Anxiety is a “quiet” illness; it’s neither physical nor always visible. Additionally, symptoms can be different from student to student, and from day to day. Because of this, anxiety falls victim to perception.
In her book Anxious, Christine Ravesi-Weinstein shares stories and strategies to help you advocate for anxious students. Whether you have anxiety or want to advocate for others, Anxious will change your thinking and encourage you to take risks in the classroom, and always ask, "What if it turns out right?"
From the start, educators can support students with anxiety by understanding that the situation may not be as it seems. What is not a big deal to one person might be a big deal to another—not just because they are immature kids, but because anxiety is a spiraling thought process that feels inescapable.
It’s not about getting their finger dirty, or about being named captain. It’s about the intense fear of failure, inadequacy, lack of control, disappointing others, and not being good enough. But before educators can understand where a student is coming from or what they are going through, they must do 2 things.
It’s easy to turn a blind eye to scenarios in the world that make us uncomfortable. Life is demanding, and we are all busy with our day-to-day lives. But we can still notice what’s most important within the hectic environment of education. Schools cannot be places where individuals are focusing only on what they need to do.
Educators are tasked with teaching students, but teaching can’t happen until we take care of the students’ social and emotional well-being. Educators need to notice when something is “off.” Students with anxiety need educators like Mr. Franklin, who not only notice when they are struggling, but are willing to intervene. Mr. Franklin saw a top student avoiding her work and crying at her desk. This was enough for him to step in. Observing has to be the first step if any effective strategies are going to follow.
Just seeing that there’s an issue that is not right is not enough. It's not enough to just notice. You have to take action and asked questions to figure out what to do next. If you see a problem you also have to formulate a solution. Make the student part of that solution. Once you see a student struggling, ask questions like:
Anxiety does not just affect students for a short time. Once diagnosed, they have it for life. Anxiety is a marathon, not a sprint. Students with anxiety can’t expect to wake up in the morning and run across the finish line.
They have to work up to the end goal. The only way to do that is by setting small, attainable goals. Each small goal is a building block for the next. With each goal a student accomplishes, they can see their growth and progress. They can feel that they’re working toward a greater end result.
The journey is not about getting rid of anxiety; it’s about learning how to manage it. Every day brings new triggers and symptoms. Overcoming each of these constitutes the smaller, attainable goals on which we need students to focus.
As an educator, you need to not only recognize anxiety, but also figure out how to help students cope with it. Teach them to set smaller goals to increase the likelihood that they will overcome their illness and find success in the classroom.
Use the following strategies to help break down large tasks into those small, attainable goals.
Goal Number 1: Implement the fifteen-minute rule.
Anxiety sufferers want perfection. Facing the reality, or fear, of imperfection often brings on heightened bouts of anxiety. When in a panic, students can’t see beyond where they need to be, even if it’s 26.2 miles away from where they are.
Educators need to tap into their expertise and wisdom to help students focus on smaller goals, so they don’t become overwhelmed by the bigger picture. Perfection is not possible, but trying to communicate that to someone suffering from anxiety doesn’t register.
Break the task up for the student. Start by saying, “I want you to focus on this.” Once they have a focus, tell them, “In the next fifteen minutes, try to accomplish this.” Redirecting their attention will help reduce anxiety, normalize it, and allow the student the opportunity to provide input. It’s a way to help them regain control over their mind. Chunk it up in parts, not all at once, to make the tasks seem smaller. Make sure to check back with them after the fifteen minutes. Once you do, recalibrate and tell them to focus on a new task.
Goal Number 2: Draft a to-do list.
No matter what age you are, life is a high-maintenance proposition. As the responsibilities pile up, the anxiety increases. Once students realize they cannot accomplish all 26.2 miles on their first run, they will begin to see the power and importance of prioritization. Show them how to write a to-do list and explain how it’s going to work.
First, have them list all the tasks they need to do. Then have them prioritize the list, either by numbering it or rewriting it in order of what needs to happen first. Once they have finished a task, tell them to cross it off the list.
Doing this can be a way to feel accomplished. I still find crossing an item off a list to be a great feeling. One less thing, is what I always tell myself. Making a to-do list is an indirect way of asking students to think about what they can do in the next fifteen minutes to help get them through the discomfort of their immediate anxiety; it’s a great place to start.
Goal Number 3: Conduct a check-in.
Dealing with anxiety is not a one-time occurrence. It’s chronic, and students who struggle will do so again and again. Just because they overcome one obstacle doesn’t mean they won’t run into another down the road. Similarly, an educator might successfully talk an anxious student through one situation . . . just to find later that the student hasn’t acquired long-term coping mechanisms.
It is essential that educators check in with students the day after intervening during an anxious episode. A check-in can include asking the student to show their to-do list.
Additionally, it can include asking them where their anxiety is today on a scale of one to ten. Make sure to ask them if it’s an improvement from how they were feeling the day before. A check-in can include a follow-up on any other resolutions you worked on with the student, or a simple “Hey! How are you today? Anything I can help with?” Checking in with students makes them feel less alone. It also helps you later when it comes to observing changes in their behavior.
Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood.
— Marie Curie, physicist, chemist, and Nobel Prize winner
Much like any other major lifestyle change, rewiring an anxious mind takes time and practice. Educators must be willing to commit to making students part of the evolution of their own coping strategies.
To do this, enact specific steps: observe, ask, and then implement. Observing changes in student behavior will tell educators when they need to intervene. Asking anxious students questions as a way to gauge where they are will help you develop the small, manageable goals that will inevitably help anxious students move past their difficulties.
Educators who are advocates for students with anxiety are so important: they arm students with the coping skills they need in and out of school, and these skills will serve them for a lifetime.