Supporting Students in Managing Their Anxieties

by | 03.29.19

I used to be a teacher who didn’t fully understand when students told me about their stress levels. Students would say, “I’m so stressed out about ____,”  (fill in the blank with just about anything!) and I’d respond, “Well, just make sure you study!” or “Make sure you take care of yourself.” I didn’t perceive anything worrisome – I just thought, “A little stress is normal, and they’ll get over it.”

Then I started learning more about mindfulness practices for myself. While on this journey, I found ASSET, a curriculum that teaches kids how to mitigate stress and anxiety.  Right away, I loved it. And the kids loved it. They ate it up. I realized there is a serious disconnect between the stress teachers think students experience and the magnitude of stress students actually feel and try to deal with (often in unhealthy ways). I was baffled when I learned in a study conducted by the Denver Public Schools Imaginarium Innovation Lab that 85% of students report experiencing stress and/or anxiety caused by school. What was worse — 90% said school doesn’t help them cope.

Now I tell my students, “Your mental health is important to me, so I’m going to teach you some tools.” There are students in every class who say, “Thank you, Miss.” They verbalize their appreciation, which is sometimes difficult for teenagers. They have this sense of relief that a teacher is acknowledging their stress and supporting them in moving through it.

Here are some strategies my students have found helpful:

  1. Practicing a mindful body scan. Essentially, giving students a mental time out and asking them to focus on their body and places where they feel tension.
  2. Writing notes of gratitude. When we express gratitude to other people, it releases dopamine in our brains, and we feel better. My students love doing this. I always try to have nice-looking notecards on hand for them. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy – just something that goes beyond an email or text.
  3. Doing a finger-breathing exercise. Students hold each finger and take a deep breath 10 times in a row. We call it “sneaky mindfulness,” because they can do it right before a test under their desk, and no one really notices. It’s a chance for them to take a moment for themselves, and they can do it anywhere and any time.

I’ve seen a positive shift using these practices. They’ve started to spread to other classrooms in my school community. In their chemistry class, my students didn’t want to start a test until they had done a mindful body scan. The teacher wasn’t sure what that meant, so another student stood up and led the scan. Later, the chemistry teacher called me and asked, “What is this, and how do you do it?” (If you want some tools to help get you started, visit ASSET Education, where our journey began and continues.)

There are so many things our kids deal with, and we’re seeing that if kids aren’t in the right headspace, they cannot understand and retain information. And when we spend time diffusing anxieties and prioritizing our kids’ mental health, it shows kids that we acknowledge they have stressful lives. The minute you say, “‘I get it,” and – this is the key part – you do something about it, they know you care, and they’re going to feel more prepared to learn.

I hope my students will take these tools with them to stressful situations outside of school, too. Even if they just find one or two strategies that help them better function as people and enjoy life more, then it’s totally worth it.

About the Author

Beth Lakin
Beth Lakin

Beth Lakin is a high school teacher in Colorado.

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