Do you find that a significant number of pupils are presenting an increased need for mental wellbeing support?
A recent survey of the mental health of children and young people in England found that one in six 5-19 year olds had at least one mental health disorder (NHS 2021).
One such disorder which we may reasonably expect to encounter in our post-pandemic world is anxiety.
Everybody experiences anxiety, a feeling of unease such as worry or fear, at some point in their life. This is completely normal, but some children find it hard to control their worries to an extent that it impacts negatively on their daily lives. Such pupils may have also had adverse childhood experiences (ACE) during or as a result of the pandemic.
There is no great ‘one size fits all’ model to describe how children experiencing anxiety will present in your classroom. However, below you will find a list of behaviours which may indicate a child is experiencing anxiety.
Identifying Pupils with Anxiety
- Young children often lack the awareness or ability to verbalise their emotions. They may express anxiety through physical complaints such as muscle tension, a lump in the throat, headaches or feelings of nausea.
- They may not be the type of pupil who normally appears on your radar. They can be reluctant to share their ideas or contribute to lessons.
- Alternatively, they may quickly get frustrated or angry and struggle to control their outbursts.
- They may suffer from panic attacks (although not all pupils with anxiety experience this).
- They may be reluctant to come to school and parents might describe difficulty in getting them to the school gates. Their attendance may also suffer as a consequence.
- They may dislike disruptions to routine and be reluctant to engage with new experiences.
- They may be a bit of a doomsayer, constantly worrying or having negative thoughts.
- They may be emotional or clingy.
- They may seem distracted or struggle to concentrate on the learning taking place in lessons.
- They may be overtired or restless due to a lack of quality sleep.
So, how can we help pupils experiencing anxiety in the classroom?
Strategies to help
Again, different pupils will respond differently to different methods, but the following strategies can be used to help pupils manage feelings of anxiety in the classroom.
1. Teach pupils about anxiety and how to identify it
Children can often fail to understand that they have anxiety and begin to think that something is wrong with them. It is important to educate pupils about anxiety and how to recognise triggers. Explaining that it is a common and normal experience can reduce confusion or worries and empower pupils to begin to manage their feelings of anxiety.
2. Establish routines and explain changes as early as possible
We all know there’s no such thing as a ‘normal school day’ but having a set routine and sticking to it as much as possible will help pupils with anxiety feel more comfortable and at ease. Notifying pupils of any potential changes with sufficient warning will also help alleviate stress. Visual timetables are a great classroom aid …
3. Remain calm and encourage positivity
Anxious pupils often benefit from environments free from too much noise, movement or bright colours. Try to keep things simple and distraction-free wherever possible. Try to avoid projecting any worries or insecurities onto such pupils and encourage them to think positively; model being positive in their company.
4. Backs to the wall
Being unaware of what is happening behind them can trigger feelings of anxiety for some pupils. Rows of peers, noises through open windows and open doors leading to people arriving unannounced can lead to anxious pupils feeling insecure and distracted. Allowing them to sit with their back to the wall ensures they can see everything that’s happening in front of them …
5. Movement breaks
Movement breaks are a great way to help maintain concentration and focus for all pupils.
However, for those experiencing anxiety, it also offers an opportunity to self-regulate their emotions and set themselves up to begin working again. Movement breaks, as the name suggests, is a time when you actively encourage the pupils to get up and move around for a short amount of time. This can be structured using exercises or as simple as having a pupil walk to get a drink of water and return to their seat.
6. Safe space or time out
Having a safe space or the ability to remove themselves from the classroom can be very reassuring to pupils experiencing anxiety. It allows the pupil to recover from a stressful experience. It should be seen as a strategy to utilise when a situation warrants it to allow the pupil to continue learning and not be utilised as a sanction or reward.
It’s also important for other members of staff to understand that the pupil is not leaving the room or standing outside due to a behaviour issue. An exit pass may be useful in your setting.
7. Breathe it out
Slowing down your breathing is a way to regain control and release tension.
Teach the children some easy breathing techniques which can be used at almost any time. A really simple one is to take a deep breath in from the diaphragm and allow yourself to notice that tight feeling in your lungs. Then breathe out slowly and feel all the tightness go away.
8. Use a Worry Box or a Soothe Box
A worry box is a small box that pupils can make as a physical way of getting rid of their worries so that they don’t need to carry them around anymore. They can write their worries on a post-it and put them in their box to release it.
A soothe box is a self-made box filled with items which ground you such as feathers or glitter sticks. They make you feel more relaxed and reduce feelings of anxiety. Both boxes can be made by the pupil and used as and when they feel their anxiety growing.
9. A trusted relationship with a key adult
Children build and maintain strong relationships with key adults as they move through school. Allowing the child the opportunity to build such relationships and ‘touch base’ with these adults at certain points of the day can help alleviate stress.
10. Further support
If you have any pupils with anxiety, ensure that you have regular contact with parents and ensure that pupils are accessing extra support either in or out of school where required. Discuss concerns with the school SENDCo and check to see if any further professional support is readily available.
These strategies will go a long way in supporting pupils with anxiety.
Next time you see your class, take a mental note of anyone who would benefit from these ideas. Make it a habit to keep checking the wellbeing of pupils in your care. Emotional wellbeing will unlock the key to educational progress …