PRESSED: Why You Need To Manage Student Stress And 20 Ways To Do It

The following post is PRESSED and not written by Kiri Van Santen or Fearless Learning. I highly recommend that all teachers read it! -KV

Via | By Julie DeNeen | Published February 11 2013

Back in October, I wrote an article about the importance of holistic teaching. When students are stressed, their capacity for learning is drastically reduced.

In psychology, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs explains in part why anxious and depressed students are much more likely to fail. Even if the situation is not catastrophic, a student’s mind and body “feel” that the situation is very serious. All their brainpower is fixated on dealing with the fight or flight response in the body, plus the repetitive thought patterns that affect daily activities like eating, sleeping, and relationships.

In this cycle, learning takes a backseat to the perceived “disaster” in front of them. For them, it’s about survival, not creativity or self-actualization. If you notice students in your class are stressed, it is vital that you work into your teaching ways to help them cope and reduce their anxiety.

The following 20 tips will give you some tools to create a relaxing learning environment and relationship.

1. Keep Communication Open

Communication is the single most important thing you can do for your students. Create open channels for them to come to you for support, advice, counsel, etc. In both group and individual settings, you can offer your wisdom and experience in dealing with daily stress in your own life. This mentorship approach will build safety in the classroom and help the students to feel like you are on their side.

2. Flexible Assignments

Instead of assigning homework every night, assign a packet of homework and let them decide when to complete the work. With extracurricular activities like sports and music, some nights it might be impossible to do homework without it impacting their sleep. This way they can catch up on the weekends or on a night with less to do.

3. Teach Time Management

If you follow the above advice, it is important to go over with your students how to manage their time. Some kids will be overwhelmed with trying to divide and conquer a big project so practice setting goals in the classroom so it’s more manageable for them at night.

4. Grade Effort As Well As Product

Effort is often the redheaded stepchild of product, but it shouldn’t be. Some kids will work diligently for hours and only be able to produce an average grade. Other students will work ¼ of the time and produce an A+ grade. This can be demoralizing for those students who are putting forth so much effort. Even if you work in a school where grades must reflect a certain level of aptitude (thus limiting your ability to assign an “effort” score), you can offer other awards for those who’ve worked hard.

Check out our article on Should It Matter How Long a Student Takes To Learn?

5. Offer Five-Minute Meditation

At the beginning and end of the day, set aside five minutes for students to do a private meditation or imagery. Teach deep breathing exercises and give them time to relax their bodies and minds.

6. Help Them To See The Bigger Picture

It’s so easy to get pulled into the present so intensely that you forget the bigger picture. Kids who get stressed out easily forget that the assignment they are pulling their hair out about is really quite small in the grand scheme of things. Offer a lighthearted tale about your failures as a student and help them to see the bigger picture.

7. Take The Past Into Account

If a student flunks an exam or forgets an assignment but is normally quite reliable, take that into account. Everyone needs a “Get out of jail” free card once in a while. This may be tricky to execute fairly (especially if you have other students that consistently forget work) but you can create a system of passes. For example, every time a homework assignment is turned in on time, award the student a point. For every student that has banked 10+ points, they are given a free pass if they miss an assignment or do poorly on an exam.

8. Keep Your Students Moving

Sitting in a chair listening to one person’s voice is boring. Let’s face it; the mind can wander in this setting. Worries and fears easily creep in when the atmosphere isn’t requiring all of their attention. Keep the class moving through assignments, stations, and activities.

9. Let Them Chew Gum During Hard Exams

Chewing gum and doodling on notepads are two ways to relieve stress. You might find that students who are very nervous about an exam will do better if they have something like a piece of gum to chew on. Don’t discourage doodling during lectures. It is a way to relieve pent up energy and in some cases, can help with concentration.

10. Set Time In The Day For Organization of Their Desks

Once a week (perhaps on Fridays), create a block of time for students to clean out their desks and backpacks. Disorganized environments cause unnecessary stress. Have one person sharpen everyone’s pencils, clean out markers that don’t work, restock supplies, and refresh old notebooks. This can also be a great time to make lists of upcoming activities, assignments, and projects.

11. Offer Incentives For Bringing Healthy Food To Class

Healthy food plays a big role in student stress. You cannot control what your students eat for breakfast and lunch, but you can offer incentives for healthy eating. In your classroom, award points for those who bring in vegetables, fruits, or healthy proteins like lean meat and eggs. When a student gets to a certain point level, offer a reward like a free homework pass.

12. Have Music Playing During Class Time

Classical music is an excellent way to calm nerves. There should be time without music too, but during exams, meditation, or silent reading, turn on Bach!

13. Model How To Cope With Disappointment

Disappointment is inevitable. One of the most crucial moments in a student’s career is what they do after they’ve failed an exam. Failure is the world’s greatest teacher. It is like an open doorway to future success. Don’t just hand out a failing grade and move on. Use the opportunity to teach what went wrong, how to face disappointment head on, and most importantly, how to not let it cripple your future work.

14. Don’t Nitpick

You’ve probably had a teacher who did this. You had to use a blue pen, not black. You couldn’t sit a certain way, eat during class, use the bathroom, or wear a hooded sweatshirt. Obviously rules are important, but first try to examine if any of your rules are actually just pet peeves in disguise. Kids who are prone to stress will feel the effects of this type of environment and it will negatively affect their work.

15. Balanced Exams

As much as possible, offer exams that have multiple parts. Can one part be verbal? Open book? Creative? Students learn differently. If every test is a large sheet of essay questions or multiple choice, it doesn’t give students who have auditory or kinesthetic learning styles a chance to flourish. It’s more work for you yes, but it will make a big difference in your classroom.

16. Be Mindful of Ergonomics

Kids are not as prone to back and neck aches, but it doesn’t mean our classrooms should be devoid of comfortable seating and lighting. How much natural sunlight does your room get? Is there opportunity for a quick walk in the sunshine after lunch? Do you have students who suffer from ADD and would benefit from an exercise ball as a seat? In some classrooms, students have the option of using an exercise ball, which not only strengthens muscles, but also gives the “fidgety” students a chance to bounce while they work.

17. Stay In Touch With Parents

Keep communication channels open with parents of stressed out kids. Try to find out if there are other issues besides classwork that are affecting him/her. If the parents are struggling too, a guidance counselor or social worker might be able to help the student cope with difficult life circumstances. Be your student’s advocate whenever possible.

18. Help Students To Enjoy The Learning Process

A stressed out student forgets about the process of learning. They are so fixated on the end result and the grade, they don’t know how to enjoy HOW to learn. Take moments in the day to point out the beauty in discovery, in problem solving, and yes- even in failure. Remind your students that it isn’t all about the grades. It’s about the journey.

19. Give Continual Feedback

If you are able to give “mini” grades each day, it lessens the anxiety about the end-of-term grade. At that point, there is nothing a student can do about it! Students should never be surprised at their grade. Offer constant feedback so they have time to get on track while there is still time to make a difference.

20. Keep Yourself Relaxed!

A relaxed teacher makes for a relaxed classroom. You need to do what you can to alleviate your own stress – be it through meditation, organization, or time of silent reading. We all need to recharge and you as the teacher set the whole tone of the classroom. If you aren’t stressed about tests or final scores, your students will pick up on that vibe too.


Julie DeNeen has her bachelor’s degree in Clinical Psychology from the University of New Haven. She spent several years working for a local Connecticut school at the district level, implementing new technologies to help students and teachers in the classroom. She also taught workshops to teachers about the importance of digital student management software, designed to keep students, parents, and teachers connected to the learning process.

You can find out more about her @jdeneen4 and Google+.

via Why You Need To Manage Student Stress And 20 Ways To Do It.


Don’t be Afraid of the Big Bad Blizzard

You might be worried about losing power. You might be looking forward to gathering around the fireplace. You might be scrambling to reschedule your afternoon meeting or that early Valentine’s dinner date with your spouse. There’s a lot to think about as this blizzard approaches, but don’t forget that your anxious child maybe struggling with irrational and agonizing fears. Follow these tips to help your anxious child through the snowy weekend.

If your anxious child has never experienced a blizzard, be sure to tell her what to expect. Address rational fears like a power outage, but emphasize positives like family time, adventure, and beautiful snow.

Indicate that you and your family will be safe by acting calm and prepared, even if you’re worried about the storm.

Involve your child in your storm preparations. Explain how each action you’re taking will help keep your family safe.

If you lose power, make it an adventure. Play board games in the dark, tell stories by candlelight, or sing songs together.

Shelter your child from sensationalist media.

Avoid using language that indicates or implies that this storm is the worst storm ever or the end of the world or unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Help your anxious child understand that major storms are common and manageable.

If your child was traumatized by Super-Storm Sandy, explicitly explain that this storm will be different.

Ask your child to voice all his fears, and help your child find reasons to dismiss each fear. Be respectful, empathetic, and calm.

Watch for signs of magical thinking. Children who suffer from Obsessive-compulsive Disorder are particularly vulnerable to irrational self-blame regarding catastrophe.

Put safety first. Make sure you have a plan to keep your family warm even if you lose power, and be careful to avoid fires and carbon monoxide poisoning. Follow these blizzard safety rules for kids and parents.

Stay warm this weekend!

Don’t Panic: How Fiction Saves Anxious Kids

All parents (and teachers) know that scary movies can give a child weeks of nightmares. We all remember that one scene that kept us up at night when we were kids. Sometimes the things that scare us aren’t even from horror films: I have a friend who spent second grade terrified of ET.

Scary movies and scary scenes in other movies (like these nightmarish sequences in classic children’s movies) can torment children with anxiety disorders. But, sometimes, a slightly scary piece of fiction can actually provide relief for an anxious kid, especially in older children.

Like many people, I consider junior high to have been the worst time in my life. My anxiety was unmanaged and unpredictable, exacerbated by hormones and life stress. At the time, my biggest fear was, for whatever reason, an alien invasion resulting in the end of the world. So when a good friend suggested I read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which basically opens with the Earth being destroyed by aliens, I was reluctant to take her advice. She insisted “H2G2,” as it’s called by fans, was “basically the best book ever,” so I took a risk and started reading.

She was right. The book is smart and witty and adventurous and, most importantly, hilarious. By the time the Earth got destroyed (and, like I said, it happens early), I was laughing too hard to feel scared. I spent the whole summer reading all five books in the “increasingly misnamed” Hitchhiker’s trilogy, and my xenophobia (in the sense of the least common usage) was nearly cured. It’s fitting, therefore, that the fictional version of the Hitchhiker’s Guide is labeled with the words DON’T PANIC.

Humor is healing, and humor typically relies on surprise and the build and release of tension, so fear can easily be a part of humor. After 9/11, the country used humor to heal. Some of that humor was hate-filled. People told awful jokes about Muslims and Arabs. Internet cartoons showed US soldiers leveling Afghan cities. This was revenge humor, and it was anything but healing. Because 9/11 terrified me so deeply, I avoided any reference to the attacks. Then, one day, I saw my brother watching an episode of South Park in which the protagonists visit Afghanistan. The episode balanced empathy with absurdity, presenting Afghan children as virtually identical to their US counterparts except, of course, that the Afghan children had nothing fun to do because their neighborhood kept getting blown up. Bin Laden was turned into a Loony Toons villain, and the jokes at his expense were crude and angry. But the episode was playful! It did help me heal. Other episodes of South Park, like one about SARS, offered similar relief. (If you aren’t familiar with South Park, it’s extremely crude and deliberately controversial, so I’m absolutely not recommending you show it to your young kids. And there are episodes that are simply terrifying, even to adults.)

I’m sharing these anecdotes to illustrate how fiction can sometimes “save” anxious kids. Sometimes laughing about a fear makes it melt away. Humor isn’t even a necessary component; a comforting story that includes your fear and has a happy ending can be just as therapeutic as a great joke. If your student or child is suffering from specific fears, look for books, shows, or movies that address the fears through humor and have a happy ending. Be sure that the media you select is age appropriate, and avoid anything that’s scarier than it is funny; “Mars Attacks” traumatized me so bad I still regret watching it, and it’s been more than ten years.

I’ve included a brief list of works of fiction that I believe may help children deal with specific fears. IMPORTANT: I find these books comforting, but that doesn’t mean everyone else will.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, 25th Anniversary Edition
Fears: aliens, end of the world, space; For teens (and adults)

A Swiftly Tilting Planet (Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quintet)
Fears: nuclear bombs, war, end of the world; Age ten and up

also by Madeleine L’Engle
A Wrinkle in Time [Paperback]
Fears: illness of a parent; Ages ten and up

Fears: loss of parents, kidnapping, parents changing, losing eyes; Ages 8 and up
Warning: Coraline is an excellent book with a happy ending, but it’s really creepy!

Holes (A Yearling Book)
Fears: false imprisonment, venomous animals, authority figures, dehydration; Ages 9 and up

If you’ve had a similar experience with a piece of fiction, please post it in the comments.

Asthma and Anxiety

We used to go to the emergency room in the middle of the night. I’d wake up to hear the shower running, and I’d know it meant my baby brother couldn’t breathe. At first, when he was a baby, we didn’t know why. It only really happened when he was sick, so my mom sort of figured he just reacted badly to colds. He’d wake up wheezing, and my mom would hold him in a steamy shower. When that didn’t work, we’d jump into the car and drive half an hour to the nearest ER. My mom and dad would keep all the windows open to let in the cold air. At the hospital, the triage nurse would rush my tiny baby brother into a tent filled with steam. Then they’d give him some medicine, and then he’d breathe normally again. Bizarrely, no one at the hospital ever said asthma. They said he was “croupy.” My mom finally read an article about childhood asthma in the paper and asked her pediatrician if that was what caused her son’s breathing troubles. The pediatrician was so shocked he began to laugh. “They didn’t tell you that at the hospital?” he asked. He couldn’t believe the ER doctors would fail to offer that kind of basic information. “Of course it’s asthma! I thought you knew!” (This was, by the way, the kind of pediatrician who happily woke up at midnight to meet us at the ER and tell us all jokes until we calmed down. He took calls at home at any hour and could make my brother laugh while getting a shot, so I’m not surprised he went on to become an expert in child happiness.)

Asthma is scary. It’s genuinely dangerous, and it triggers primal fear in its victims. There are few things as scary as not being able to breathe. My brother, an active, adventurous, and otherwise healthy kid, spent his childhood cursed with severe asthma that necessitated years of ER trips and a variety of unpleasant drugs. I recently asked him if the attacks terrified him, and his answer surprised me: “The fear I felt from having asthma attacks as a young kid was totally manageable, because mom would take care of me and we had all the equipment and stuff.” Wow, check out mister No-Anxiety-Disorder.

However, even my brother has experienced some mild asthma-related anxiety. “I think I subconsciously associate [anxiety] with asthma, probably because asthma attacks are the most consistently stressful/traumatic thing I’ve gone through in my life,” he told me.

For a child with an anxiety disorder, asthma can be absolutely terrifying. Feeling unable to breathe can easily trigger a panic attack, and the panic may make breathing feel even harder. Anxiety medications can speed your heart and cause shaking, so an anxious child who is having an asthma attack is very likely to experience some degree of panic even after using her inhaler, especially if panicked breathlessness prevents her from realizing that the medicine is working. A student shared her experience:

Twice I has asthma attacks while I was hiking with other families. Both times, I ended up having a panic attack. It felt like my inhaler wasn’t working, so I got more panicked. It was like a snowball.

An anxious child who suffers from asthma may also sometimes mistake a panic attack for an asthma attack. My student also described a panic attack that was caused by a stressful life event:

I felt a lot like I couldn’t breathe, and I was really really scared. My inhaler didn’t help at all, and I thought I was going to die. My dad told me to use my relaxation techniques. Once I stopped being scared, my breathing felt totally normal. This makes me think that the feeling of breathlessness was “in my head,” not in my throat.

If your anxious child or student has asthma, talk to him before his next attack. Explain that, unlike asthma, anxiety doesn’t really affect breathing ability, and help him practice distinguishing between panic and asthma. Teach him to take complete, slow breaths. Finally, consider using a peak flow meter to help your child determine whether his anxiety is skewing his perception of his breathing ability.

Of course, it’s extremely important for children and adults to follow their doctors’ orders exactly, especially regarding serious illnesses like asthma. Ask your doctor, but I assume you should instruct your child to use his inhaler or other asthma medication even if he’s not sure whether his breathlessness is caused by asthma or anxiety. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy and relaxation techniques can be used after medication is administered.

As always, the best thing you can do for your anxious student or child is remain calm. It’s very upsetting to watch someone you care about struggle to breathe, especially when that someone is a young child. However, children look to their caregivers for clues about danger, so it’s important to behave as though you are in control of the situation.

Asthma is a serious and life-threatening disease. Children with asthma need to be in the care of a qualified pediatrician or specialist.

My brother’s asthma has gotten much better, and he’s now able to backpack through forests and float wild rivers and play with his band in front of huge crowds. He’s the coolest person I’ve ever met, and tomorrow is his 21st birthday!20130204-134428.jpg

Why I Love Labels, Part 3

I truly love labels, but I also acknowledge that labeling a child can cause the child to self-limit. To combat this, I use two cool exercises with my students. I also use these exercises when I’m feeling limited, and they help me overcome self-stigma and stagnation.

The I Can List

A common exercise to improve self-estem in students with disabilities, diseases, or differences involves listing the things that the student can do despite or because of her diagnosis. When I use this exercise, I ask my students to begin by very specifically describing their illness. I’ve found that students with mental illness sometimes believe that they are limited in ways other than those included in their diagnosis simply because they are unclear about what their diagnosis really means.

After each student has identified and described her diagnosis, I have her list the things she can do in spite or because of her illness. It’s important to include personal things that are difficult or took a lot of work.

Child-Kiri would be in awe of the things I can do as an adult. I’d love to show her this I Can list:

I can…

live 3,000 miles away from my family and hometown
fly six hours to see my family
say “okay” and “I’m bored” without whispering or thinking “shut up”
sing onstage in front of tons of people
make new friends
spend the night away from my significant other without having unbearable separation anxiety
ride the subway UNDERGROUND and even in the dark!
wait calmly in a stalled elevator
navigate large crowds

Even if a student’s I Can list is very short, there’s merit in the exercise. Remember, it’s always amazingly beneficial to emphasize and reward partial successes. Also, have the student include accomplishments and abilities that aren’t directly related to her illness. For example, I can…

write pretty awesome fiction and creative nonfiction
do the splits

Exploring Identity

The second exercise I use to help my students avoid self-limiting is an original activity I’ve yet to name. I love this exercise and use it all the time with students of all ages.

Step 1: Have each student make a list of ten (or whatever number is age-appropriate) of their most prominent traits. I like to have everyone write “I am:” at the top of the page. Be sure that each student includes both positive and negative traits. While some of the traits can be physical or external (I am beautiful or I am poor), most should focus on personality and ability (I am smart or I am bad at math).

Step 2: Ask each student to convince you, either orally or through an essay, that the traits they’ve listed do NOT in fact describe them at all.

Step 3: Have each student make a second list, this time of the traits they wish to embody. I call this the “ideal traits” list.

Step 4: Now ask each student to convince you that each trait on the list is NOT ideal.

Step 5: Have students revise their ideal traits list. You’d be surprised how often they convince themselves with their own arguments!

Step 6: Finally, have each student share an example of a time when s/he embodied each of her ideal traits. It’s important to end on a positive!

Much of what we think of as our “selves” seems to come from habit. We practice thinking of ourselves as smart or boring or disorganized, and we increasingly inhabit those labels. Labels are incredibly useful shorthand for complex realities, but they are not curses or life sentences. As the poet Dorothea Tanning said, “It’s hard to always be the same person.”

Teaching Empathy to Anxious Kids

The complete lack of empathy shown by the perpetrator of the Sandy Hook shooting has reminded many parents and educators of the need to encourage empathy in their children and students.  Although some amount of empathy comes naturally to most humans, it is important to nurture its development during childhood.  Anyone who lives or works with children knows that kids can be inconsistant in their ability to understand and respect the feelings of others.  Teaching empathy requires patience and, well, empathy.  Over-punishing a child for selfishness can backfire and lead to self-pity and anger.  You probably already know how to cultivate empathy in children.  Anxious children may require special considerations, though.  Here are a few tips for teaching empathy to anxious kids:

1. Watch for over-empathizing.
Sometimes, when children become overwhelmed by empathy, they behave as though they don’t care at all. They may ignore the people with whom they are supposed to empathize, or they may insist that those people’s feelings aren’t important. They may joke about tragedy or make fun of victims. Differentiating between callousness and behaviors intended to protect from over-empathizing can be very difficult. Rely on past behavior patterns, as well as professional opinion. If your child or student is typically compassionate and thoughtful and then becomes crass about a particular situation, it’s possible that he is actually trying to minimize his own anxiety about the situation. Forcing him to practice empathy could exacerbate his anxiety. On the other hand, if your child or student has a history of ignoring other people’s feelings, contact an expert.

2. Anxiety isn’t an excuse, but it is an obstacle.
When a child is overwhelmed by anxiety, it can be extremely difficult for her to practice empathy. If your child or student is rude or thoughtless during a period of extreme anxiety, it’s okay to remind her that anxiety isn’t an excuse for meanness. However, it’s also important to remember that an anxiety disorder is a serious and painful mental illness. Until your child or student’s anxiety wanes, keep criticism calm and focused: “I know you’re feeling very anxious, but it’s not okay to yell at Viktor” is fine; “I don’t care if you’re scared! Go to your room!” is not. When the anxiety does fade, address the child’s behavior and offer solutions for future crises. For example, a child who snaps at his sister when he panics may practice saying “I have anxiety and can’t talk now” instead. If your child or student uses anxiety as an excuse for cruelty, contact an expert.

3.  It’s okay to let empathy go.
Anxious kids, especially those who tend to obsess, may become fixated on other people’s suffering. If your anxious child or student seems preoccupied with someone else’s suffering, suggest taking a break from empathy. Praise the child for his compassion and concern, and remind him that tragedy reminds us to be grateful and enjoy what we have. Suggest actions your child or student can take to help the people who have suffered, and then, after those actions have been taken, change the focus to something positive. If your child cannot overcome guilt or anxiety about the suffering of strangers, contact your pediatrician or mental health professional. If your child or student seems to enjoy fixating on the suffering of others, contact an expert.

4. Empathy comes naturally.
For most children, the ability to empathize develops over time. Young teens are similar to young children in that they tend to be very egocentric. That’s totally normal. Keep teaching and practicing empathy, and don’t worry if your child or teen goes through stages of selfishness. If your child or student is consistently unable or unwilling to empathize with others, contact an expert. Antisocial Personality Disorder is a serious and potentially dangerous mental illness that is characterized by a lack of empathy. Only a professional can diagnose this illness.  More information here.

5. Empathy goes both ways.
It can be difficult for mentally healthy or mentally normative individuals to empathize with people with mental illness. In the classroom, it’s important to help all students understand and empathize with mental illness. (Don’t single out your anxious students, though!) At home, it’s important to make sure the whole family empathizes with an anxious child. The best way to learn to empathize with someone is to learn more about them. Find a book or two about anxiety, and ask questions.  Many people find anxiety disorders confusing because they hear “anxiety” and forget the “disorder” part.  Anxiety is a normal and manageable part of life.  An anxiety disorder is a serious illness that cannot be willed away.  While you teach your chid to empathize, make sure she is also receiving empathy , both from others in her life and from you.

New Series: Surprising Child Anxiety Triggers

You already know the major anxiety triggers in your child’s life: shots, tests, bullies, scary movies, etc.  But there are other, weirder things that cause kids to worry or even panic.  I’d like to share some unexpected situations that triggered anxiety in me as a kid, as well as some of the things that can trigger anxiety in my students.

Before we start,  I want to explain a little bit about anxiety triggers in general.  (I’m not a neuroscientist or mental health professional, so this will be short and simple.) Anything that causes the same physical symptoms that anxiety can cause (e.g. pounding heart, dizziness, etc.) can lead to psychological feelings of anxiety.  In fact, people suffering from Panic Disorder (hey there), which is characterized by frequent panic attacks, often report typically experiencing the physical effects of panic before the psychological ones, possibly indicating that the panic is caused by the bodily symptoms and not the other way around.

Remember, panic is the result of chemicals within the brain and body.  Some experts believe that thoughts usually cause these chemicals to be released, and some believe that the chemicals are often released for other reasons and then cause the thoughts. Many experts believe that both scenarios are common. Either way, anxiety and panic are experienced both in the mind and in the body.  Similarly, some anxiety triggers are cognitive, or in the brain, and some are somatic, or in the body.

Stay tuned for the first surprising child anxiety trigger, coming soon.

Helping Anxious Students Cope with the Sandy Hook Shooting

Parents and educators are united today in our heartbreak and horror regarding this morning’s shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.  In place of my planned post, I’d like to provide a few pieces of advice for parents and teachers of anxious students.  In the days following this tragedy, students outside of Newtown will likely maintain their regular school schedule.  However, students across the country, especially those with preexisting anxiety disorders, may have difficulty coping with the confusing and frightening news.  Here are some ways to help your children or students through this crisis:

Turn off the TV!
Adults know the TV news often relies on sensationalism to attract and retain viewers, but this concept can be very difficult for children to understand. Anxious children in particular may be harmed by television news on even a “slow news day.” During a crisis, kids should be nowhere near the news. Keep the TV off in the classroom and at home. If you feel that you need regular updates about a crisis, watch in another room or read Internet coverage to yourself.

Parenting expert Dr. Michele Borba tweeted this earlier today:

MB tweet

Keep Calm
In any crisis, the best thing you can do is show your students or children that you are calm. Children rely on adults for consistency and stability. It’s certainly all right to show your anxious children or students that adults have emotions (this is a crucial element in teaching empathy), but keep your emotions controlled. In order to stay calm, make sure to take care of yourself by finding support with another adult.

Avoid School Refusal by Maintaining Routines
In an earlier post about Hurricane Sandy, I addressed the importance of maintaining routines after a crisis. After hearing about a school shooting, anxious children may refuse to return to their schools. Because we’re all frightened by shootings, it can be tempting to keep students home with you. However, doing so is likely to reinforce your child’s belief that school is dangerous. If your child does begin to exhibit symptoms of school refusal, contact your pediatrician or mental health professional.

Address Guilt and Prevent Magical Thinking
We all have the tendency to blame ourselves when things go wrong. Guilt after a tragedy is normal and not necessarily harmful. Today, older children may feel guilty about laughing, gossiping, or becoming upset about trivial issues while other children have suffered so terribly. Adults certainly experience similar emotions. If your child expresses this type of guilt, reassure her that her feelings are normal, and remind her that she should enjoy her day. Tragedies remind us to enjoy and give thanks for our myriad blessings. They also give us the opportunity to practice perspective when dealing with our daily conflicts. If appropriate, help your child use her guilt as a tool. However, if your child seems preoccupied by guilt, especially about events out of her control, consult a mental health professional.

While guilt is a normal and potentially useful response to tragedy, magical thinking is nearly always harmful. Magical thinking often takes the form of a fallacious belief that one’s thoughts have affected reality. It is common in young children and individuals with some mental illnesses. In eighth grade, my Obsessive-compulsive Disorder caused me to worry that my thoughts had caused the attacks on 9/11. Intellectually, I knew this fear was irrational and narcissistic, but I could not overcome it. Magical thinking should be addressed directly and explicitly. Make sure your child knows that it’s a common symptom of anxiety. Always (lovingly) insist that the fears caused by magical thinking are irrational and impossible.

Offer Extra Support
Immediately after a crisis, some anxious children will regress in order to reduce anxiety. I personally recommend allowing periods of regression (thumb-sucking, sleeping in parents’ bed, etc.) as long as they are brief and seem to be helping your child move past the crisis. If your student or child lingers in a period of regression, lovingly encourage him to incrementally regain his independence. Intense anxiety may prevent a child from overcoming his urge to regress. In this case, consult a mental health professional.

If your child has been directly affected by the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, please contact your pediatrician or a mental health professional regarding the risk of PTSD. If you have already spoken to a professional, you are welcome to contact me for free advice, information, and support regarding anxiety in children. Teachers in Newtown, Connecticut are also welcome to contact me for free tips regarding addressing child anxiety in the classroom.

Here is a list of helpful online resources for helping your students and children cope with this tragedy:

Caring for Kids After a School Shooting (video), Child Mind Institute

Helping Children After a Disaster, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP)

Talking with Kids about the News, PBS

For New York City parents: Fearless Learning’s school refusal program

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When a Cold is a Catastrophe

I’m sick.

Over the weekend, I got a fairly nasty cold, and I’m still recovering. To an adult who has control of her anxiety, a cold is an annoyance. For anxious children, however, even minor illnesses can be terrifying.

Children prone to catastrophic thinking are often extremely creative in their fears, especially if they don’t have a good understanding of relevant anatomy.  Sinus pressure is likely to make an anxious young child worry that his head is going to explode, but it may also make him worry that worms have crawled into his nose in the night.  As long as you’re respectful and compassionate, I think it’s okay to sometimes poke gentle fun at your child’s most adorable fears.

To keep things playful instead of traumatizing, acknowledge the child’s fear, explain that the fear itself is a symptom (of anxiety or an anxiety disorder), and make sure the child knows you are on her side and will protect her.  Most importantly, keep even gentle teasing one-on-one; a beloved teacher or parent joking about nose-worms could be comforting and sweet, but additional participants may intentionally or unintentionally humiliate or bully the child.  Also, be careful about joking about plausible consequences of symptoms, such as an ear infection leading to a ruptured eardrum.  Most anxious kids won’t find that sort of “joke” funny.

Below is a list of common cold symptoms and the fears they may inspire in anxious children and adolescents.  Some of the fears are silly, but it’s important to realize that intelligence does not necessarily protect children from anxiety.  A child or teen who knows her fears are unfounded may still be plagued by them.  If your child or student complains of one of the following fears, explicitly disprove his unfounded fears (“sinus pressure will NEVER make your head explode, no matter what) and deemphasize any real risks that don’t require action.

Being able to predict some of your child or student’s fears may help you to better remove those fears.  Just make sure you never inadvertently suggest a new fear: “Ooooh, ear pressure? Don’t worry, I’m sure your eardrums won’t explode!”

Symptom Possible Fears
Cough Suffocation, lung cancer, internal bleeding due to violent cough
Headache Tumor, concussion, meningitis
Pressure, ears Eardrum rupturing, deafness
Pressure, eyes Eyes “popping out”/exploding, blindness
Pressure, sinuses Head exploding, tumors, burst blood vessels
Sore throat Losing the ability to speak
“Stuffy nose” Suffocation, anosmia
Swollen glands Hodgkin’s lymphoma

Parents, note that many over the counter and prescription cold medicines can cause anxiety or panic in individuals with anxiety disorders.  Talk to your pediatrician for more information.  Curious about alternative cold remedies? Read this informative article from Mayo Clinic.

Antibiotic Safety Information
Colds are caused by viruses, NOT bacteria.  Therefore, antibiotics will NOT help prevent, mitigate, or cure a cold.  The misuse of antibiotics helps create resistance strains of bacteria (such as MRSA), and taking antibiotics when you don’t need them can sometimes hurt you. Your body is full of “good” bacteria that helps you digest foods and fight off infection. Children and adults should only take antibiotics when they are prescribed by a real medical doctor.  Always take antibiotics exactly as prescribed.

Separation Anxiety, Part 3

Teachers–if you have a student who is suffering from Separation Anxiety Disorder, you may struggle with predicting and managing his or her anxiety attacks.  Below are some situations that may inspire fear or panic in students with Separation Anxiety Disorder, plus suggestions for helping students cope with each situation.

Substitute Teachers 
If your student relies on your presence to help manage her anxiety, a substitute teacher may trigger feelings of abandonment and vulnerability.  Whenever possible, warn students in advance about your upcoming absences.  Since most of your absences are likely to be unexpected, talk to students early in the year about procedure for substitute teachers.  Consider having another trusted teacher (or the school nurse, perhaps) check in on your anxious student during your absence.

Field Trips 
Most children find field trips exciting, but students with any type of anxiety disorder can have difficulty in new situations. Students with separation anxiety may worry that their parents won’t be able to find them during the trip or will take too long to arrive if there’s an emergency. Provide ample information about the field trip in advance, and casually but clearly explain that, if a student becomes ill or upset, you can easily contact his parents. Consider inviting parents on the field trip or allowing them to drive their own children.

Late Parents  
A student with separation anxiety is likely to panic when her parent is late for pick-up. She may worry that she has been abandoned, or she may suspect that her parent has been injured or killed. A panicking child may cry or hyperventilate, but she may also become very quiet, pace by herself, or begin speaking loudly. She may complain of stomach pain, nausea, or a headache. If you suspect that your student is panicking about her parent’s tardiness, offer gentle reassurance and distraction. Privately remind your student that her fear is a symptom, not a premonition, and that releasing her fear will not increase the likelihood of catastrophe.

When students have difficulty separating from their parent at morning drop-off, offer immersive distractions and persistent reassurance. Do NOT encourage parents to sneak away. Instead, suggest one brief but satisfying “goodbye” before enthusiastically calling the child’s attention to something else. If a student continues to cry or panic, offer nurturing reassurances that he is safe and that you will be looking out for him.

Absent Friend
Many anxious students use close friends as parent-substitutes. In Kindergarten, I made Sara D. come with me every time I went to the bathroom. Thanks, Sara! If you notice a student with separation anxiety becoming dependent on one friend, occasionally push her to bond with other students. When your anxious student’s best friend is absent, take extra care to help her integrate into other groups, and subtly check on her at lunch and recess.

Children typically dislike being perceived as different or weird, so be subtle when helping your anxious students. Also, please remember that these tips are meant to mitigate separation anxiety during minor crises and are not long-term solutions or treatment plans. Parents, if you suspect that your child has an anxiety disorder, please contact your pediatrician.

Fearless Learning offers information, advice, and support for students with anxiety. Contact me for more information.

Separation Anxiety, Part 1
Separation Anxiety, Part 2