The flight or fight response in certain situations can help us avoid danger. But sometimes we can become so worried about a perceived threat, and it may not actually happen. Our worries get in the way of daily living. This becomes nervous exhaustion, or as we know it today – anxiety.
Some students become anxious for a variety of reasons, and on occasions it can be students that appear calm or happy who internalise thoughts, worries or fears, who go unnoticed. Anxiety is one of the major predictors of academic performance. It can result in students becoming unmotivated to learn, a lack of self-confidence to continue learning, and ultimately the student receiving low grades. Research suggests that providing a positive work environment with given strategies can help ease student anxieties.
However, an important way to achieve a positive environment for a student who has anxiety in the home or classroom is to create a calm, supportive, and organised work place; it is an easy fix for a child with particular needs. It goes without saying that all students benefit from this type of work atmosphere. When a student is given strategies in a calm environment, this enhances student engagement and performance. Here are 7 strategies to help reduce student anxiety:
1. Provide a Schedule or Timetable and Diary
A written or a visual schedule will help with predictability, and it will assist a student to stay calm, as they will know what to expect and what to do. This is an important aspect of why we create routines for students in general. Encourage a student to use a diary or a to-do list. This will help keep a student organised, which will help reduce student anxiety.
2. Encourage Breathing and Relaxation Exercises
A great way to promote a calm work environment is to include in the routine: breathing and relaxation exercises, such as yoga. Some students may respond more to a particular aspect of the lesson whether it is yoga movements, breathing, or meditation; it offers a way to de-stress. What is important here is that students can successfully learn and use relaxation techniques to gain some control over how they respond to anxiety-provoking events or situations. Simple and easy breathing and relaxation exercises that have been used effectively in the classroom: anxietyBC.com and cosmic kids.com (the yoga routine is also provided on YouTube).
3. Encourage Positive Self-Talk
Often an anxious student will use negative self-talk without realizing it. Students who are able to articulate what’s occurring internally for them – can be asked: “What do you say to yourself when you’re feeling anxious?” Guide students to replace their negative self-talk to positive self- talk. For example, saying “I’ll never get this done,” to “if I slow down and breathe I will do a good job, whether I finish or not.” Anxious students can sometimes be perfectionists, remember to remind students that “it’s ok to make mistakes, we all make mistakes and we learn from them”. Students who are not able to articulate what they are thinking – can be given a written list, where they can choose or circle the positive self-talk phrases to replace their negative talk. They then select one or two of their favourite phrases, and practise verbalising them.
4. Make Following Instructions and Completing Tasks Easier
When an anxious student hears instructions, it can become difficult for them to remember what to do, and they can become more and more overwhelmed and confused about how to complete the task. In this situation, an example of a confusing instruction given from a teacher: “When you finish writing the story, draw a picture, and colour it in, then start your next worksheet,” an overwhelmed student might be able to complete the first two steps, and unable to complete the rest of the steps. Instead; give verbal instructions by stating one or two steps at a time and simplify them. For example, give a two step instruction, “finish your story, then draw a picture.” Also, some students may benefit from written instructions on either paper or a board – this will help anxious students become less flustered about what to follow. And providing an activity that has fewer steps initially can help. For example, when learning a difficult spelling list, give the student half of the spelling words on the list, or choose a small selection of words to learn first.
5. Provide Calm Breaks
Providing a student with a break allows them to become calm or stay calm; breaks are an important strategy to include during the day. It ensures that the student stays regulated throughout the day. Calm breaks (i.e. a place to relax, such as; reading on a bean bag, a comfy chair listening to music on headphones, or something the student suggests) can be included into the daily routine. Calm breaks are not rewards, using a timer will provide the student with a time limit, which will help them value their learning time while being able to self-regulate their behaviours. Providing a calm break in the work routine – could be the turning point that either eliminates or reduces high levels of anxiety or meltdowns during the day.
6. Inform the Student of Particular Events
Informing students of events such as test situations, and fire drills can help to ease their anxiety. Often these situations can cause high anxiety levels. However, if a student knows what to expect, and what to do during these situations it can reduce their anxieties. Highly anxious students can benefit from social stories (i.e. a tailor-made story written in the first or third person that explains a particular event, which includes words and/or pictures), especially students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
7. Encourage the Student to Express Their Concerns
For teachers and parents to understand the triggers that cause anxiety, some may need to be verbalised directly from the student. This can help to reduce the source of anxiety, as an adult can suggest ways to work with or reduce anxiety-provoking situations. It is important to help students to develop a rapport with someone that they can trust, which will enable them to express their fears or concerns. Include in the student’s support network; as well as a teacher and parent – a trustworthy friend that they can approach when things are tough.
Incorporating these strategies into the daily routine – will help reduce stress levels. Encouraging breathing techniques and positive self-talk can empower students to take control of their anxiety in an environment that is supported by their teachers and parents.