This article was written by Emma Olsen, LMSW - Treating Counselor (log into LinkedIn to see her profile).
As we start the new school year, we have students’ mental health and well-being on our minds. There is not one root cause for anxiety in all children, just as there is not one path to build resilience and empowerment. Back-to-school anxiety stems from many sources: separation anxiety in children who have spent more time with their families and caregivers in the past year, social anxiety, performance anxiety, and specific phobias. The most important thing we can do is keep non-judgmental lines of communication with students and create a safe space for them to explore and express their feelings.
Common signs and symptoms of anxiety in students could include:
- Low self-esteem
- School or responsibility avoidance, attention-seeking, or disruptive behavior
- Difficulty focusing
- Headaches, stomachaches, other types of somatic complaints
- Trouble sleeping, nightmares, or restlessness
- Encopresis/enuresis (difficulty controlling bowel movements or urination)
So, how do we make our classrooms and schools safe and supportive spaces?
“The person is not the problem, the problem is the problem."
- Michael White, Narrative Therapist
We must emphasize to students that no matter what they experience , the problem is something they are facing and not something that defines them. Replace statements such as “calm down” or “don’t worry” with an invitation to open up and tell their story. Use the following therapy techniques to assist students who feel anxious:
- Calming Corner. Allow students to have a physical space in the classroom where they can be alone to read, draw, or just breathe. Encourage them to use the space and teach age-appropriate mindfulness and breathing techniques they can independently practice when they feel anxious, worried, or stressed. Here are two books that your students can read to learn age-appropriate breathing techniques:
- Reconnect students. Students may feel uneasy about being back in a classroom full of unfamiliar kids. Help students connect with their classmates socially so no one feels isolated. A good starting point is to have each student introduce themselves by creating an “All About Me” book (see lesson plan). An electronic or hard copy of the book can be shared with their classmates. That way, students can find commonalities and celebrate differences while building new relationships.
- Normalize. Too often, children feel that what they are going through is abnormal or unacceptable, when in reality, their emotions are okay. When a child's big emotions, needs, or dysregulated behavior is punished, it reinforces the idea that their feelings are not safe to have in school. Normalization can be as simple as telling a child, "I totally get that. I feel nervous in new situations, too," or if you notice any of the signs or symptoms listed above, offer students a positive coping skill, such as the Calming Corner suggested above. Keep in mind that the child is not "over" reacting to the situation but is reacting within their means of coping, which can be a productive learning experience. Discover and read stories to your students that match their situation to help them see that they’re not alone.
- Externalize. This is a process in therapy where the student identifies their problem as outside of themself. However, you do not have to be a mental health professional to encourage this in students! Encourage externalization by allowing the child to describe what their worry feels like, looks like, or says. Ask them to write or draw their worry or imagine if it was a creature. With you as their assistant, the more the child sees their worry as something they are facing and not something wrong with them personally, the more they will feel empowered to face their fears. Write and/or read a social-emotional story book (see examples) to help students see their challenges from a third person perspective.
Most importantly, maintain empathy for students and remember that we see only the tip of the iceberg of their daily lives and challenges. If you notice that a student you work with is struggling, please reach out to a mental health professional in your school to advocate for them safely. Let’s help our students transition back to school as smoothly as possible.