Supporting Students with Anxiety and Stress at School

Dr. Carla LeHouillier
Wishing Star Associate

This past week I had the opportunity (unfortunately not by choice!) to experience first-hand what many of our students experience on a day-to-day basis – anxiety over an impending exam or test. As the days leading up to the exam became fewer and fewer, and my anxiety about the upcoming date increased, I found myself struggling with my focus and concentration. The impending exam would pop into my mind, and I had to actively work to manage my increasing level of stress. I noticed a number of physiological symptoms of this increasing anxiety as well – muscle tension, headaches and stomachaches also found their way into my daily experiences. Reflecting on this past week, I was reminded yet again that some children and adolescents in our schools are constantly faced with this level of stress and anxiety as they are asked to write tests and exams, present oral reports, share with the class during show-and-tell, or even ask questions in front of the class. If I – as a professional with all the knowledge, tools and resources to deal effectively with changing levels of anxiety and worry – am still having to actively work at using these coping strategies in order to manage my increasing anxiety, what must it be like for our students in the classroom, many of whom do not have the skills, wisdom, resources or support systems necessary to regulate these feelings/emotions? Many of our students come to school carrying these burdens that teachers, administrators and other professionals may not even be aware of. As adults, it can be difficult for us to remember that what seem like minor events during the school day (e.g., sharing assignments with the class, quizzes, answering questions orally or participating in an assembly), can be very anxiety-provoking for some of our students. When we observe a lack of focus or concentration, irritability, difficulty listening and understanding directions, somatic complaints and tension, or even frequent requests to use the washroom, it may be that we are seeing some of the signs of anxiety in our students, rather than attention or behavioral difficulties.

One of the best things that teachers and other educators can do to support students who may be experiencing these worries, fears, stresses or anxieties is to help them feel safe and secure in their schools and classrooms. Providing a warm, caring and understanding attitude for students and encourage them to come talk to you when they are experiencing these emotions. Model healthy coping strategies for these students, so that they can learn some of the skills and tools to be able to handle their stressed or anxious feelings in a healthy way.  For example, teachers can voice out loud their positive “self-talk” for dealing with life situations that are stressful or anxiety-provoking, or they can model the use of their own relaxation strategies such as deep breathing, use of exercise or taking a break when things become overwhelming. Remember that students are not “available” to learn when they are allocating their resources to the more important task of coping with emotional upset. By supporting, modeling coping strategies, and demonstrating understanding to students who are experiencing anxiety or feeling overwhelmed by tasks during the school day, teachers, administrators and other education professionals can help to nurture their students’ emotional selves for healthy development.

This blog posting is not a form of psychological counselling, advice, therapy, or assessment and should not be used as such by any individual. This blog posting is provided only as an article intended to encourage thought and discourse. For specific psychology related services, please contact an appropriate healthcare provider.