Reduce Anxiety in the Classroom: Three Strategies to Try

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Childhood anxiety is on the rise. According to research cited in a recent Washington Post article, the diagnosis of childhood anxiety in children ages 6-17 has jumped 20% in recent years.

Anxiety in school-aged children is on the rise.

The potential causes of anxiety are numerous. A quick scan of some articles (coupled with my own observations and experience) reveal many possible contributors including recent news/world events, the pressures of social media, trauma, poverty, increased academic expectations, pressures from anxious families as well as biological and genetic predispositions.

For teachers, this is overwhelming. The causes feel out of our control, and the symptoms (panic attacks, explosive behaviors, refusal to do work, antisocial behaviors, etc.) disrupt learning for everyone—further heightening anxiety for all.

Instead of fixating on what we can’t control, we can focus on a few things we can. Let’s create safe havens for children—classrooms where anxious children can find quiet and comfort. The following three ideas are a great place to start.

Declutter Your Classroom

Especially once the school year is well underway, it’s easy for classrooms to get shabby. When books and papers are piled high in stacks, when walls are crammed with displays, and when materials are messy, students can feel overwhelmed, edgy, or frustrated. Here are a few ways to clean things up:

Flexible seating offers autonomy and the chance to find a comfortable place to work.
  • Teacher Materials: Put binders, curriculum guides, professional development resources, and other such materials behind curtains or in cupboards. At the very least, weed out old materials and neaten shelves.
  • Student Supplies: Throw away broken crayons and dried-out markers. Straighten supply bins. Store supplies for former (or future) units out of site (or at least in bins stacked neatly and out of the way).
  • Classroom Displays: Take down anchor charts that aren’t being used. Tape up posters that have a corner hanging down. Change old bulletin boards to make them more current. Have students mount a piece of work they’re proud of on a piece of construction paper and decorate the room with student work.
  • Reduce Furniture: Can you get rid of a few desks? Is there a junky table in the back of the room that collects clutter but that no one sits at? It’s amazing how much more open and inviting a room feels with less furniture!
  • Create a Cozy Feel: Take a stroll through your favorite coffee shop, book store, or restaurant for classroom design inspiration. How are those spaces set up to be inviting? You might add a few plants to your room or string some small white lights along a bookshelf. Perhaps a floor lamp or a small fish tank would create a cozy feel. Remember that the physical environment of a classroom has a direct impact on how students feel and act.
  • Have students help. Are you worried that some of these suggestions will take a lot of time (when you’re already maxed out)? Have students help! Invite kids to stay in for a recess or free period to create a new bulletin board display. Take 30 minutes at the end of a Friday to clean and straighten the room together. It will be fun for them, and they’ll feel more ownership of the classroom!

Revisit Transition Routines

You taught routines during the first weeks of school. How are they working? Transition times, whether it’s from reading to math in a self-contained room or from one class to another, are often stressful times for kids. Here are a few ways to make sure transition routines are appropriate.

  • Are they realistic? Do students really have enough time to get from one place to another? If many students are complaining about the time they have, or if many appear rushed and breathless, chances are, they need more time. Are expectations developmentally appropriate? Should we really expect six-year-olds to walk in a single file line while looking straight ahead? Should we really expect ten-year-olds to not talk as they move from one place to another? Set realistic expectations and students will be more successful, helping them feel settled and relaxed.
  • Are they respectful? How might the feeling of our classroom improve if, instead of expecting students to enter the room and sit right down to an entrance task, students got to engage in two minutes of relaxed social interaction? Imagine how much more respected students might feel if instead of trying to squeeze every minute out of every day, we allowed them to breathe and relax between tasks and classes. Might they even be better able to engage in vigorous learning if they’ve had a chance to decompress a bit?
  • Reset as needed. Just because we’ve taught and practiced a certain routine doesn’t mean we need to stick with it if it’s not working. At any time, we might decide to reset—to try a different routine. You might ask your students for ideas about how to make transitions realistic and respectful. Introduce and practice the new routine and then wait for a Monday or the day back from a vacation to make it official!

Watch Your Language

What we say (and how we say it) has a profound impact on how our students feel. With the best of intentions, we all fall into language habits that run counter to our best intentions and actual goals for students. See if any of the following language suggestions might help ease student anxiety.

  • Hide annoyance: Especially once the year is well underway, it can be frustrating to have students ask us questions that we think they should know the answers to. “Where should I put this paper?” a student might ask. We might betray irritation and snap, “How many times do I have to say this? Where have we been turning in papers all year?” This is meant to invoke a twinge of shame. It takes fewer words and is kinder to simply say, “In the finished work bin.”
  • Reduce praise: This might seem counterintuitive. Isn’t praise supposed to help kids feel better? Actually, it often doesn’t. Praise is a form of evaluation. A steady stream of “Good job!” and “Awesome!” sends the message that students are always being judged, which can heighten anxiety. Manipulative praise (“I like the way Jenny is sitting quietly and ready to learn!”—a message actually directed at those around her) can set students up as competitors, fostering resentment and straining student relationships.
  • Reconsider how you encourage hard work: Without meaning to, we may fuel students’ anxiety by the way we encourage them to work hard. Check out the chart below for some ideas.
Instead of… (What’s wrong with that?) Consider…
“Try your best.” Can you ever actually try your best? Instead, be realistic. “Put in some solid effort.”
Good readers make connections as they read.” Kids might worry, “If I don’t make connections yet, does that mean I’m not a good reader?” Focus on the benefit of strategies instead. “Making connections as you read will help you better understand and enjoy your reading.”
“Next year, your teachers are going to expect you to…” This sets the tone that next year is scary and that kids aren’t ready. Instead, focus on this year! “Something that will help you be successful now is…”

It bears repeating. Many factors that create anxiety in students are way beyond our control, so let’s focus on some things we can.

Of course, adding a few plants to our classrooms or adding a minute or two to transition times won’t be magic cures. (If only it were that simple!) However, these seemingly small adjustments to our classroom environments can help create safe havens for all students.

  • Mike Anderson

    Mike Anderson is an education consultant, award-winning teacher, and author of many books including The Well-Balanced Teacher, The First Six Weeks of School, The Research-Ready Classroom, and Learning to Choose, Choosing to Learn. Learn more about Mike and his work or invite him to work with your school or district through his website: www.leadinggreatlearning.com. Connect with Mike on Twitter: @balancedteacher.

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    Leading Great Learning

    Mike Anderson is an energetic, experienced, and highly sought-after educational consultant who helps facilitate great learning in schools all over the United States and beyond. He has over twenty years of experience as a teacher, consultant, presenter, and developer and has authored many books and articles about great teaching and learning.