In my experience, there are two main types of anxious children, which I have named “The Tough Façade” and “The Quiet Panicker.”
*Characteristics of “The Tough Façade”: they display EBD-like behaviors, act like they don’t care (even though they usually do), leave the room frequently/walk out of class, go into “shut down mode” where they stop talking and become unresponsive, may try to cover their heads or put their sweatshirt hoods up, explode often, and are very irritable.
*Characteristics of “The Quiet Panicker”: they cry often, pull or twist their hair, pick at their hands or fingers, get visibly stressed, have shaky hands or nervous ticks, clench their muscles or fists when they begin to panic, have repetitive habits, become overwhelmed easily, struggle to advocate for themselves, and avoid work or anxiety-provoking situations.
These are two distinctly different patterns I have noticed, but of course every child is unique. Regardless of how anxiety is presented, if students are in a hypervigilant state, their brain is not functioning in a way where learning can occur. We need to use strategies to get students out of that “lower brain state,” so they are ready and able to learn.
Here are 6 strategies that you can use to support your anxious students:
1. Post a clear schedule on the board and stick to it!
Students appreciate knowing what is going to happen throughout the day because then they know what to expect.
2. Have a predictable, calm morning routine
The morning is one of the most anxious times of the day for students.
If you have your students start the day in the same way every morning and intentionally make your morning routine calm, positive, and welcoming, then students will start their day in a more relaxed state of mind.
For example, have your students eat their breakfast and have choice time at the beginning of the day. Having choices, getting food, and easing into the day makes a big difference!
3. Use nonverbal positive reinforcement
Typically, students who are anxious need an exceptional amount of affirmation.
Sometimes it is helpful to give them nonverbal positive reinforcement, which can be as simple as a thumbs up, smile & nod, or a handwritten note.
For example, I had a very difficult day with an anxious student last year. The next morning, I put this note on his desk for him to read once he got to school. He really appreciated the nonverbal aspect of the note and knowing that he could start the day fresh!
4. Figure out triggers & control the controllable
Figure out what sets off your students’ anxiety and then try to control the variables you can.
Common triggers include: teachers threatening to call home, getting food taken away, feeling rushed, speaking in front of the class, not being given choices, tests, and adults raising their voices.
For example, if a student is low-income and doesn’t have a lot of food at home, do not take their food away from them. Not only will that make their food insecurity worse, but it will also spike their anxiety and set them off.
Clearly you won’t be able to control everything, but if you are able to prevent some triggering situations, it will help your anxious students to stay in a calmer brain state.
For instance, I buy bananas (because they are cheap and healthy!) & other snacks for my students, so they won't be hungry in the classroom. By having food available for my students, I instantly lower anxiety for a lot of my kids.
5. Make the physical space comfortable
Provide students with a “calm corner” to settle down.
Do not approach an anxious student from behind–always approach them from the front, so they can see you coming towards them. Anxious students hate surprises!
To the best of your ability, prevent sudden, loud noises. For example, prepare students ahead of time before fire drills or school assemblies.
6. Say Goodbye to “Pop Quizzes”
Pop quizzes are a thing of the past and they need to stay there! Students will feel more successful and motivated if they are prepared. Again, anxious students hate surprises!
If you end up trying any of these strategies, let me know what you think by sending me a message over on Instagram @always.upper.elementary or tagging me in your posts! Do you have other ideas I should add to my list? Let me know! I would love to hear about how you support your anxious kiddos! :)
If you are interested in the visual version of this blog post, here is the companion poster resource. Print it out or screenshot it and save for later!
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