We’ve all seen it. The child that sits there and doesn’t do any of their school work even though you know they can do it. Or maybe, they get up and run around the classroom, or even go to the bathroom frequently to avoid work. Perhaps you have ended up in a power struggle with these children, or even (gasp) taken away recess!
If you have been around here for any length of time, you know that some of these behaviors can actually be related to anxiety. It is most likely not a child who is trying to be difficult, but rather a child that is struggling with something inside. So today I am going to share my top 5 tips for helping an anxious child in the classroom. These strategies are also effective for resistant learners, or those who seem to have low motivation.
Don’t EVER take away recess from an anxious child (or any child for that matter). If anything give them MORE movement. Movement helps to regulate the nervous system. This includes the chemicals that are released when someone is anxious. So by letting them move more, they can calm down. Allowing for short, simple breaks every 20-30 minutes is a great way to keep a student engaged. Giving them specific movements to do helps keep them on task as well. I like to choose some brain-based movements such as standing twists, cross-taps, and side bends.
This means that instead of jumping right into a new or challenging concept, you might let the student “warm-up” with something easier, including material that you will review. This method can allow the child to ease into something more difficult instead of being frozen in fear or feel overwhelmed by new material. This is also a great way to build confidence in an anxious student.
Sometimes during virtual (or in-person) learning students can become entirely overwhelmed by so many tasks and assignments. Breaking tasks down into smaller goals can help them to feel as if they are moving forward and accomplishing their goals. If they have several assignments for that day, maybe only write down three at a time. When those three tasks are completed, then add a few more.
Letting an anxious child have a purpose and something that you count on them to do can be a very helpful way to manage anxiety. This can be especially helpful for times of transition because the child can focus on the task and not the anxiety with moving to the next task or place.
This can be an area where you have simple activities that can help them regulate. This may be a fidget tool, breathing cards, play-doh, etc. Teaching them to go to this place when they are feeling anxious is a great way to teach emotion regulation. Helping them to notice what they feel in their bodies can help signal them to use the regulation station. For example, if your heart starts beating faster, use the deep breathing tool. Having a sand tray can be very calming and effective. I usually recommend this for older children so it does not all get dumped out. Be supportive of a child who is using the regulation station, and understand that they may use it very frequently at first, but then taper off.
Overall, providing a supportive and encouraging environment can really help students who struggle with anxiety, depression, or low motivation. Breaking down tasks into smaller goals, giving them a job, utilizing movement during learning, and allowing them a safe place to help regulate are all simple and effective strategies to support learning. If you are looking for more ideas to help the brain, body, and behavior check out our ideas here.