Updated: May, 2022
© 2022 Think Social Publishing, Inc.
We help our kids learn math, science, history, and how to prepare for things like tests and fire drills—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 unspoken expectations that can feel daunting, and the actions and reactions of others can feel highly unpredictable. Whether 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, for some, can feel like a continuous minefield of anxieties.
In schools, students are often asked to participate in group projects and by doing so, they are practicing complex social competencies for use now and into the future. However, working in a group of peers can result in social stress. The reality is that the social world can ignite worries, stress, and social anxiety in many kids and our role, as interventionists, is to proactively teach how to understand and manage these feelings in a healthy way. Given that so many kids have some level of anxiety, why wait until they are adults in mental health counseling to provide tools?
Note: When students have compelling mental health diagnoses (anxiety, depression, etc.), their primary support team must be trained mental health professionals (e.g., psychologists, counselors, and therapists). However, some students can benefit from strategies that help them to understand how anxiety may be associated with everyday classroom learning and other school-based experiences. Realistically, couldn’t we 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! Let’s 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. There’s really no need to wait for an anxiety-laden situation to occur to start teaching strategies to manage daily stressors (which are often referred to as “anxiety,” “nervousness,” “stress,” or “worry”).
- 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. To empower kids to break down their social anxiety and navigate through it, we developed, alongside and with student input, the Spirals of Anxiety. 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. 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 causes for anxiety.
Anxiety may be a signal that a student has underlying triggers for their anxiety (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.).
- Avoid assumptions. Many students don’t realize if or when they are feeling anxious, or when they do, they may refuse to discuss the topic. Don’t assume that all students can 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.
- Allow for more than words as a way to express anxiety. Students may need to express their anxiety and stressors in a variety of ways. Some might need to draw pictures, which can be very helpful for understanding the child’s perspective. Some may be 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 on a scale of 1-10 and ask, how stressed are you when walking into the classroom? How about during discussion time? What about when you are asked to find a group to work with? Working in a group? Standing in line? During break? etc. Or, make stress scales for rating stress associated with different classes or when around certain people. Remember, we can only help students learn strategies to manage their anxiety when we try to understand their anxiety from their point of view.
- Teach strategies that support self-determined goals. Help students meet their own personal goals by providing a range of different targeted strategies. If a student has a goal to join a group but is unsure how to make that happen, then teach about how groups work rather than tell them to “just go say hi.” Groups are complicated and moving in and out requires learning about how groups work in the social world! If a student has a goal to get help from a peer, then teach around strategies for initiation. If they want to express their opinions but are unsure how, then teach about advocacy and points of view.
- Help students learn they aren’t stuck. Just as teachers help students learn to read, write, and think, they can also help students learn to recognize and acknowledge their inner thoughts and feelings (negative and positive). Encourage them to use flexible thinking by exploring ways to reframe, reappraise, and think differently about their stressors. Use storybooks like Hey Warrior! and Hey Awesome! that show how our brains can learn to manage anxiety. Use video clips from movies and YouTube to explore how anxiety is experienced in different characters. Movie Time Social Learning and YouCue Feelings are excellent resources for teaching about thoughts and feelings in different contexts.
- Teach self-compassion. Teach students to give themselves a break as they recognize and manage their stressors and tackle situations that are anxiety-producing.
- Be encouraging! Stress is stressful. When kids are anxious, they may not appear friendly. Avoid thinking that an “unfriendly” demeanor means a lack of desire to relate with others.
- Teach that it’s okay to be uncomfortable with discomfort. 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, 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 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 while developing social competencies. It is best for those who use their expressive language to talk about thoughts and feelings. Our treatment frameworks, developmentally based strategies, and curricula contain ideas to support individuals as they learn about and manage their anxiety and stressors. Here are some books and tools from our methodology as well as other resources that we have found to be helpful for those with anxiety.
- The Power of Thought on Feelings
- The Zones of Regulation
- Movie Time Social Learning
- Socially Curious and Curiously Social
- Good Intentions Are Not Good Enough
- What if I?
- Starving the Anxiety Gremlin
- Starving the Anxiety Gremlin for Children
- Starving the Stress Gremlin
- When My Worries Get Too Big!
- Hey Warrior: A Book for Kids About Anxiety
- Hey Awesome: A Book for Kids About Anxiety, Courage, and Already Being Awesome
- YouCue Feelings: Using Online Videos for Social Learning
- The Anxiety Workbook for Kids