How to support the anxious child
With all children now returning to the ‘new normal’ schooling routine, it is of course expected for there to be higher levels of anxiety experienced by both children and parents or carers. Anxiety can present itself in many different ways and can be experienced in the short-term and longer term. Increased irritability, trouble sleeping, reluctance to eat, excessively fidgety and nervousness along with increased discussions about negative feelings and thoughts are all signs that a child is feeling anxious. Children may not often know the reasons behind feeling this way, it can be a response to change or the unknown or a fear of failure or risk.
School leaders, teachers, staff, parents and carers can all offer different methods of support for children feeling anxious. This article offers aims, advice and techniques to teachers and leaders on how to support the children and parents or carers of your school through periods of heightened anxiety.
Our aim when supporting a child with anxiety is not to eliminate the anxiety completely, it is to alleviate these negative feelings to enable the child to recognise feelings of anxiousness and how to best overcome these in a healthy and productive manner. Correctly developing these skills in childhood will significantly support their progression with tackling potentially anxiety-prompting situations, giving them confidence to reasonably risk-take throughout their schooling career and beyond.
1. Don’t avoid situations that can cause the anxiety
Although our human nature tells us to avoid things we don’t enjoy, in the scenario of schooling we cannot avoid the scenarios that cause the anxiety. Alterations can be made to most tasks and activities in a school, clear communication from leaders can allow teachers to have confidence in tailoring activities to reduce anxiety. For example, a small 5-minute change to entry times into school can eliminate overwhelming sensory overload with large numbers of children beginning the school day positively and reducing the number of staff needed to calm and support individual pupils when ‘meltdown’ hits.
2. Encourage discussion
A number of the child’s anxieties can often stem from the parents’ or carers’ own concerns. By allowing parents and carers to feel listened to this can be the first line in support for the children. Keeping an open dialogue between the relevant staff in school and parents of children with anxiety (or the parents themselves) can avoid the build up of small issues. This may be demonstrated with a short email or text message sent to the parent or carer to confirm their child has settled and has had a good morning if their day started in chaos.
3. Recognise it
A number of parents and carers might start a conversation with ‘I’m sorry to trouble you with this but…’, an issue that can be easily resolved or can be minor in the eyes of the everyday teacher, but can be a source of anxiety a parent may have been festering over. Recognise if it is an issue of anxiety for both the child or the parent, be careful not to trivialise something that could have caused sleepless nights. Having the option for discussions and email available can reduce parental anxiety significantly. With the recovery from COVID-19, face-to-face meetings will be limited, do your parents know how to contact their teacher if a concern arises?
4. Be prepared
Once areas causing anxiety may have been identified (friendships, school work, new school, new teacher, change in routine as examples), teachers can work with the child and the parent to prepare. Knowledge is power as the famous quote goes – preparation for change in routine, location, subjects can all alleviate stress and anxiety. Highlight in weekly newsletters and email notifications when change in routine is upcoming – school trips, non-uniform day and theme days.
5. Identify or create a safe place
A safe place can be a physical place, the participation of an activity or even remembering a place they felt happy and content. Have a trusted adult (parent/carer or available staff in school) discuss with the child their favourite safe place, know this in advance to anxiety. If the time or place was on holiday, encourage pictures to be brought in or emailed over to get a clear picture to help assist them in getting there. Practising whole-class mindfulness breathing techniques are also beneficial.
6. Recognise their efforts
As mentioned earlier, feelings of anxiety can be both short or long term, the concerns may subside over a week or less or may be more of an ongoing challenge. Recognising their efforts is crucial for repetition of healthy strategies when combatting anxiety.
There are a number of activities children can engage with to increase their mental resilience to anxious situations, sporting and creative tasks that create opportunities for personal challenge are ideal. Try finding a new sports club or ask for a list of extra-curricular clubs offered by your school to take the first step to a new challenge.
For more information or strategies in relation to this article or to ensure your staff are prepared to support the following common barriers to teaching and learning in the classroom:
- Challenging behaviour
- Low self-esteem
- School reluctance
- Supporting SEND pupils
please contact Gaby Crolla via firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com 0151 541 2170. We will happily signpost you to the relevant Edsential expert within the SEND, Mental Health and Inclusion Team.