Supporting Anxious Students
“The Lord is at hand: do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.” Philippians 4:5-6
This excellent wisdom makes sense, but how do we help our students get to this point?
It is important to recognize that generalized anxiety should be addressed by professionals, however putting all types of situational anxiety under one label can make solutions seem out of reach. I prefer identifying different types of situational anxiety or stress.
“Separation Anxiety” Symptoms:
Most frequently seen in younger children. Crying or clinging to a parent that has been apparent since early childhood.
We seek to move the student through gentle phases of transition into school. That means following the lead of the parent and the student. Sometimes a parent needs to be available in the school, but not in the classroom, for a period while the student adjusts.
“School Anxiety” Symptoms:
Different from separation anxiety, symptoms of school anxiety are most obvious when the student suddenly does not want to come to school, complains of upset stomach, headache, cries, or struggles to get out of the car each morning.
In working through this type of anxiety, experience has taught me that there is usually a trigger event. With the help of the student and parents, we need to go back to identify that trigger. It can range from the change in a friendship to bullying or feeling disconnected from a teacher, but we cannot problem-solve until we find the cause. Typically, once the cause is identified, we can correct the situation.
“Math Anxiety” Symptoms:
Clustering around math class or math homework, symptoms of math anxiety may show in tears, complaints of “I can’t get it!” and parents having to reteach concepts for each homework session. This most often takes place when the student views math as right or wrong rather than a process of trying, checking, and trying again.
There are several ways that we seek to support these students. First, we work to help the student develop number sense, encouraging him or her to go back and build the problems using manipulatives. We do this because if the student missed understanding the initial concept, the process continues to be a mystery and unreliable in its application. We also seek to build a growth mindset, helping students recognize that everyone can learn math, just not at the same pace.
“Test Anxiety” Symptoms:
A more generalized complaint, students in this category find that they “forget everything” when they sit to take a test, whether it be in history, NWEA, or any subject.
This most often takes place when there is a misunderstanding in how to prepare for the test. New information cannot move to long-term memory unless it is practiced frequently; consequently, studying the night before is a type of cramming our working memory with information for quick recall. Because working memory can only hold four items, recalling all that one studied the night before is unlikely due to distraction, emotion, or discomfort in the testing session.
If you are the parent of an anxious child, in addition to prayer and thanksgiving, I recommend the book Anxious Kids Anxious Parents: 7 Ways to Stop the Worry Cycle and Raise Courageous & Independent Children by Reed Wilson and Lynn Lyons. It is full is explanations and practical ideas to help you.