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Supporting Anxious Learners

Looming exams; friendship challenges; overwhelming workload; the frenetic pace of the school day; sensory overwhelm; home-life difficulties, inadequate support for special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), not to mention the ongoing effects of the pandemic; students today can end up feeling anxious for a multitude of reasons. In this blog post, Meredith Husen, a guest writer with a background in psychology, teaching and counselling, explores the ways we can support anxious learners, no matter the cause. 

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What is anxiety? 

Anxiety is the body’s ancient, intelligent and very normal response to a threat in the environment. It allows us to immediately become vigilant and ready to fight or flee, sending blood away from our non-vital organs to our muscles and increasing our breathing and heart rate. Although we are no longer dealing with threats like being chased by a wild animal, our reptilian brain (the oldest part of our brain) cannot distinguish between real threats and ones that we may make bigger in our minds (the consequences of our exam results, friendship challenges, completing seven pieces of homework by tomorrow). Animals have a very adaptive response post-chase of shaking to regulate their system and return quickly to a state of calm which we, as humans, tend not to do. Unfortunately, the accumulation of this anxious energy with nowhere to go and without release can lead to powerful, often-distressing feelings that can interfere with one’s ability to focus and learn. Distracted by an often catastrophizing and negative thought-spiral as well as the very visceral body sensations that feeling anxious can bring, students can have a tough time engaging their pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain used for social interaction, learning and memory. 

When the body and brain are taken over by anxiety, there is very little capacity left for learning as the brain and body’s main preoccupation in this state is to ensure safety. If a student is feeling anxious in the classroom, it is likely that they will not be able to absorb the learning material or integrate it into long-term understanding and memory. 

How can we support anxious learners? 

Whatever the technique or strategy, the point is to re-establish a sense of safety and calm in the student’s brain and body. Below, I outline 10 ways to achieve this effectively:  

anxious learner playing

1. Make enough space for play

With so many demands on children’s time, it is hugely important that sufficient space is made for a student’s interests, unstructured play and areas of enjoyment. As well as learning vital social skills, ensuring they have adequate play time can allow them to release, or at least temporarily put away the pressure and demands of school and allow them to develop a sense of autonomy. Play – and delighting in what brings joy – is a natural antidote to anxiety.

2. Sufficient sleep and rest

Sleep is known to ‘reset’ the system. It allows for the day’s ‘bucket of stress’ to empty and for the next day’s demands to be met with sufficient capacity. A lack of sleep alone can create a feeling of anxiety as tasks seem harder to manage without a clear head and well-rested body. Bedtime should be protected and sacred so that the body can get used to optimal, regular sleeping and waking hours. 

3. A calm environment

A chaotic, busy, loud, rushed environment will pretty much guarantee a stressed or anxious learner. As we all know, it is far easier to focus in a work space that is calm, organised and quiet. Ensure a student’s study environment is a calm, safe place for them. You could turn it into a fun activity to ask your child how they feel about their current study space and what they think might help them make it feel better (full room renovations not required; often it is the little things, and even more often it is about decluttering!) 

4. Be a calm, empathic and supportive adult

Having someone that a child sees as a safe, supportive presence that they can talk to cannot be underestimated. The very act of being heard, understood and empathised with is enough to calm an anxious mind and body. It is important that adults have some way to regulate (control and calm) their own anxiety so that they do not collude with their child’s worries. A child will pick up on an adult’s internal anxious state and may not feel you are a safe presence to open up to. 

5. Get into nature

Being in nature is immediately restorative and calming for body, mind and soul. Students should have time in nature daily, preferably a green space. Two personal favourite nature grounding exercises of mine are: laying on the grass and looking up at the sky for at least 5 minutes and offering a tree a good, long hug! Removing shoes and socks or getting one’s hands dirty in the soil also has a calming effect. 

6. Make a learning schedule/ revision timetable

Students often struggle with how to manage their study time out of school and, as this is not usually a skill taught in schools, they may need your support. Drawing up a clear schedule with plenty of breaks can help offer them some structure and reduce the sense of anxiety and overwhelm. 

7. Breathe deeply

When we are feeling anxious our breathing tends to be quick and shallow. Consciously breathing deeply quickly counters this and activates the parasympathetic nervous system for calm. It can be comforting to place the hands on the belly to feel the belly rise and fall with the inhale and exhale. Box breath – inhaling for 4, holding for 4, exhaling for 4, holding for 4 – is an easy one to remember. I also really like the Snake breath (breathing in deeply and exhaling making a hissing sound) and Bumblebee breath (breathing in deeply and making a buzzing sound on the exhale) for younger children. N.B: Children under 7 should not hold their breath. 

8. Move!

Movement is particularly helpful for anxious students as it offers a way for the anxious energy to be released. It doesn’t matter what kind of movement (running, cycling, swimming, dancing, walking, team sports, yoga) but enjoyment is key so that it is done on a regular basis. I offer brain/body breaks in my sessions every 20 minutes where we dance, do star jumps, jog on the spot, hop, stretch and take some deep breaths. 

support anxious learners image

9. Regulation exercises for calm 

Some of my favourite ways to help my students regain a sense of calm when they are feeling anxious is through regulation exercises. As well as deep breathing, these include deep pressure e.g. using fingertips with firm pressure on the forehead, earlobes, jawline; pushing body weight against a wall with hands; the ‘palm push’ (pushing palms together – elbows out – feeling the resistance); a self-hug with some pressure on the upper arms and shoulders; hand and arm massage; all of which stimulate the vagus nerve and helps to tap into a sense of calm. 

10. Converse with the anxious feeling

The body speaks and we can converse with it! The physical sensations that anxiety can bring can draw us to a particular part of the body (often the stomach/ solar plexus). When we pay attention to the sensations we might start to get curious about it. Can you sense what colour, size, shape, texture this feeling is? Does it have a name? What might it be saying to you? Is there anything it needs? You might also draw/ paint your worry on paper. This can help to show us we are not our anxious feelings and gain a bit of distance from it as well as be particularly useful for children who struggle to verbalise their feelings. 

There are many reasons students may feel anxious, but fortunately, there are also many ways to help anxious learners return to a state of calm. Happy calm learning!

If the anxiety is prolonged, chronic or impeding a student’s ability to function and learn in daily life, professional help should be sought. Below are some useful websites for further support: 

AnxietyUK Young Minds Young Minds – Parents NHS Mental Health Helpline Child Anxiety Samaritans