Helping children with anxiety

At Wairakei Primary School we know the importance of working alongside our families to ensure the best outcomes for our students. For children with anxiety, there needs to be a ‘team’ approach from teachers and parents with the same message. Managing anxiety is part of the key competency ‘Managing Self’. The Key Competencies are an exciting and vital part of our New Zealand Curriculum that underpin everything we do in the classroom.

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Key Competencies in Room 12

Anxiety in our children can present itself in different ways.  

It may be they are clingy, afraid to try new things, cry often, struggle to get to sleep, or constantly worry about what might happen.

As parents and teachers, we can empower children to manage and overcome their anxiety.

  • Talk to your children about worrying, remembering that worrying is not all bad. It is designed to protect us and others from danger and everyone worries from time to time.

  • If your child is in the middle of an ‘anxiety episode’, don’t ignore it or underplay it - these feelings are real to them. Remember that during periods of anxiety, there is a dump of stress chemicals into the body which put the pre-frontal cortex (the reasoning and logic part of the brain) on hold for a while and the automated, emotional part takes over. This means we need to get children into a calmer space before we can reason with them or expect them to learn.

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Stress on the brain

  • Validate their anxiety, acknowledge it and stay calm yourself even if you don’t feel it. They will pick up on your anxiety so remember the famous phrase, ‘fake it till you make it’. Teach them to pause, take deep breaths- listen to sounds around them, feel their breath going into their bodies then out. (Practicing mindfulness techniques like this with them at other times of the day will make it easier). This step by step calm down process can be a checklist for them to use even when by themselves. Keep it simple.

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Calm down thermometer

  • Once calmer, this is the time to evaluate the situation. Help them be a thought detective- remind them the brain often exaggerates a thought to make sure we pay attention. Anxiety is often the result of this exaggerated thinking and the best remedy is not necessarily positive thinking but more accurate thinking. Eg. “I have no friends”- is this accurate or does it mean they didn’t have anyone to play with yesterday. Help them to challenge that thought with evidence. Eg.  ….well actually such and such was really nice to me at library time and we shared a book.

   Phrases to calm an anxious child

  • Remind them that they have the power to talk back to their ‘worry brain’ Help them create some specific scripts they can use to target triggers eg. A spelling test…...I can handle this, I have been practising really hard, I have done it before. “I can’t do that” is a common phrase, try…...I can’t do that yet but I can give it a go. Talking back gives them control over the situation. Just because they feel or think something does not make it true. You will find lots of these affirmative statements around our classrooms.

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Room 1 affirmations

  • Help your child to get a good night sleep. Remember 9 to 11 hours is recommended for primary aged children.  The same time and routine will help them relax before bed. This is a great opportunity to practice deep breathing techniques.

Mindfulness techniques for kids- Number 2 & 3 particularly good for bedtime

  • Identify and reward brave behaviour. Don’t see this as bribery but as motivation and an acknowledgement. We work hard to ensure our classrooms are places where our students feel safe to give things a go. We like to recognise and reward effort, taking risks and having a positive attitude.

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100 ways to praise a child

  • Don’t avoid everything that causes anxiety- that is sending the message that they should be anxious about it and will often make it worse. Instead, break those experiences down into smaller, manageable chunks. You may have seen some of the visual timetables we use around the classrooms to help some children cope with their day.  

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Visual timetable

  • Make sure you schedule some relaxing activities into the day. Children need time to just play for the sake of play.

  • Be a role model for children. Acknowledge that we all worry sometimes and tell them or show them how we deal with it. Focus out loud on the positive aspects of a situation.

Remember, don’t be hard on yourself as a parent. You are your child’s champion and you can help them overcome their anxiety. You can give them tools that will be lifelong.

100 ways to praise a child 2