How to help an anxious child in your class

How to help an anxious child in your class

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

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).

Time out 

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:

Young Minds

Barnardos

NHS

 

 

How to spot anxiety in students

How to spot anxiety in students

Anxiety in students is probably the biggest issue in our classrooms at the moment. 

With 1 in 3 of our teenagers diagnosed with anxiety disorders and 7% of 3-17 year olds struggling with anxiety this is not something we can ignore.

 That means that if you teach primary aged children (3-11yrs) statistically our of a class of 30 you will have at least 2 children in your class with anxiety. If you teach secondary (11-18yrs) that increases to 10 in every class of 30!

Just take a moment to let that sink in.

Do you know which of the children in your class might be struggling?

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate that as a teacher you are already juggling so many observations and responsibilities that the last thing you need is to be adding mental health officer or counsellor to your job description. 

Here’s the problem though.

We can’t learn when we are feeling anxious.

 If we don’t identify the students who are feeling anxious we may be sabotaging those all important results as well as letting down our vulnerable young people. 

Why is anxiety on the rise?

There are many reasons, I’m going to list the biggest in my opinion:  

  • Greater access to information
  • Inability to escape from peers due to social media and mobiles
  • Too much screen time
  • Not enough time outside
  • Academic pressures
  • Diet
  • Sleep deprivation 

I’m not going to go into these in detail but rest assured all these factors increase anxiety levels dramatically in most people and a combination of all of them is truly toxic.

There is precious little, as teachers, that we can do about these causes of anxiety. What we need to do is to spot the signs, and of course give our students strategies to reduce their stress levels and anxiety.

What are the signs of anxiety? 

  • Feeling sick and light headed
  • Sweating
  • Needing the toilet more frequently than usual
  • Crying
  • Sore or upset stomach 
  • Blushing
  • Headaches and tense muscles
  • Teeth grinding
  • Loss of appetite or over eating
  • Trembling
  • Trouble sleeping

I know what you’re thinking. Most of these symptoms are either impossible or difficult to spot as a teacher. When you then factor in the fact that many children become incredibly skilled at hiding their symptoms, because having people knowing that they are struggling may add to their anxiety, it becomes almost impossible.

Many children develop elaborate coping mechanisms, for example “acting”. A child may create an elaborate character who is a competent student who is confident and calm and act that way at school so as not to draw attention to themselves. 

Often a child will make themselves “invisible” so that they aren’t called on to speak or demonstrate anything in class. 

Ultimately our mind is very accomplished at protecting us from anything that is threatening or scary. It keeps us safe. 

We could be crying inside with every muscle in our body so tight it feels like it might snap but we can often still paint on a smile and convince the world that we are fine. 

How can we spot those students who may be struggling with anxiety? 

Keep an eye out for students who are resistant to being seen. Those who really don’t want to read aloud, shy away from any tasks that involve being seen or scrutinised. 

Be aware of the perfectionists. Those children who always want to re-start work because something didn’t quite go as planned. Who are never happy with their finished work (if they ever finish).

Look out for the children who appear to be daydreaming a lot. They may be daydreaming (which can be an escape mechanism) but they may also be feeling lightheaded with the pressure of all the learning going on.

Spot the very physically tense children if you can. The ones who clench their jaw or who have very tight, high shoulders.

Notice patterns in behaviour: those who ask to go to the toilet more often than average, the ones who complain of a headache or stomach ache a lot. 

The children who are always tired, despite seemingly having sensible bedtime routines.

None of these are exclusively symptoms of anxiety, but they may be, and if those same children are then underperforming in tests or bursting into tears unexpectedly or over reacting to seemingly small situations, you may do well to check on them.

Most young people won’t tell you that they are feeling anxious or scared. They will communicate their need for help in other ways; they may act out, ask you to play with them, tell you their tummy/head hurts, they are tired. They may constantly ask for help understanding things. This can be a combination of struggling to focus due to the anxiety, tiredness and wanting to let you know that they are struggling.

I appreciate that this is a lot to look out for and a lot to take in. So I am going to break this blog into two parts, the next part will be giving you more advice and giving practical ways to help your students who may be struggling with anxiety.

Other blogs you may find interesting:

Anxiety in Teenagers 

Academic Anxiety

 

You can COUNT on Mindfulness

You can COUNT on Mindfulness

When we are asked to introduce new things into the classroom there is often an assumption that it is going to mean lots of preparation, lots of work and generally big stress! 

This really doesn’t have to be the case with wellbeing and in particular mindfulness. There are so many very simple techniques and minor adjustments you can make that will have a huge impact on your wellbeing and that of your students. 

One of the simplest techniques you can use is counting. This is particularly brilliant if you teach young children who are newly confident when counting because it reinforces their maths learning too. You can also differentiate the activity so that you count in 2s, 5s, 10s etc to make it more complicated for older children.  

How do we count for mindfulness?

It’s really very simple.

Simply explain to the children that you are going to start counting (it can be in 1s, 2s, 5s, 10s, forwards, backwards, etc whatever is relevant to your class) but tell them you are going to continue to count quietly in your heads after the first 3 numbers. They can close their eyes, use their fingers, whatever they need. You give them a target number to get to and once they reach that number ask them to silently raise their hand. Tell them you want to see if you can all get to the number at the same time. 

You can practise this many time with different target numbers, using times tables etc.

You can even use the alphabet, songs or nursery rhymes. The important thing is that they are focused solely on the one task in hand. They can’t be thinking about other things, messing with their friend or their shoe, because if they do they won’t be able to reach the target at the right time.  

I told you it was simple didn’t I?

 

If you want to discover many other simple wellbeing strategies why not check out my FREE Resources page.

Children in Need

Children in Need


I love Children! 

There’s no hiding it. I loved children when I was no more than a large child myself. At 14 years old while my friends were raving at the school disco I was looking after the teachers’ children in the foyer. (I know, I sound so sad, but I was a teenager in the time that good taste and good music forgot, I could not do acid house!). I also love Children in Need. When it comes to charities, I have always prioritised children’s charities. I have sponsored children and done all I can to help our most vulnerable and precious citizens.

A couple of years ago I thought it would be lovely to create a mindfulness lesson plan to help our children to live in the present. To help them to notice and appreciate the world around them. If we are not careful, on days like Children in Need where we intentionally shift the focus away from the upset and heartbreak of the people we are raising money to help, it is easy for the message to get lost in the fun. 

Mindfulness is proven to help improve concentration and behaviour, even test results, as well as reducing anxiety and stress. What a wonderful gift to our children on such a magical day. 

The lesson walks the children through an imaginary morning for Pudsey Bear on the day of the big BBC Charity fundraiser programme. As he goes through his morning the children explore very simple mindfulness techniques.

 

The lesson comes in the form of a simple to follow script. All you need is a little time, a little space and your fabulous voice to help your class to stay calm and focused.

If you would like to download this special mindfulness lesson plan to share with your class on Children in Need Day just click here. It is only £3.00 and 100% of the profits from the sales go to Children in Need. Because the purpose of this lesson plan is to raise money for charity this lesson plan is not available as part of any of my subscriptions. 

Autumn Wellbeing

Autumn Wellbeing

The clocks are changing this weekend here in the UK.

For a few days at least the mornings will be slightly lighter but the evenings will draw in quicker too. Your Autumn wellbeing becomes a focus.

Autumn is a challenging time of year. The shorter, greyer, damp days, drain us of joy and leave us missing the sunshine of a few weeks ago. We tend to spend more time indoors and even our diet changes dramatically during the colder months. 

All of these factors can create a lethal cocktail of mental ill health if we’re not careful. This can spiral if we then fall into the self medicating trap of trying to cheer ourselves up with comfort food, sweet treats and alcohol.  

What can we do to maintain our Autumn Wellbeing?

In no particular order, why not try these easy wellbeing tips to help you beat the Autumn blues:

Drink hot drinks

We naturally drink more warm drinks in colder weather but scientists have now proven that drinking a warm drink has the same effect on the body as a hug. It calms your nervous system and reduces anxiety. Maybe the old British stereotype of putting the kettle on in an emergency isn’t as daft as we thought!

Get outside

I am as guilty as anyone of looking out at the drizzly, grey weather and talking myself out of going for a walk, but when I make myself I know I always feel better. My daughter and I have been going for a walk a couple of nights a week, only for about an hour, but we have both noticed how much better we feel, physically and mentally.

Get moving

If you don’t want to go outside at least get moving. Go to the gym or just dance round the kitchen. Anything to get your body moving, the blood pumping and release all those happy chemicals! 

Embrace the Hygge Life

There is a lot of talk about hygge at the moment. In short it is that cosy feeling you get when you are snuggled under warm blankets with a cuppa and the fire on. Embrace this beautiful feeling by lighting candles, snuggle under big soft blankets, grab a good book and a cuppa and spend a few indulgent minutes in this comforting state.

Eat well 

It is easy to slip into comfort eating at this time of year. That’s fine as long as you choose healthy comfort food. Choose casseroles, curries, stews and lots of green vegetables over take aways, fatty and sugary foods.We are what we eat and this is particularly true in the colder months because our body stores more energy.

Read more  

Screen time is known to affect our wellbeing. Switch your screens for a good book and watch how much better you feel. There is nothing better than snuggling under a blanket with a good book either is there.   

Have a long soak   

A warm bath is a great way to relax your muscles and calm yourself down too. Why not add some sea salt and lavender to really cleanse and calm your body and mind?  

Laugh  

Laughing is proven to improve your mental wellbeing so find a good comedy on Netflix and enjoy a really good giggle. 

Spend time with friends and loved ones

There is nothing quite like spending time with people who make you feel calm, happy and loved. So much the better if they also make you laugh or encourage your to dance!

What changes can you make to ensure this Autumn is sparkly and happy? 

Other relevant blogs: 

Life is better when you live in the moment

Mindful Planning

 

Anxiety in Teenagers

Anxiety in Teenagers

Imagine a girl. She could be younger than you, she could be older than you. But it needs to be someone you know. You may not know them well, but you know them.

Imagine the perfect student. A social outsider. She has friends, but doesn’t exactly conform to teenage stereotypes. She reads. She doesn’t go to parties. But that’s okay. People don’t like her any less for it. She’s clever. Passes every exam. She gets her head down, and she works. She puts in the effort she needs to in order to succeed. She smiles. She laughs. As far as the world is concerned, she’s happy.

Imagine you saw her today. Maybe you spotted her in the corridor. Maybe she came to see you, or perhaps you came to see her. She smiled at you. She helped you solve that problem you’ve been having. Maybe she calmed you down; stopped you from crying. All she did was help you, and you feel nothing but gratitude towards her today. She didn’t just appear happy, she made others happy too.

She’s just a happy person. Radiating positivity. Or so it seems.

Imagine the same girl, only behind closed doors. She sits in her room every night and cries. Yes, she’s clever, but sometimes the amount of stress she puts herself under can crush her. A weight on her shoulders. Yes, she’s got friends, but sometimes the amount of people around her can be so overwhelming, she breaks. Another weight on her shoulders. She solves your problems, but she has her own too. The weight of all of this builds and builds until she can’t take it anymore. It pins her to her bed every morning, and she can’t move. The sheer thought of moving outside of her bedroom makes her shake, and cry, and her hope deteriorates. Everything slows to a halt. She stops going to school. She stops eating. She stops moving. She sees no one, and does nothing but cry. It’s hard for her. She says nothing. 

It doesn’t take long for people to notice. Her parents. Her parents, who do nothing but help her, and have all of the resources to do so, notice. They try their best to calm her down, but nothing works. Her friends. They know that she’s not herself anymore. They want to help. Her friends who were far away, they talked her off the ledge. Her friends close to her came to her house, they made sure she was okay. They cared.

But nothing helped. It was as if she was trapped in a box. She knew how to leave. She could get out. But she didn’t want to. The box made her sick. But she couldn’t leave. She hated it. Every second. But she couldn’t leave.

This girl is me. I’m fifteen years old, and I struggle with anxiety. Living in a household where every person is able to help, but nothing works is unbearable. I try so hard. It’s horrible. But things look up. Talking to someone helps. No one is as perfect as they appear to be. Everyone suffers. So check up on that person. Make sure they’re okay. Sometimes that’s all they need.

The author of this incredibly articulate and self aware piece is my daughter, Laura.

 I wasn’t sure whether to post this blog. There are many voices in my head today as I type, all with conflicting opinions. One voice says I need to protect my daughter. One says it’s professional suicide. Another voice says that it’s important to be authentic and share my experiences. Yet another tells me this post will really help many people. I have always been honest about my mental health journey, and it is an ongoing journey, it is not possible for anyone to have sustained and infinite good mental health. 

I have also been honest about my struggles whether that is confidence, anxiety, physical pain… but this is different. This feels like the worst pain I can imagine. I am having to stop myself from feeling like I have let one of my children down in the worst possible way. Remind myself that I can’t make anyone do anything against their will.

I have watched from the sidelines over recent years as my kind, caring, talented, witty, intelligent daughter has slowly descended into an ever increasing state of anxiety.  I have loved, and supported her every way I know how but she’s a teenager and as we all know, teenagers have to learn their own lessons sometimes.   

Laura has always been fiercely independent. She didn’t want help with anything as a toddler and that has never changed. She is capable and works things out for herself you can’t tell her anything, she has to work it out.

She is an incredible young woman. I know I am biased but: 

  • She has amazing friends
  • We have never been called into school
  • She makes her teachers smile when they see her
  • Her teachers have fought over her throughout school every time she has had to make decisions about which subjects to focus on
  • I have never had to ask her to do her spellings, reading, homework of any kind
  • If anyone is ever upset or needs support she is there
  • When she had her first residential at 7 years old she was a little bit worried, but once we arrived at the coach another little girl was crying and Laura immediately began comforting her and completely forgot about her own worries 
  • She uses social media to support other young people and help them with revision techniques 
  • She sings like an angel! 

She is a teacher’s dream, a parent’s dream. Don’t get me wrong she has her moments just like anyone but I couldn’t be more proud of her. 

She cares, deeply, maybe too much.     

Anxiety isn’t a sign of weakness it is a sign of caring too much.  

Unfortunately I have seen it all my life. People who are caring and compassionate and feel a responsibility to make sure everyone else is happy, who then give too much and forget to care for their own needs.  

I spend my life trying to prevent anyone from feeling the way my own daughter is at the moment. 

I teach techniques and strategies and show people the signs to look out for. I know what you should eat, how you should live and exactly what to do to prevent anxiety getting too severe. Thank goodness I do because otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to support Laura the last few weeks. Now that she has acknowledged that things have got too much, we have talked about it, and we have talked a lot. School have been amazing and we are slowly coming through of the worst of it. 

No child should ever have to suffer like this. No-one should. Yes school is important but it is never more important than your wellbeing.

 

We have started going for long walks together. We talk about anything and nothing and the idea of her writing this came up last night while we were walking. I thought it might help her to get her thoughts down on paper. She has now decided that she would like to start a blog. Even while she was off school she was posting on her social media accounts being completely honest about how she was feeling and offering to talk to anyone feeling the same way. She has always been a book worm and loved writing so I think it will really help her to have a place to write and empty her thoughts. 

As parents we are only responsible for our children to a point.

 We are responsible for providing for their basic needs; food, shelter and love. But we are also responsible for making sure they are independent, free thinking creatures who can survive without us. So if you are a teacher who’s child won’t read or do their homework, a police officer who’s child has been in trouble with the law, a dietician who’s child won’t eat anything healthy, or an expert in wellbeing who’s child is struggling with anxiety be kind to yourself. Know that we are not in charge of our children. We can only hope that we have taught them enough for them to make good choices but ultimately those choices are theirs and theirs alone.

Top tips for helping an anxious child

Lots of hugs – just being with your child and allowing them to sit, cry, talk.

Keep talking – they may not want to talk but keep communication open. It may mean texting or sending little notes at first but they will open up and feel comfortable talking eventually.

Don’t judge – it is easy with an adult’s perspective and all the stresses that come with adulthood to see whatever they are worrying about as unimportant. It isn’t to them. 

Care for them – imagine how you would behave if they had flu, treat them with the same level of kindness; let them rest, wrap up in warm blankets, eat what they feel like eating, watch TV all day. 

Be patient – they will get through this but it won’t happen over night. Give them time to find strategies that work for them.

Breathe – breathing is the quickest way to calm down your nervous system so take a few deep breaths together, when you hold them concentrate on keeping your breathing slow and calm and they will mirror that eventually.

 

 

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