Monday, December 7, 2015

Middle School Students and Anxiety

I once had a student who was scared of birds and airplanes.

Walking across campus was tough. Recess was tough. Lunch (we had no cafeteria) was tougher, and field trips? Especially our week long camping trip? Let's just say we both learned a lot about how to deal with stress.  This student didn't have any traumatic memories or stories linked to birds or airplanes. Instead, it was a symptom of her anxiety disorder. 

Teachers have a lot of demands placed on them in the United States today. Meeting benchmarks, planning, differentiation, parent concerns, dealing with administration, professional development, it goes on and on. 

What we sometimes forget however, is that our students are also under an increased demand to perform both in and out of school. This has caused an increase in both diagnosed and undiagnosed anxiety disorders, particularly for students in grades 5-8.  Anxiety is a huge category of specific disorders. Some examples include general anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, separation anxiety, post traumatic stress or selective mutism. 

At the beginning of the year, and periodically throughout, I sit with my homeroom and we do a check in to see what anxieties and pressures they are feeling. We generate an anchor chart of strategies to deal with anxiety at school and at home. This chart is displayed in the classroom throughout the year and added to as we go. Building a strong and supportive classroom community, where mistakes are okay, goes a long way in helping students who feel anxious. 

Anxiety often has a physical impact on a student. This can range from headaches or stomachaches, bloody noses, tingling, heavy breathing,  fainting, nausea, crying, or hives. If a student is experiencing any of these things, it's important not to dismiss them. 

A copy of these teaching strategies as well as the free graphic organizer I use to help students NOTE their thinking can be found here: Teaching Strategies for Anxious Students

8 Teaching Strategies for Dealing with Anxious Students
Teach deep breathing techniques. This is particularly helpful before a test or presentation.

Teach students to NOTE their thoughts. Notice what they are thinking, Observe how they are feeling, Think about a solution, Enact a plan. I keep a stack of graphic organizers in the corner of my classroom. Students can grab one to help if they want to. I always let students who use the organizer give it to me to be shredded if they wish. 

Giving a prearranged signal when a child is about to be called on.  

Presenting oral reports in front of the teacher alone. Alternately, letting a student with selective mutism record their presentation at home for submission. 

Giving a signal before going over instructions. Students who are anxious about missing information will find this particularly helpful.   

Working with the student to determine a "safe person". This is an adult OR peer that can help the student refocus or put a situation into perspective. 

Explain any changes in schedule or procedure. This will often require repetition

Make sure that students with anxiety are not seated next to the "chatty ones". Students who fear getting in trouble will be more focused on disassociating themselves from their neighbors than on class content. 

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