In my last blog I discussed signs and symptoms of an anxious child, which may help you to spot children in your class who were struggling.
Being able to identify the issue is only a small part of helping the child while they are at school though. In this blog I intend to show you how easy it is to make school a calm and supportive environment. This is important for all children, but especially those struggling with anxiety.
The most important thing you can do for an anxious child
The single most important thing you can do to help an anxious child is to be as consistent as you can. I appreciate that we all have bad days and teachers are only human (although that is a revelation to most of our students, isn’t it?). The more calm and consistent you can be, the calmer your students will feel. They need to know what to expect from you, and more importantly, what you expect from them.
Routine is also a huge help when tackling anxiety. When we know what is going to happen, how and where there is a deep, instinctive security associated with that.
In schools there will always be changes to routine because there is a celebration, a visitor or something unexpected has occured. As much as possible though, keep to a routine, especially on a morning and around certain key events. That way the children know that when x happens you expect y. It allows them to feel in control and there is no doubt for them that if they follow that structure you will be happy and they will achieve the desired result.
Celebrate failures. This is a challenge for many of us. We all want to succeed. To be the best we can be. But if we only ever do things we know we will succeed at we limit our potential. There will always be times when we have to stretch our comfort zone and try something new. By showing the children that you don’t get everything right all the time, that you make mistakes and that’s ok. Better than ok, it’s great. It means you were brave, you tried something new and challenging and that is how we learn and grow.
Sara Blakely, CEO and founder of SPANX, says her father used to ask her and her brother every week at the dinner table; “what did you fail at today?” and if they had something to share he would celebrate it.
If you haven’t watched it before this is a great video about the importance of failing. It is only 4 mins but is a real eye opener if you have always been worried about failing – as so many of us are.
Unnecessary pressure can be a real issue in schools. I appreciate that we are all trying to get the best out of the children in our class. We want them to succeed, to be the best they can be. Putting pressure on an anxious child though is going to have the opposite effect. It may only be a throw away comment but it can impact a child for years. I heard recently about a child who had had a prolongued period off school with anxiety. They struggled to return but did, and not just that, did brilliantly in their mocks. They then fell ill and emailed their teachers to get the work they had missed. 90% of their teachers were great and either gave a small amout to catch up, or told them not to worry. One teacher though responded by saying “It’s good to see you are finally taking your studies seriously!”. This child was a high achiever and it was the pressure to succeed and to be the very best that was causing their anxiety. This one comment put them back several steps.
Yes, test results are important, exam results matter, but they are not the end of the world, and certainly not worth sacrificing the mental health of any of your students. Exams can always be retaken.
Be mindful of how much pressure you are placing on your class. Comments such as “last year’s class did brilliantly, but I know that you are going to do even better” may be motivating for some children, but paralysing For an anxious child.
If a child is struggling, the quickest way to calm them down is to ask them to do some breathing exercises (there are lots on my social media accounts and in my free downloads).
Allow them to step away from the task, maybe go sit and read quietly for a few minutes. Give them a mental health break. Why not have a soft toy who is a special calming friend who they can talk to and cuddle when they are feeling anxious (You could add a few drops of lavender essential oil every week so that when they have a cuddle it helps calm them down even more?).
Many children will feel calmer if they move around. Why not have dance breaks during stressful times, such as the build up to tests? Giving the children 2-3 minutes to dance, and inevitably laugh too, will calm their physical body and provide a fun distraction.
Children are unique
Most importantly remember that they are individuals. They may not respond the same way another child you have taught did, and that’s ok. Talk to them. They may not understand how they are feeling, depending on their age, but they might know exactly what will make them feel better. Make sure you use positive language and nurture their self confidence and self esteem as much as possible. The more confident a child, the more able they feel to cope with stress.
No two people are the same. We all react differently, we all respond to events differently. Some children love tests because they like a challenge. Others become a nervous wreck at the mention of the word. Some children will enjoy doing some exercise to calm down, but others will just want to sit quietly.
Watch how they respond. If a child is really struggling, tailor the way you respond to suit them rather than the whole class. An estimated 1 in 8 children under 19 having a diagnosable mental health condition in the UK. This is not something we can ignore. You may have 4 or more children in your class who are really struggling with anxiety, depression or other mental health issues. Remember those are just the children who are severe enough to get a diagnosis. Many more will feel anxious before an exam or during a stressful period either at home or school.
Mental health issues are no longer things which are rare and often dealt with outside school. All staff need to have a good understanding of the impact this can have on children in school. There must be consistency across the whole school environment.
For more help and advice on this subject: