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We help our kids learn math, science, history, and how to prepare for things like tests and fire drills, etc. But for some reason we don’t proactively teach them strategies to understand and manage the anxieties that are an inevitable part of life. In fact, many of us simply avoid talking about our anxieties until they can't be ignored, when they settle deep inside our thoughts, make our heart race, or make our gut ache. Let’s face it, anxiety has a bad reputation.
But anxiety exists within all of us for a reason—it can serve as a warning signal that something is pulling us out of our comfort zone. Anxiety is felt inside our body and brain and is often invisible to everyone else. We each experience a unique range of anxieties (workload anxiety, social anxiety, fear of tests, fear of new learning, etc.), and the way our body and mind experience anxieties can be unique for each of us as well. Whether we are children, adolescents, or working our way through adulthood, we may not recognize that some of the behaviors we exhibit to others (e.g., impulsivity, refusal to participate, etc.) or behaviors we sense within ourselves are the result of anxieties. It can be hard to manage our own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors when we feel anxious.
Some anxiety feels overwhelming; other anxiety is barely detectable. Anxiety can interfere with our rational thinking and problem solving. It can shut down our thinking and our ability to make simple choices. It can cause us to act—or react—in otherwise uncharacteristic ways. Anxiety doesn't only appear in direct response to a known trigger, such as when we're stressed about a class, test, interview, or proposal. For many, anxiety can be a pervasive part of life, triggered by undefined complexities that constantly surround us.
One form of anxiety is social anxiety. From the minute we wake up until we head back to sleep, we're part of the social world. The social world is steeped in hidden rules, unspoken expectations and social hierarchies that can feel daunting. The actions and reactions of others can feel highly unpredictable. Whether we're at recess, in a workplace meeting, walking in a crowd, planning to talk to someone, thinking about the answer to a teacher's question, or responding to another person’s unanticipated request for help, the social world can be a continuous minefield of anxieties. We can generally make sense of our own thoughts and reactions. But it’s harder to predict or understand the situation we're in or others' thoughts and feelings about us. This makes it hard to know how to maneuver through the social world.
In schools around the globe students in mainstream classes participate in group projects, and by doing so, practice complex social competencies for use now and into the future. However, working in a group of peers can often cause a level of social stress in students, in addition to the bouts of social anxiety they likely experience in their daily lives. Since participating in the social world can regularly ignite worries, stress, and social anxiety in kids—we as interventionists should proactively teach children how to manage these feelings in a healthy way.
Anxiety (all forms) is now the leading mental health issue among American youth, according to a June 2018 study published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. We have also noticed a burst of research in the past 15 years describing the co-morbidity (co-mingling) of anxiety in individuals diagnosed with autism, ADHD, gifted and talented, etc. In fact, the research routinely states that a majority of persons with these diagnoses experience compelling anxiety(s). So, if we know that most kids have some level of anxiety, and kids with social cognitive challenges routinely have ongoing and gripping anxiety, why wait until they are adults in mental health counseling to provide them with tools to manage their anxiety?
When students have compelling mental health diagnoses (compelling anxiety, depression, etc.), their primary treatment should be driven by professionals who are trained in working with complex mental health challenges (e.g. psychologists, counselors, and therapists). However, not all students have anxiety that requires clinical intervention from a specially trained professional. A broader pool of interventionists (parents, caregivers, teachers, behaviorists, speech pathologists, occupational therapists, administrators, school principals, etc.) can, and should, understand how anxiety may be associated with classroom learning and other school-based experiences. They should be equipped to teach proactive strategies for helping kids learn to manage their anxiety. Realistically, we could all benefit from learning strategies to manage life’s daily stressors—whether we have a diagnosis or not.
14 tips to help all kids learn to manage anxiety
- Be proactive! We, the interventionists, should not passively wait for anxiety to take over a child’s well-being. Homework is stressful, so is group work, taking tests, figuring out who to be with during break time, etc. Each of us, no matter our role in our students’ lives, should take time to learn about their anxieties and teach strategies to manage daily stressors (which are often referred to as “anxiety”, “nervousness”, “stress” or “worry.”) The following information will help you get started.
- Respect their feelings. Never tell kids they shouldn’t feel anxious, sad, mad, etc. Each of us may feel differently about a situation, and that’s okay. Kids need us to validate their feelings and thoughts and may also need some help in how to express them. Co-regulation is the process of being compassionate and responsive to someone’s emotional needs, helping them relate as they grow to understand and manage their emotions over time.
- Anxiety is not a one-size-fits-all experience. It is a feeling that comes in different sizes and at different times. Sometimes you can anticipate when anxiety is creeping up on a student, but other times it comes as a surprise to everyone.
- Different people worry about different things. Not all students are stressed by spontaneous schedule changes, speaking aloud in class, getting a bad grade on a paper, etc. Be careful not to assume, based on a diagnostic label, eligibility category (or lack thereof), personality, gender, IQ, etc. that a student is anxious or how deeply that anxiety is felt. That said, many students do feel some level of social anxiety in the day. To empower kids to break down their social anxiety and navigate through it, we developed the Spiral of Social Success and Spiral of Social Failure with the help of our clients. Learn more about how to use “the Spirals” in our book for teens, Socially Curious and Curiously Social.
- Responses to anxiety vary. There is not one way to feel and respond to anxiety. Responses can be highly predictable or highly unpredictable. One student may get loud and disruptive in class, another may start cracking a lot of jokes, and another kid may appear spaced out or withdraw from interactions. If you’re using The Zones of Regulation (Kuypers, 2011), some students will gravitate toward the Blue Zone when stressed or anxious, while others may feel like they are in the Yellow or even the Red Zone. Kids may be told by an adult to “watch your language”, “stop making jokes”, or “pay attention” as the adult sees the behavior but does not know how that child is thinking or feeling. Recognize individual differences in responses to anxiety and stress in the same way we recognize individual learning differences.
- Seek to learn what makes a person anxious (or worried or stressed). Once we understand what is turning the anxiety crank, we can consider what each of us, as interventionists, can do to avoid making a student’s anxiety worse. For example, if a child finds recess stressful, refrain from saying “you’ll enjoy yourself—go have fun!” If they are stressed about taking a test, avoid saying “you’ll do fine, you’re smart!” These types of responses can make the student feel even more stressed because the anxiety isn’t being acknowledged. Remember, anxiety is not always logical! Most students can’t define what makes them anxious when asked directly, but many can define their level of stress in different situations. Knowing this information about your students will help you learn when each are vulnerable to stress.
- Be on the alert for underlying learning weaknesses—they are often not revealed through formal testing!
Anxiety may be a signal that a student is suffering from weak social competencies, organizational challenges, or more traditional learning disabilities. Sometimes the process of helping kids acknowledge what triggers their anxiety reveals learning weaknesses (e.g., being required to write topic sentences or summarize main ideas when their brain thinks in details, being asked to work in a group with peers when they’re unaware of how to join a group, etc.). Weaknesses in fluid perspective taking, executive functioning, and staying focused on main ideas are not frequently recognized as learning problems in any form of standardized testing. Avoid thinking that all learning-related stressors will be revealed through academic testing.
- Don't make assumptions. Our students may not realize they are feeling anxious, or when they do, they may refuse to discuss the topic. Don’t assume that students with solid language skills have the ability to clearly express what is going on inside their body and brain. Some may think talking about anxiety is admitting they are weak or somehow "less than perfect." Some can’t tell the difference between feeling mad and feeling anxious. Sometimes we need to help them name the emotion or simply give them permission to express how they are feeling.
- Don’t only depend on language to describe anxiety. Allow students to express their anxiety and stressors in a variety of ways. Some can draw pictures of what makes them anxious, which are very helpful for understanding the child’s perspective. Most students are willing to use simple visual scales to identify and monitor their anxiety. For example, you could create a stress scale template to have students rate their stress when doing different activities as part of the classroom experience. For example, the scale could ask: From 1-10, how stressed are you…when walking into the classroom to begin the day? During discussion time? When finding a group to work with? Working in a group? Standing in line? During recess? etc. You can also make stress scales for students to rate their stress associated with their different classes across the day (e.g. math, science, reading, writing, etc.). Or, scales where students rate from calm to stressed how they feel with the different people they experience across the day. Another idea is to have them explore their triggers and related Zones and get tools to manage them in The Zones of Regulation curriculum (Kuypers, 2011). Remember, we can only help students learn strategies to manage their anxiety when we try to understand their anxiety from their point of view.
- Provide a range of strategies! Help students do what they want to do in the world (goal-directed behavior) by teaching them strategies to manage their anxiety while affirming their evolving social competencies. Strategies based in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) help students learn to think differently about common stressors so they can respond in a less debilitating manner. Some of your students’ anxiety may be due to their limited understanding of how the social world works and how they can better work (navigate to regulate) in the social world. We have many resources available to parents and professionals to help students learn to manage their anxiety through a cognitive behavioral lens and foster development of their social competencies. The book, The Power of Thought on Feelings (Pransky and Kahofer, 2012), is a wonderful to read with young children to help them learn about the power of their own thinking.
- Help students learn they aren’t stuck with powerful anxiety(s). Help students learn that their thoughts and feelings can be noticed, acknowledged, analyzed, and changed. Just as a teacher helps students learn to read, write, and think, with your help students can learn to recognize and acknowledge their inner thoughts and feelings (negative and positive). Encourage students to use flexible thinking by exploring ways in which they can reframe, reappraise, and think differently about their stressors. As part of the language arts curriculum mainstream teachers can encourage students to read books (story books, informational texts, etc.) to build an understanding of their feelings and learn strategies to manage stress. They can also encourage students to engage in self-reflection through standards-based written expression about these topics. Everyone (including you!) can use video clips from movies and YouTube to explore how anxiety is experienced in different characters. Anna Vagin’s books Movie Time Social Learning and YouCue Feelings are excellent resources for teaching different types of social learners about their own and others’ thoughts and feelings in different contexts.
- Teach self-compassion. Teach students to be compassionate with themselves as they learn to recognize and manage their stressors and tackle situations that are anxiety-producing. No one is bad for experiencing anxiety, nor is anyone a failure for struggling to manage it well.
- Be encouraging! Stress is stressful. When kids are anxious, they may not appear friendly. Seek to understand students’ stressors and respond compassionately. Avoid thinking that their “unfriendly” demeanor means they don’t want help or lack a desire to relate with others.
- The goal is not comfort but self-management. The world is filled with uncomfortable moments and situations. Avoid telling students that the goal is for them to feel calm by getting rid of their anxiety. Instead, while kids are learning how to manage their anxiety, also help them learn to feel okay with some discomfort. Ultimately, we all cope best when we have strategies for being comfortable with discomfort. It’s a ticket to our own well-being.
The Social Thinking® Methodology is here to guide you
The Social Thinking Methodology is designed for individuals ages 4 to adult who use language to learn. The methodology breaks down socially abstract concepts into understandable parts to explain how the social world works and how each of us can work (navigate to regulate) in the social world and develop our social competencies. Our treatment frameworks, developmentally based strategies, and curricula contain many different ideas to help students learn about and manage their stressors across all social contexts. Ideas on teaching anxiety management, directly or indirectly, are embedded within many of our products. Here are some that you may find useful for your teaching:
- The Power of Thought on Feelings
- The Zones of Regulation
- Movie Time Social Learning
- You are a Social Detective!
- Superflex… A Superhero Social Thinking Curriculum
- Social Behavior Mapping
- Social Fortune or Social Fate
- Socially Curious and Curiously Social
- Good Intentions Are Not Good Enough
We hope you find our tips helpful in your work. We’re honored to be a resource for you.