8 tips for teachers to help de-escalate kids with anxiety

 We are seeing more anxious kids in our classrooms these days, and it's helpful to know how to help them help themselves.

It's not uncommon to see that 10% or more of your students struggle with anxiety.  For some, it's mild, for others, situational.  Those kids need to know when there's going to be a quiz or a fire drill or an assembly, and you can help prepare them ahead of time.

But what do you do with kids for whom this is a life struggle?  

    I need to call my mom.  Right now!  I'm going to get sick!"

This happened in the middle of a test for a kid who had come a long, long way since the previous year.  In 5th grade, the guidance counselor met him at his car every morning and helped him (sometimes dragging or wrestling him out) to come into the building.  But he continues to have a fear of vomiting that overwhelms him.

    That's not an option right now, but would you like to listen to a calming app to help yourself?

This was part of the plan developed with his mom and one I strongly endorsed!  With an iPad and headphones, he sat and listened, and the next thing I knew, he was back up and working on his test.

That app he used then no longer exists, but Calm and Smiling Mind (and many others) do.  If you have never used them, please try them yourself so you have an idea about how they work.  They ask about your day and the emotions you're feeling and then give you a choice of visualizations.  There's nothing scary about them and several of them even have a designation SPECIFICALLY for classrooms.  

Yikes!  And Yay!
 Several hours later I ran into him on his way to the cafeteria.  He was breathing heavily and about to burst into tears.  
"What's going on, hon?"
"I'm afraid I'm going to get sick.  I need to call mommy right now!"

He was clearly panicked, so we moved over to a little alcove, plopped down on the floor, and talked. And talked.  I held him and talked him through to a place where he could get up and come with me to a "safe" place (thankfully, the guidance counselor was in his office that day.)  He was able to rejoin his classmates for the last two periods of the day.


Some Tips to Try
  • Talk in a calm voice.  Stay calm because if you're anxious, the child will pick up on that.  
  • Encourage them to breathe with you.  Moderate your breathing the student's so that they eventually slow down.  It's easier if they follow you than if they do it themselves (unless that's the way they've learned to do it.)
  • Encourage them to focus on something else.  Ask them a question or have them point out things they see.
  • Reassure the child that he or she will be okay.  They are really holding on to your words at this point, so don't be afraid to repeat your reassurances that this will pass.
  • If the fear is getting sick (as in my case) assess if there are any signs of that.  My student hadn't shown any signs of feeling lousy all morning.
  • Once the child calms down a little, you can ask what they need.  
    • In my case, he kept saying that "he needed to talk to mommy."  The fact that he called her mommy was an indication of his panic.  I asked what his mom would do.  He told me that she would hold him tight and talk to him in a soothing voice.  So there on the floor, that's what I did.
  • Don't offer things that will put ideas in the child's head.
    • People often gave him a trashcan and sent him into the hall.  That only reinforced that he was going to be sick.  I only repeated "You're going to be fine" multiple times.
  • Alert the guidance counselor, nurse, administrators, and parents when you have the opportunity. Keep everyone in the loop so that you're all on the same page about what's being done to help this child.  Q's mom was so appreciative of the time we took with him.
Recognize that although anxiety might not seem huge to you, it is to the child.  After expressing her sincere appreciation, here's what Q's mom had to say about how he felt.  It broke my heart.

I know you are all busy and having him and his issues added to your day is not easy.  I am very sorry.  Tonight he told me he thinks he belongs in a mental hospital, he hates his life and he wants to die.  I just ask that you please continue to be supportive of him and do your best to be understanding of his issues.  They seem crazy to those who don't have the fears that he does but his issues are scary to him.  

That broke my heart.  I don't pretend to have all the answers. But I hope these tips help you and start a conversation with the support personnel in your building.

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