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Children And Anxiety: The Future of Education

New research reveals anxiety epidemic in US schools.

Teachers need to be comfortable talking about feelings. This is part of teaching emotional literacy—a set of skills we can all develop, including the ability to read, understand and respond appropriately to one’s own emotions and the emotions of others - Daniel Goleman

Children are experiencing more anxiety in the classroom than ever before. The New York Times reported that anxiety overtook depression as the number one reason college students sought counseling (October, 2017). The National Education Association (NEA) reported in March of this year (2018) that anxiety has reached epidemic levels in schools from kindergarten up to college across the United States. So what do we do as caring parents, educators and professionals? It’s a very good question.

Understanding Anxiety

Anxiety is defined as “a feeling of worry, nervousness or unease about something with an uncertain outcome” per the Oxford Living Dictionaries. Well, not a clinical definition, this seems true. Anxiety is an intense form of worry or nervousness about something (i.e. school shooting, bullies, natural disasters), which interferes with activities of regular life including participating and learning in the classroom.

The APA defines anxiety as “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure.” This is true. The anxious child is tense, concerned about life, has many worry spirals with his or her thinking, and oftentimes has a physical impact like their heart racing. So what can do we do? That’s the big question, which isn’t a simple one, but for the sake of a short article I’m going to provide some suggestions for the classroom.

Anxiety Reduction Strategies

Anxious children tend to worry about what’s not in their control such as what if there was a school shooter, or what if my teacher died and so on. The goal is to help children begin focusing on what they can control and learn a tactic to deal with the uncertainties of life. These are a few strategies that I’ve seen successfully used in the classroom:

  • Story-telling: Sitting in Mrs. Smith’s class, I listen as she tells a story of being in elementary school and breaking out in hives from nervousness. Her entire third grade relaxes a little, more. They cannot believe she used to get nervous on math tests considering she’s their math teacher so this story helps them. What I have discovered is that if anxious children realize they’re not alone, and other people have successfully found a way to cope with their worry and anxiety, maybe they can too.
  • Compassionate communication: Mr. Marshall noticed one of his seventh-grade students was anxious about their impending test, and he said to him: I see you’re feeling nervous (notice: he isn’t nervous, it’s just a feeling). The boy nodded and they agreed he could take a 10 minute break in a neighboring teacher’s office before he began his exam, which gave him time to practice some deep breaths, positive self-talk and reset himself before his anxiety increased versus decreased.
  • Mindful Breathing: Children that learn how to return to their breath in the present moment, and recognize that everything—in this moment—is well can usually reduce their worrying, at least temporarily. One of my friends, Chloe, begins her third grade classroom with mindful breathing exercises to calm and center her students, especially the ones who tend toward anxiety. (Smiling Mind, a mindfulness app, also has a great classroom feature to help educators!)

The Future of Education

Our students today face more than the “regular pressures” from the world to get good grades, and academically achieve. The world has become digitized with cyber bullies, threats to national security such as terrorism, a skyrocketing level of untreated mental health issues in children, which result in school violence, and in many locations, a very real possibility of facing yet another natural disaster. Life isn’t always smooth and easy, but it never has been.

But what has changed is our awareness that the students who succeed in life are those that have emotional intelligence, which is no longer a “nice to have” part of the curriculum, but in my opinion, is a necessity so that children with anxiety or any distressing emotions learn how to reduce those feelings and shift their thoughts. What I know for sure is that the future of education resides in educating our students about their emotions, giving them the tools to feel their very best, so ultimately they can do their best too.

(Any adult or child with debilitating anxiety is suggested to seek medical attention from a qualified professional. This article is no substitute for such advice, but merely provided as a means of education and information sharing.)

(c) Copyright by Maureen Healy, 2018.


APA Notes

New York Times…

National Education Association

Association of Anxiety and Depression

Smiling Mind (mindfulness app)