15 Ways Teachers Can Help Students Manage Anxiety at School

List of 15 Ways Teachers Can Help Students Manage Anxiety by WholeHearted School Counseling

As a teacher, if you can help students manage anxiety, you are also helping them to better learn. You probably know first hand that when a student experiences chronic or overwhelming anxiety, it can impact his or her ability to succeed in school. On top of that, many different kinds of outward behaviors which look like anger, apathy, defiance, hyperactivity, or distraction are actually rooted in anxiety. In other words, children and teens express anxiety in more ways than just excessive worrying. And once you realize this, chances are you’ll have a few Aha moments. You might realize that what you once thought was rebelliousness or oppositional, for instance, might actually be anxiety in disguise.  

Students who struggle with anxiety are not intentionally causing these feelings, as the nervous system responds automatically to triggers which activate the fight-flight-freeze stress response. Outward behaviors like procrastination, restlessness, zoning out, or deflecting responsibility might actually be signs of an anxious student.

How Reducing Anxiety Helps Your Students

Anxiety can have a significant impact on your students’ academic performance and overall well-being. When a student is experiencing high levels of anxiety, she may have trouble paying attention, concentrating,  and retaining information. To avoid further stress, she might miss school or at a minimum avoid challenging tasks; both factors which can lead to academic and social struggles. In addition, chronic anxiety can have negative effects on a student’s physical health, such as headaches, stomachaches, and fatigue. And if you’ve ever had headaches, stomaches, and fatigue, you know how difficult it is to learn and get engaged. 

In other words, by helping your students reduce their anxiety, you can help create a more supportive and positive learning environment.  And this means better academic outcomes and improved overall wellness. When a student feels less anxious, his is more likely to be able to focus and concentrate on his work. Additionally, when a student feel more confident in his abilities to manage his anxiety, he is more likely to take on challenges, push himself to achieve his goals, and build resiliency. 

Ways You Can Help Students Manage Anxiety

If one of your students is experiencing anxiety, saying to her something like “just relax” or “don’t worry” is not going help her move through and out of the stress response.  An anxious nervous system doesn’t really understand that sort of language.  Instead, here are some effective strategies that you can use to support anxious students in the classroom.

1. Incorporate Mindfulness Exercises Throughout the Day 

If you’re like a lot of teachers, you’re already using brain break exercises throughout the school day.  Brain breaks can really help settle a scattered classroom and help make transitions smoother.  This is the perfect time to slide in mindfulness activities like breathing exercises.  Mindfulness brain breaks help calm the body and mind.  In particular, mindful breathing is sort of like a messenger to the brain that lets you know you are safe and everything is ok.  

There are tons of different mindfulness activities and breathing exercises for kids out there.  Some favorites among young students include Roller Coaster Breathing, Hot Cocoa Breath, Ocean Waves, and Buzzing Bee Breath. 

2. Have Structured Routines

Provide lots of structure in your classroom. Keeping to a consistent such daily schedule and predictable routine reduces uncertainty.  Knowing what to expect can help students feel more in control and less anxious about what might happen next. Moreover, structured routines help to create a safe and secure environment.  in addition to promoting independence and self-regulation. Try giving students an agenda for the day (or ½ day) that they can check mark off the events as they occur. If you have to make changes to the schedule, be sure to give a fair amount of warning.

3. Maintain Clear Rules and Expectations

Clear classroom rules and expectations help to establish a sense of order, structure, and predictability in the classroom.  These are all factors which can help reduce anxiety.  When students know what is expected of them and what the consequences will be for not meeting those expectations, students feel less uncertainty. Clear boundaries help to create trust and something reliable to be counted on.

4. Cultivate a Calming Classroom Environment

Design the classroom in a way that creates a sense of calm and safety for students. For instance, this could include using soft lighting, incorporating plants or natural elements, and avoiding loud or abrupt noises.  Muted colors like blues, greens, and purples can create a calming atmosphere in the classroom; maybe paint the walls in those calming shades or use soft-colored posters and charts? When appropriate, play calming music, such as classical or nature sounds, to help students relax and focus. 

5. Provide a Calm Corner in Your Classroom

Having a designated quiet space in the classroom can provide a calming retreat for students who need a break from the noise and activity of the classroom. Things to include in a calm down corner include a feeling check-in, suggestions and visual prompts for classroom appropriate coping tools, sensory tools (like stress balls, fidget tools, kinetic sand, etc.), comfy pillows, stuffed animals, books with beautiful photographs, markers, colored pencils, and crayons for drawing or coloring, paper and pencils to journal or write letters, and breathing exercise prompts.  For more ideas on creating a classroom calm corner, check out this blog post I wrote entitled, “How to Create an Awesome & Effective Calm Corner That Kids Will Love.”


6. Check In With Students & Focus on Relationship Building

Students with anxiety can be really hard on themselves. Using the 4:1 rule providing positive feedback as often as possible will help students see the best in what they are doing and alter their own self-talk. Starting a difficult task? Check in one-on-one with your student to see if they understand the assignment and where to begin.  Also, check in with your students to see how they are doing.  How do they feel?  What are they thinking? What do they hope for? 

7. Promote Positive Self-Talk

Encourage students to replace negative self-talk with positive affirmations and growth mindset statements. Teach them to identify negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones. For example, if a student is thinking “I can’t do this,” encourage them to replace it with “I can do this if I try my best.” Hang cute posters around your classroom that gives students different examples of how to turn unhelpful thoughts into helpful ones.

8. Set Achievable Goals

Help students set realistic goals and break them down into smaller, more manageable steps. When students have clear, realistic goals to work towards, they are more likely to feel motivated and engaged in their learning. This can help students feel more in control and less overwhelmed. On the other hand, setting unrealistic or overly ambitious goals can lead to feelings of stress, frustration, and anxiety.


9. Create a Strong Classroom Community

Foster a sense of belonging in the classroom by encouraging collaboration and teamwork. When students feel like they are part of a supportive community, they are less likely to feel anxious or alone. Creating a strong classroom community can be an effective way to help students feel less anxious and more connected to their peers and teachers. 

When students feel like they are part of a supportive and caring community, they are more likely to feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and feelings, and seeking help when they need it. This can be particularly important for students who struggle with anxiety, as they may feel isolated or alone in their experiences. By fostering a sense of belonging in the classroom, you can help students build positive relationships and a sense of security and trust. 

Creating a classroom community can involve a range of strategies, such as team-building activities, group projects, and even peer mentoring or tutoring.

10. Give Students A Choice to Work Alone or With Others

Allowing students to choose whether they want to work independently or in a group can be a powerful way to help reduce anxiety, particularly for more introverted or highly sensitive students. While collaborative work can be an important part of the learning process, some students may feel overwhelmed or anxious when forced to work in a group. 

By giving students the choice to work alone or with others, you can help them feel more in control of their learning environment and reduce their anxiety. This approach also recognizes that working independently can be a strength for some students, allowing them to focus and concentrate more effectively. By acknowledging and valuing different learning styles and preferences, teachers can create a more inclusive and supportive classroom environment, which can benefit all students.

11. Exercise and Get Moving!

If you are already using brain breaks in your classroom routine, then I am preaching to the choir here, as I imagine you know the benefits of moving and exercise for leaning.  Not only does movement help bring oxygen to the brain and rest of the body, it also can help reduce anxiety and improve your students’ moods. Exercise is known to release endorphins, which can help reduce stress and improve overall well-being. Think (or should I say do) stretching, yoga, or even a quick dance party.  You can even grab a copy of my FREE Ready-Set-Go Brain Breaks.

12. Read Books About Managing Anxiety

Picture books can be a valuable tool in teaching elementary students about anxiety. Through stories, students can see characters who experience anxiety, identify with them, and learn strategies for managing their own feelings. Books that are specifically designed to teach kids about anxiety also offer students a sense of hope and empowerment, as they see characters overcome their anxiety. Some favorites of mine include Wilma Jean the Worry Machine by Julia Cook,  What to Do When You Worry Too Much by Dawn Huebner, and Hey Warrior by Karen Young. (I created a fun community-building lesson that goes with the book Wilma Jean the Worry Machine, if you’d like to check it out, click here.)

Because helping students manage anxiety is something near and dear to my heart, I created a story called “Your Brave, Hardworking Brain” to teach kids about the stress response and the brain.  Even though the lesson covers more feelings than just anxiety, it helps to normalize sensitive, hardworking brains (which is the place that anxiety comes from) and also teaches kids healthy coping tools, as well. 

13. Model Using Coping Tools Yourself

Feeling a bit anxious yourself? Pause, take a deep breath, or grab a drink of water. Kids will mimic you and pick up on your verbals and non verbals. The more you can model healthy coping strategies, the more your students will use them, too! 

Making a point to verbalize what you are doing also encourages healthy use of the coping strategy. “Phew, I’m starting to feel a little overwhelmed, I am going to grab a quick drink of water before we continue.” 

14. Validate Your Student’s Feelings

When trying to find solutions to help students who are feeling anxious or have withdrawn from a task, it is important for teachers to first validate their feelings. Acknowledging a student’s fears or concerns with empathy and understanding can help alleviate the intensity of their anxiety. In addition, validating their feelings helps to create a sense of trust and connection.

For example, you might say, “I can understand why you might be hesitant to present in front of the class. I would feel the same way.” Additionally, it is important for teachers to avoid shaming students who are struggling with anxiety. Try to remember that these students are not intentionally trying to be disruptive or difficult. Rather, they are caught up in a stress response. Support and understanding will help go a long way.


15. Refer Out for Additional Support

It’s important to recognize that some students may need additional support beyond what can be offered in the classroom. Teachers should not hesitate to refer these students to the school counselor. In some cases, students may even qualify for special education services or accommodations through a 504 plan. These resources can provide students with individualized support to help manage their anxiety and promote academic success. By working collaboratively with the student’s family, school counselor and other professionals, you can help ensure that all students have access to the resources and support they need to thrive in school and beyond.

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