4 Tips for Helping a Student with Anxiety

August 31, 2021
Dr. Kevin Mabie

Coming back to school can be an exciting time for students. New people, new classes, and new environments can be a big reason many students look forward to August. However, new people, new classes, and new environments can be the very same factors that make many of our students extra anxious. Those factors can even be the reason the adults in a school are experiencing more anxiety than usual.

As our CPI Crisis Development ModelSM reminds us, we have a job to do when the people around us demonstrate “a change in behavior.” When we see “Anxiety,” our job is to be “Supportive.” But sometimes, we don’t even need to wait for that change in behavior; we can anticipate it instead. A back-to-school scenario is one of those times. So, with the back-to-school season looming for many of us, let’s get excited, but let’s also adopt these four strategies for helping a student with anxiety:

1. Have a Plan to Introduce Yourself to Your Students.

Take a moment to remember your favorite teacher as a young person. What makes that person stand out? It may have been his or her subject matter expertise or overall brilliance. Maybe it was that teacher’s sense of humor or ability to entertain an entire room. However, more than likely, that teacher’s willingness to be “known” was part of the equation.

The best teacher I ever had was Mrs. Robin Munro. She was my third AND fifth grade teacher at Forest Park Elementary in O’Fallon, Missouri. More than 30 years later, I know that she is a huge Cardinals baseball fan, I know she had a beautiful black Labrador, and I even know that she has a brother who knew how to draw some pretty cool art. One time, she told us that she sometimes collected rainwater to rinse her hair in because it made it smooth. Another time she admitted she didn’t know how to “tight-roll” her jeans, and she let us teach her how.

I could go on and on with these little nuggets!

Mrs. Munro was a great teacher because she was a real person to us. At the beginning of the school year, she showed us pictures and talked about her home life. She let us “in” and helped us to feel comfortable and supported.

As you may expect, this kind of approach can go a long way toward helping a student with anxiety feel more comfortable around a new teacher or a new school.

2. Say “Hello!”

I worked for 17 years at the high school level and welcomed about 120 students each day into my classroom. And while they sometimes came in quickly and sometimes came into the room with other students by their side, I was routinely ready to welcome them with a smile, a nod, a “hello,” or a high-five.

Unfortunately, one of the reasons students sometimes have escalated anxiety is because it’s allowed to build and build throughout a school day. And while saying “hello” is not a guaranteed way to ease that anxiety, it’s a step in the right direction. It is a CPI “Supportive” approach.

To do this well, my experience has taught me a few things about helping a student with anxiety:

First, I need to be cognizant of my smile. I love to smile, but when I am thinking deeply, my smile is replaced by a very serious-looking face. And as you might expect, school is a place where I often had to think deeply! My mind may have wanted to alter a lesson from one group to the next or to reflect on one group of students while the next was coming in. However, I quickly learned that this reflection affected my smile. As a result, when you are welcoming students to your classroom, I hope you will free your mind and smile!

Additionally, I hope that you find ways to mix up your approaches to welcoming students to class, and the CPI strategy of “Communication Through Touch” helps us with this. If you’ve attended CPI courses, I hope you learned that people sometimes need physical contact, whereas other times people don’t need or like that contact at all. However, the variety in the needs of our students doesn’t stop there! Some students like a high-five and others like fist-bumps; some students like a pat on the shoulder and others might like the surprise of an occasional handshake. Just as students sometimes need you to “differentiate your instruction,” helping a student with anxiety might require you to differentiate your greeting. Doing so will help you to positively influence even the most hidden of anxieties in students entering your classroom.

3. Give Choices and Limit Choices.

As a student who experienced a little social anxiety myself, I remember simultaneously wishing I got to choose my own seat in class and wishing somebody would just tell us all where to sit in the cafeteria. In the teacher-controlled environment of the classroom, I felt safe choosing the one-to-four people I was going to sit next to; however, in the loosely managed cafeteria environment, it gave me a heap of anxiety deciding who among 250 students I should sit next to. It also gave me a heap of anxiety wondering who would want to sit next to me!

While the decision to assign seats or not may not be up for debate in your classroom, I hope some decisions are being made that will allow students to have some choice. Perhaps it’s a decision to use pencil OR pen on assignments. Maybe it’s a decision to sit at a desk OR to occasionally stand at the side or the back of the room. Try to put yourself in your students’ shoes and think about the number of decisions already made for them when they enter your classroom. Which of these decisions are relatively unimportant to you? Find those opportunities to give your students some choice.

It’s just as important to recognize times when too much choice may not be helping a student with anxiety or could be creating anxiety in students who are a little less sure of themselves socially or emotionally. Think twice, especially early in the school year, before allowing students the chance to pick their partners or groups. If there are ways you can manipulate your classroom processes to be inclusive of extroverts and introverts alike, that supportiveness will likely have profound effects on your students’ anxieties.

4. Have Clear Expectations and Rewards.

While the tips in this article have been back-to-school focused, this final piece of advice will pay dividends throughout the school year. Module 4 in the CPI Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® curriculum includes an emphasis on Limit Setting, and we learn that this strategy can work in the moments when our students are refusing to complete tasks or engage in learning. However, the ability to set effective limits in a classroom often begins with clear expectations and rewards at the beginning of the school year.

For example, a student talking out-of-turn in an elementary school classroom can lead to a diversity of emotions. The student may be frustrated that it’s not like being at home, where speaking any time he or she wants might be acceptable behavior. The teacher may be frustrated that those students can’t recognize when it’s socially appropriate to speak. The other students in the room may become anxious as others speak out of turn, because they’re unsure of when there will be airspace to speak.

The time to address this is before it ever becomes a problem.

Students may not always understand why they need to wait for their turn to speak. Instead of becoming frustrated or inducing anxious feelings in your students, you can clarify how speaking will be handled in your classroom. Will it be handled differently when they're at their desks as opposed to a reading circle on the floor? In the end, you will be helping a student with anxiety (or the potential for anxiety) by telling him or her what the consequence is for speaking out-of-turn, as well as the reward for following your expectations.

Speaking out of turn is only one of the potentially anxiety-inducing behaviors that may show up in your classroom. Take the time this school year to consider the student behaviors that will negatively influence the behavior and feelings of others. Addressing those behaviors from the beginning of the year goes beyond helping a student with anxiety; it becomes the gift that keeps on giving to all your students throughout the school year!

Kevin Mabie, Ed.D. is a Global Professional Instructor at Crisis Prevention Institute, and an educator with over 20 years of experience as a high school teacher and administrator. Dr. Mabie also facilitates trainings for the National School Reform Faculty.

Schedule a Consultation

Learn how CPI’s training programs can benefit your organization.

Let's Connect