3 Steps to Helping Middle School Students with Anxiety
3 Steps to Helping Middle School Students with Anxiety
Effective Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) Strategies
“Hey, you look like you’re feeling some uncomfortable emotions right now.”
“Do you need to take a break?”
“No. That only helps for a minute. Nothing ever works. Not breathing, not coloring, not exercising. The feeling always just comes back. ”
Middle school is a time of significant change and, oftentimes, stress, for students. On any given day, students are dealing with switching classes, getting used to a new environment, adjusting to the expectations of multiple teachers, a heavier workload, and navigating potentially confusing social situations; to name just a few! It’s no wonder middle school anxiety is common.
The above conversation was one that I had with a student a few years ago. It was after that conversation that I started to rethink the ways that I try to help my students with anxiety.
Helping Students with Anxiety in School
If you do a quick web search of “how to help middle schoolers manage anxiety,” you’ll get a list of common strategies such as, take a walk, make time to do things you enjoy, take deep breaths, make a list, practice gratitude, squeeze a stress ball, drink some water, color or draw, get regular exercise. These are all great, evidence-based ways to cope with and alleviate feelings of anxiety in the classroom and students should absolutely be encouraged to find what works for them!
However, as my student explained, for him the anxiety persisted even if he did those things. So, how can teachers help students with anxiety? Those are the go-tos! Well, while those practices are useful and should be utilized, they more so just help students to survive their anxiety as opposed to actually taking steps to challenge and change their thought patterns.
We know from cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) that when people are armed with strategies that help them to independently identify triggers, they can be one step ahead of their anxiety the next time they are faced with an anxiety-inducing situation thus giving the uncomfortable emotion less of a chance to come back.
CBT is one of the most thoroughly studied forms of psychological treatment and has been proven to be highly effective in treating anxiety in adolescents. Of course, as a teacher, you are not providing therapy services, but strategies can be integrated into social-emotional learning (SEL) lessons in a way that is all about problem-solving and totally non-therapeutic!
The goal here is to help students identify and regulate their emotions on their own, so that they don’t require or depend on adult intervention every time they’re feeling anxious. This is far more empowering for students and helps them to feel like they have control over their uncomfortable emotions and their responses to those emotions. It’s essentially the same idea as teaching to think critically rather than just having them memorize and reproduce information.
How Teachers Can Help Students with Anxiety
Here is a sequence and a few resources for helping middle school students to tackle their anxiety from an empowered problem-solving mindset rather than just a survival mindset!
Remind them that anxiety is a biological reaction to a stressful situation. Tell them that their feelings are valid, but sometimes, feelings aren’t facts. Help them to understand this with the next two steps.
Help students to be emotion detectives. Teach them to stop and notice.
Ask: What are you feeling? Notice what that feeling feels like in your body.
Next help them to identify the case with prompts like:
Does this situation usually make you feel this way?
Where were you the last time you felt this way? What were you doing? What did you notice about how you were feeling?
Help them to challenge the emotion: What are the facts of the thing that is causing me to feel anxious? Teach them to ask themselves: My feeling is valid but does the size of my feeling match the facts of the situation?
Lastly, teach them to think of an alternative outcome than the one they are defaulting to that is causing the anxiety? They can think: I automatically think that ______________ is going to happen if__________________, but another equally possible positive or neutral outcome is__________________________.
Check-in with them later in the day to see how they are feeling and to ask them how you can continue to support them. Remind them that they matter and that you believe in them.
It’s worth it
It may seem like a lengthy, time-consuming sequence, but it can literally be done with a quick 3-minute conversation as you’re conferencing with them about something they’re working on. If you take a little more time to support students like this at the forefront of the problem, the payoff will be multiplied over time because students will be able to employ these social-emotional learning (SEL) strategies to reframe their thinking on their own, without your intervention. Teaching students these strategies to identify and manage their anxiety on their own supports their metacognition, their ability to self-regulate, and their flexible and abstract thinking. It empowers students and also builds a powerfully trusting relationship between student and teacher. Plus, you show students that they are worth your time and individualized. What’s more important than that?!
SEL isn’t just time you set aside to teach lessons from whatever curriculum your district uses. Although those lessons are impactful, the most powerful SEL is relational. Relationship building through getting to know your students isn’t just a first week of school thing. It’s an everyday, every conversation, every thought and action kind of thing. Taking the time to show students that their well-being is the single most important thing you care about in your classroom will set the foundation
Cherry, K. (2021). What is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-cognitive-behavior-therapy-2795747
Psychology Today Staff. (2021). Cognitive behavior therapy. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapy-types/cognitive-behavioral-therapy
WeAreTeachers Staff. (2021). 10 ways to help students who struggle with anxiety. https://www.weareteachers.com/help-students-with-anxiety/