Doesn’t your heart go out to those kids who are perpetually anxious? We all have students who have social anxieties or worry excessively about test pressure and their performance in school.
Today, I’ve invited Anne-Marie Morey, a board-certified educational therapist, to share some strategies for helping these students. In her private practice in San Mateo, California, Anne-Marie teaches children with dyslexia and other learning disabilities. You can read more by Anne-Marie at BayTreeBlog.com, where she shares educational resources on topics like phonemic awareness, executive function, and writing strategies.
You’ve had those students, right? The ones who get stomach aches before exams and whose hearts race so fast they think they can’t give a presentation. Sometimes it seems as if the best you can do is reassure them and hope they make it through the day.
It’s not uncommon for children to feel varying degrees of stress and worry. We all experience stress, and some is good for us. But persistent stress can threaten learning and memory.
The good news is that we can support students who feel worried. Children’s difficult feelings become opportunities to build a sense of control in their lives and develop problem-solving skills.
Start with empathy
Usually when a student comes to us with worries, we reassure them. Unfortunately, kids may feel like we’re trivializing and dismissing their fears.
Instead of saying things like, “Just ignore those kids who are bothering you” or “There’s nothing to worry about,” wise teachers can connect with empathy by asking questions. One of my favorite expressions is, “I’m hearing that you’re feeling __. Tell me more about that.”
Once adults have legitimized children’s feelings, students may feel as if they’re able to problem-solve or see the problem in a different way. For example, one fifth grader was preoccupied by an upcoming entrance exam. The more I tried to reassure him, the more reasons he gave to justify his fears. My light bulb-moment came when I said, “I can hear that you’re really, really worried that you’re not prepared for the exam.”
Within seconds, the tone of the conversation shifted. He nodded and responded, “Well, actually, I have been practicing two times a week to get ready. The test probably won’t be that bad.”
For more empathy-building strategies you might enjoy this article on my blog about how to respond when students say, “I’m stupid.”
Create a safe environment
When teachers create a safe classroom, students who feel anxious can improve.1 Here are some tips for doing that:
- Get kids the right help.In my work with children with learning disabilities, I’ve discovered that many students worry about school because of learning problems. Helping children develop a sense of educational mastery is foundational to combating worries.2 If you see that a child isn’t making expected progress, seek out appropriate support. Here are 39 accommodations and 37 instructional techniques to help students with learning and attention challenges succeed.
- Avoid public embarrassment.Teachers don’t set out to embarrass anyone, but anxious kids are particularly sensitive to open criticism in front of peers. A quiet conversation in private can be more effective than being sent out into the hall.
- Focus on a growth mindset.Many of our worried students fall into catastrophic thinking. They may believe that any mistake is evidence of failure. Teaching children to have a growth mindset helps children see setbacks as opportunities for growth. I love Angela’s practical article on 6 Ways to Teach a Growth Mindset.
Tone down the testing
Some students feel distressed by tests. It’s especially upsetting to see students who understand the material crumble under pressure. Fortunately, there are a number of easy, free techniques you can use to decrease testing worries:
- Reduce test-anxiety by providing children with a practice test so that they know what to expect.
- Eliminate timed tests.I recommend reading Stanford Professor Jo Boaler’s provocative argument for why timed tests may actually damage children’s math learning.
- Explicitly state that you expect children to make mistakes on their tests.Explain that mistakes are opportunities to guide your teaching in the future.
- Allow for test revisions.As a recovering perfectionist, I can personally report that perfection isn’t a humanly attainable goal.
Write for 10 minutes
Even with the most sensitive testing methods in place, many students will feel so worried by exams that they can choke.
For these students, just ten minutes of writing might make a tremendous difference.
In a 2011 study published in Science, researchers found that students who wrote about their worries for ten minutes before beginning a high-stakes exam scored nearly one grade point higher!3 On average, students’ grades went from a B- to a B+ simply by writing for ten minutes on this prompt:
“Write as openly as possible about your thoughts and feelings regarding the math problems you are about to perform.”
This intervention seems particularly useful for kids who often feel very anxious before exams. By releasing their worries before the test, students had more “brainpower” available. They were better able to focus on their exam instead of becoming distracted by intrusive worries and thoughts.
Understand the fight-or-flight response
Most students experience physical sensations when they’re anxious. Sometimes, when kids feel their hands sweating or their heart racing, they think that something’s really wrong. This makes them worry even more!
When students understand their body’s fight-or-flight response, they can harness their physiological reactions.4
When students feel nervous, I like to share a version of this story:
Your body’s number one job is to keep you alive.
Imagine you’re living in prehistoric times. Can you imagine being hunted by a tiger?
Your body would help you survive. It might tell you to fight the tiger, run away, or freeze.
To help you do these things, your heart would start racing. You’d breathe faster, your blood would start pumping, and you’d start to sweat. You might get a stomach ache because instead of sending blood to your stomach, your body would send blood to your arms and legs. Isn’t it awesome that your body makes sure you can survive?
Now, have you ever run into a tiger? Most of us haven’t.
Even though vicious cats aren’t trying to eat us, our bodies still think that some things are scary. Notice the next time you feel yourself breathing faster, your heart pounding, or your stomach aching. These are all signs that your body is preparing to to help you take on a challenge! You’ll also notice that these feelings slowly go away on their own.
So, the next time a student notices these sensations, you can tell him, “Your body is working hard to help you succeed!”
Hone problem-solving skills
If a child comes to you worried, one of the most important things you can do is to help him or her put that worry into words. According to neuropsychiatrist Dan Siegel and child-development expert Tina Bryson:
“Research shows that merely assigning a name or label to what we feel literally calms down the activity of the emotional circuitry in the right hemisphere.”5
Once kids have given a name to their worry, they can start to use logic to make it less powerful.6One simple and effective technique is called the Worry Buster.
To use this strategy, children write down their worries and possible solutions to those worries. Here’s how it works.
Students draw two columns on a sheet of paper. They title one column Worries and their other column Solutions. In the worries column, children record their worries, being as specific as possible. Some students find it helpful to rank how likely each worry is to occur.
Then the student shifts to the Solutions column, generating as many solutions as possible for each worry. Finally, children identify which strategies seem most appropriate.
In this activity, I find it most helpful to think of myself as a coach. I sometimes remind students of strategies they’ve used or ways they’ve comforted themselves in the past.
This intervention was first designed for adults with insomnia.7 Sleep researchers found that adults who identified worries and constructive solutions decreased their stress before bed.8
I’ve found this a helpful tool with students. This fall, one student shared that he felt worried that he wouldn’t have enough time on an upcoming exam. After completing the Worry Buster, he figured out that he could talk to the learning specialist about test accommodations. It turned out he was eligible for extended time, and he didn’t need to worry about running out of time.
We can do this!
I invite you to use these strategies with your students, and I think you’ll see a big difference.
But if these techniques don’t serve to ease your student’s anxiety, that’s also helpful information. When these strategies don’t work, you can consider other resources, such as mental health professionals.
There’s so much we can learn from one another about supporting our students who worry. What works in your classroom? What works for your students? Please share in the comments. You can also check out my blog at BayTreeBlog.com for resources on topics such as phonemic awareness, executive function, and writing strategies.
1Levine, M. (2000). Educational care: A system for understanding and helping children with learning differences at home and in school (2nd ed.). Cambridge, MA: Educators Publishing Service.
2International Dyslexia Association. The Dyslexia Stress-Anxiety Connection.
3Ramirez, G. & Beilock, S. L. (2011). Writing about testing worries boosts exam performance in the classroom. Science, 331, 211-213.
4Chansky, T.E. (2010). Freeing your child from anxiety: Powerful, practical strategies to overcome your child’s fear, phobias, and worries. New York, NY: Broadway Books.
5Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, T.P. (2012). The whole brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child’s developing mind. New York City, N.Y.: Bantam Books.
6Huebner, D. & Matthews, B. (2005). What to do when you worry too much: A kid’s guide to overcoming anxiety. Washington, D.C.: Magination Press.
7Espie, C. A. and Lindsay, W. R. (1987). Cognitive Strategies for the Management of Severe Sleep-Maintenance Insomnia: A Preliminary Investigation. Behavioural Psychotherapy, 15, 388-395.
8Carney, C.E., & Waters, W. F. (2006). Effects of a structured problem-solving procedure on pre-sleep cognitive arousal in college students with insomnia. Behavioral Sleep Medicine, 4, 13-28.