Anxious/Stressed Students: What You Can Do About It

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BlogPostGraphic_Anxious-Stressed-StudentsBy Jim Grant, SDE Founder and Consultant

My most popular workshop for parents and educators today is “Grit and Growth Mindset: The Key to Perseverance.” As a presenter, I have discovered that one workshop will often give birth to another. This was the case with my new workshop on anxious/stressed children. I have observed that anxiety and stress is often one of the reasons why some students haven’t yet become gritty or developed a growth mindset. Not too long ago ADD/ADHD was the most common issue for referring children who struggled. Today, school officials report that anxiety and stress are the top psychological problems for children of all ages. I am not surprised by this, as I predicted this trend two decades ago when I was presenting my popular workshop, “Understanding the Plight of The Harried/Hurried Child.” I will attempt to answer the most often asked questions on anxiety and stress.

Q. Are there more anxious/stressed children today?
A. Yes. An estimated 10% of today’s school population suffers from mental health problems. The big concern is anxious kids become anxious adults. This will not bode well for their future.

Q. How has society contributed to children’s stress?
A. Unlike past generations, today our children are exposed to themes once reserved for adults (i.e. war, violence, sex, etc.). Children are subjected to sophisticated marketing that pressures them to be materialistic. Parents express concerns that too many children are old before their time. We are witnessing the adultification of our youth as we watch them being robbed of their innocence. We seem to have created a generation of young people who operate on wants rather than needs. Two years ago, Pope Francis declared, “Whenever communication is primarily aimed at promoting consumption or manipulating others, we are dealing with a form of violent aggression.” Well said!

Q. What ways have family dynamics changed, thus creating stressful situations for children?
A. There are many more types of family arrangements, each with their own set of dynamics… some more stressful than others. There has been an increase in the number of families living in poverty. Poverty is stressful! There are more homeless families today. Many families are transient, creating school issues for children.

Q. Are some of today’s parenting practices causing children to feel anxious and stressed?
A. Yes. Out of love, today’s parents want their kids to have it easier than they did. What seemed like a noble idea has turned out to produce unintended consequences. We have helicopter parents who do everything for their children; there are snowplow parents who remove every obstacle in the path of their child, and there are laissez-faire parents who let their children do whatever they want. Because children have had everything done for them, they often don’t know what to do when confronted with problems and setbacks. Not knowing what to do will produce anxiety and stress.

Q. Are there some school policies and practices that have inadvertently added to children’s stress?
A. There is an old New England saying that applies to fishing: “Bait the hook with what the fish like, not what we like!” This lesson has implications for schools. Over the past dozen years, we have adopted policies and practices designed to meet the needs of politicians and pundits rather than the educational needs of students. Policies and practices that come to mind include: the obsession with standardized testing; substituting test-prep for quality instruction; increased curriculum volume; curriculum pacing as a reaction to too much curriculum; escalated (shoved down) curriculum; pay for performance (principals and teachers are paid based on another person’s parenting skills!); high standards that may be developmentally inappropriate for some children; automatic social promotion; and the adherence to the 1843 Prussian lock-step, time-bound school structure (to name a few). What is sad is that these policies and practices not only stress children but principals, teachers, and parents too.

Classroom Solutions

There are things we can we do within our sphere of influence to lesson children’s anxiety and stress:

1. Have children practice deep breathing.
2. Create class time for students to engage in yoga poses.
3. Provide students quiet reflection time.
4. Give students recess with free playtime.
5. Create movement breaks throughout the day.
6. Establish boundaries, rules and limitations so students know what to do.
7. Teach students initiation strategies to get started (i.e. preview afternoon work in the morning, have them do a few examples from the next day’s lesson, etc.)
8. Build on the student’s strengths, not weaknesses.
9. Allow students to hold a comfort object.
10. Be open to a service dog.
11. Teach students to interpret and respond to non-verbal cues.
12. Incorporate art across the curriculum.
13. Provide a SAD light to those who need this therapy.
14. Allow children to have a stuffed animal.
15. Have children grow and tend a plant.
16. Provide time for children to color in coloring books.

Family Solutions

Help families find support services to help them with their needs for food, children’s health insurance, clothing programs, child care, counseling, car repairs, dental services, eye care, etc.

Big idea… Consider starting a school food pantry and clothing program.

School Policies And Practices

Find the courage to take a stand by lobbying against policies and practices that are NOT child centered. Be sure of your position so you don’t lose your credibility. Become politically active and vote for pro-education candidates. The recent vote by Congress to fix “Leave No Child Behind” and “Race to The Top” shows that change can happen when we work together.
And here’s a little plug for additional resources… I have two new books on grit due out in March: Grit to Go and my first children’s book, What Gritty Kids Do When No One Is Looking. Visit to order your copies.

Best to you folks,
Jim Grant

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