Tips for teachers and leaders to combat student anxiety

Tips for teachers and leaders to combat student anxiety

With the new school year underway, many children and teachers experience severe anxiety or a sense of overwhelm.

According to research from the Black Dog Institute, worries and fears are typical in childhood, but when those fears become “persistent or extreme” and interfere with daily life, it's more likely to fall under the category of anxiety.

Statistics show that 9.4% of children aged 3-17 were diagnosed with anxiety over the past three years and that percentage is rapidly growing yearly.

Dr Tom Brunzell, Director of Education at Berry Street and Honorary Fellow at the University of Melbourne Graduate School of Education, recognises the back-to-school anxiety is not only experienced by students but also teachers.

Dr Brunzell, who has experience as a teacher, school leader, researcher and education advisor, presents internationally on topics of transforming school culture, student engagement, trauma aware practice, wellbeing and positive psychology, and effective school leadership.

His research at the University of Melbourne investigates both the negative impacts of secondary traumatic stress and the positive impacts of wellbeing on teachers and leaders working towards educational equity in their communities.

“All students have moments of stress and uncertainty. They can feel stress overload when they feel like their emotions may be betraying their intentions or their bodies are not obeying their thinking-selves,” Dr Brunzell told The Educator.

“In fact, 72% of Australian children and young people have experienced at least one adverse childhood experience of stress overload [i.e., experiencing violence, significant bullying, neglect from a caregiver].”

Dr Brunzell says a sizeable 29% of young people report high psychological distress, while a quarter of them report loneliness all or most of the time and just over half (53%) feel like they would benefit from therapeutic supports.

“For many students, school is a place to be on high alert. It’s a place filled with uncertain relationships, miscommunication with teachers, and where the ability to complete academic tasks feels daunting,” he said.

“In their own bodies’ stress responses, they have learned to notice when they are stressed and the signals of stress are warning signs of escalation, dysregulation and fear. This fear can be all-consuming, often leading to a catastrophising thinking style that remains for their entire day on campus.”

When asked to share some helpful tips teachers and leaders can use to combat this important issue, particularly when it comes to transitioning back to school, Dr Brunzell said predictable routines are a great place to start.

“Learning can feel uncertain, so we encourage a structured lesson plan that is chunked into sections that the student can easily follow,” he said.

“Follow periods of listening to new content or instructions or on-task and active learning with planned brain breaks. These can be a chance to move their body to help renew focus on learning and make learning possible for those who struggle with long stretches of focus.”

Dr Brunzell noted that in Berry Street’s own practice, staff also place priority on greeting students individually each day as they enter the classroom, and ensuring that students feel recognised. 

“We also encourage teachers to set up their own class routines from transitioning into class, including setting their materials up for learning and routines and structures for group work.”

Dr Brunzell said busy teachers mustn’t forget about their own wellbeing amidst the demanding and fast-paced aspects of the role, noting that being able to cope in the classroom requires noticing when your own stress response feels overloaded.

“Acknowledging self-care at work is important, including knowing when to take a break from a task or a situation,” he said.

“It’s also useful for educators to understand the underpinnings of healthy relationships with their colleagues and roll-modelling those relationships for students.”

Dr Brunzell said it always helps to increase staff resources towards collective wellbeing.

“This includes regular gratitude shown amongst staff, and priming staff meetings and staff interactions with strengths-based language and feedback.”