attacks
- Need frequent restroom breaks
- Cry or worry frequently
- Blush or sweat excessively
- Feel weak or tired
- Have headaches or similar health concerns
- Report trouble with sleeping
Causes of Anxiety in Students
So, what causes anxiety among children and teens? It depends! Of course, we all process stress differently. Some individuals have a lower tolerance for stressors and are more prone to anxiety. Others tend to be more resilient. We all fluctuate in how we deal with stress over time, at different stages of life, and in various situations.
However, educators should note that some stressors and situations commonly lead to anxiety among youth. For example (National Health Service):
- Frequent moves between homes or schools
- Fighting or arguing among parents, guardians, or siblings
- Loss or death of a relative or friend
- Illness or injury
- Academic pressure, test anxiety
- Sports and extracurricular performance pressure
- Bullying, peer pressure, social interactions, relationship issues
- Social media
- Political events, societal conflict, environmental issues, safety concerns
- Pandemic-related fears, shutdowns, etc.
- Abuse or neglect
- Lack of sleep
- Food insecurity or poor diet
- Sensory overload, lights, sounds, transitions, etc.
- Comorbidity with ADHD, autism, depression, etc.
- An innate tendency toward anxiety
- Being around others with anxiety
How to Help Students Deal with Anxiety
The best way to help students deal with anxiety is simply to be there. Being present in the moment is critical for a child, whether they’re a little one missing their parent, a tween being bullied, or a teen panicking about finals. Chances are you will know the right thing to say in the moment. But if you don’t, that’s okay too, you can always just admit that you can’t find the right words, but you’re here for the student, they’re not alone, and you’ll help figure out what to do next (which is – technically – also the right thing to say in the moment!)
How Can I Help a Student With Anxiety?
Next to being present for a student, here are some practical ways to help them cope with anxiety:
- Help them connect and build relationships with others. A study by Ebesutani et al. identified links between loneliness and anxiety: “Results supported loneliness as a significant risk factor in youths' lives that may result from anxiety and place youth at risk for subsequent depression” (Psychology in the Schools Journal). To combat loneliness, think of ways to create a social safety net for the student. Connect them with a peer or group of peers or assign them a mentor. Ensure teachers and staff know to look out for the child and check on them. Be sure not to single the student out but do make them feel seen and heard.
- Teach students mindfulness strategies. Certain techniques have been proven to help children cope with anxiety: “Mindfulness-based interventions are shown to be effective at treating anxiety in youth with anxiety disorders” (Research on Social Work Practice). Further, Black et al. report, “Sitting meditation seems to be an effective intervention in the treatment of physiologic, psychosocial, and behavioral conditions among youth” (Pediatrics Journal). Ideas include counting your breaths, focusing on your feet, practicing self-compassion and kindness, guided meditation, having a calm classroom, and being aware of your body.
- Refer them for help. According to Kodal et al., cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help: “CBT for youth anxiety disorders delivered in community mental health clinics were improved at nearly 4 years post-treatment, and recovery rates at long-term follow-up were similar to efficacy trials (Journal of Anxiety Disorders). Another type of therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) may also help children and teens cope with anxiety by noticing and accepting their thoughts, emotions, physical sensations and memories (Acceptance and Mindfulness-Based Approaches to Anxiety). Always follow the proper channels at your school and district to ensure students get the help they need.
- Suggest help for parents/guardians. Research by Lebowitz et al. shows training parents or guardians to help children with anxiety may be beneficial: “Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions (SPACE) is a parent-based treatment that reduces accommodation of childhood anxiety” (Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry). Consider suggesting parents get training on how to help their children. Again, be sure to follow the appropriate channels for recommendations.
What Do You Say to a Student With Anxiety?
When you make space for an anxious child, the right words may just come to you. But if you’d like some suggestions to prepare just in case, try these:
- “What can I do to help?”
- “You’re not alone.”
- “You’re safe.”
- “This is temporary. It will pass.”
- “How can we break this into little steps?”
- “Would it help to take a walk?”
- “Is there any of this work that we can do later?”
- “Is there something you like to do that helps calm you when you’re upset?”
- “I know someone who can help with this. Let’s go talk to them together.”
- “It’s a scary time for adults too. I understand. But together, we will all be okay.”
- “What can we change that might help you focus better?”
- “If I can’t help, is there another adult you usually like to talk to at school?”
- “Let’s prioritize this. What is the most important thing to do first?”
- “Would organizing your planner and backpack help right now?”
- “Do you feel like you have had enough to eat? Can we get you a snack?”
- “Would you like to take a rest or go lay down in the clinic?”
- “Let’s take a few deep breaths and count them.”
- “I’d like to introduce you to a friend/peer/mentor who can help.”
- “Time for a brain break! How about 20 jumping jacks or a lap around the playground?”
- “Here’s some paper and crayons. Can you draw the emotion you’re feeling right now?”
Sometimes all students need is to know they are safe and to have the guidance of a trusted adult. When you’re prepared to recognize anxiety and have a plan for what to say, you’ll be better equipped to help a student thrive in school and beyond.
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