Managing & Reducing Anxiety in the Classroom

Instructor: Della McGuire

Della has been teaching secondary and adult education for over 20 years. She holds a BS in Sociology, MEd in Reading, and is ABD on the MComm in Storytelling.

In this lesson, we will look at the prevalence, cause, and purpose of anxiety. Then we will use this information to inform a classroom practice that will reduce incidents of anxiety and how to recognize when it may indicate a disorder.

Scope of the Problem

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) includes prevalence data for children ages 8-15 and shows 1% suffering with anxiety. The National Institute on Mental Health measures anxiety prevalence in children aged 13-18 and shows a jump to about 25%, with almost 6% of those experiencing severely debilitating anxiety disorder symptoms. Clearly, there is a dramatic increase in anxiety prevalence and severity in children during puberty. Let's learn how to help these children manage stress while they are young by implementing a teaching practice with anxiety-relieving instructional approaches.

What Is Anxiety?

Every human being alive today is alive because their ancestors all survived to bear offspring. Understanding this critical survival mechanism can help teachers alleviate some of the anxiety in their students. Anxiety is the product of our fear response that engages the body to take some action to ensure surviving the threat. That action might be fight, flight, or freeze, and the fear response may be triggered in the brain by any number of situational or environmental factors. These triggers may not necessarily pose any real threat, but the slightest perception of danger is sufficient to trigger the brain's fear response.

This fear response manifests as anxiety and it is usually a good thing, motivating us to be careful and pay attention. When anxiety has severe physiological or behavioral symptoms, if it becomes increasingly frequent, or interferes with a student's ability to function socially or academically, there may be an anxiety disorder.

Now that you have a good understanding of what anxiety is for, let's look at some ways to reduce and manage anxiety so it does not interfere with student learning.

Reducing Anxiety

Given the prevalence of anxiety in school age children, teacher and students alike will benefit with a mindful and intentional practice of reducing anxiety. Teaching these skills to students will strengthen their self-care practice, improve coping skills and increase resilience.

The first step to reducing anxiety is to tell students what it is. Depending on the age and developmental level of the audience, your version of the story might be different. For example, younger students might like to hear that they are the great-great-great (and so on) grandchild of the people who learned to use their anxiety to avoid that cave where the saber toothed tiger lives. Older students may appreciate a more scientific approach, incorporating the functions of anxiety into lessons on brain anatomy and hormone production.

The next step is to allow the students to see that managing anxiety is a matter of recognizing the fear response and its power to save us from the danger...even when the only threat is stress of an upcoming exam. Anxiety is a reminder to be prepared and work harder. Try to be empowering, rather than use this as a way to shame or pressure students. This is part of a comprehensive approach and can help students recognize that some measure of anxiety is healthy.

Look at the following list of anxiety reduction tips that can be included in the classroom and pick some favorites to try:

  • Take slow deep breaths, in through the nose, out through the mouth
  • Countdown from 10
  • Listen to a metronome
  • Play soft music
  • Stretch or do yoga
  • Blow up an imaginary balloon
  • Positive self-talk
  • Meditation
  • Journal the feelings
  • Slow down
  • Sit or lie down

Most of these tricks are good for the class to do as a group or individually to maintain healthy coping skills. Take a few breaks throughout the day and the minute or two you spend will come back to you in productivity.

Managing Anxiety

One in four older children will experience anxiety that is more severe than a yoga break can help. It will help to know the signs of an anxiety attack or panic attack in case you encounter one. If a student exhibits symptoms in class and you are not sure if it is a panic attack, err on the side of caution and get medical assistance.

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