We’re all on edge because of the coronavirus. Our daily lives have been disrupted, we aren’t sure what tomorrow may bring, and, for many of us, the nonstop news and social media coverage are overwhelming. Therefore, it is not uncommon to feel anxious or worried during this time. If you or your learners are feeling worried, learning how to deal with anxiety in a healthy way can help your learners be more resilient, both now and when the pandemic is finally over. To help you help your learners, we spoke to educational psychologist, Dr Jeanné Roux, to learn more.”
What is anxiety?
Anxiety can be described as feelings of uneasiness or being worried when there is not necessarily any imminent danger present. It is often accompanied by intrusive and often unrealistic “What if” types of thoughts, experienced in the body as stress that continues even after the cause of the stress is gone.
What can teachers do to support their learners?
Many teachers are experiencing a more difficult time dealing with COVID-19 than their learners and some of the anxiety that kids are experiencing may be unintentionally passed on by worried teachers. As teachers, it is important to be a positive role model for your learners and this includes showing them how to deal with anxiety during stressful events. You can create a positive and safe atmosphere in the classroom by doing the following:
- Living in the “here and now” by focusing on, and staying in touch with, what is actually happening and not getting carried away with worst-case scenarios.
- Identifying and getting help for your own anxieties first.
- Being smart about what you read and share with your learners. Make sure your information comes from trustworthy and credible sources. While it is important that we are informed about how best to keep our families safe, we should be mindful about what we are reading online to make sure it’s actually helpful and not making our anxiety worse. It is easy to get sucked into clicking on “fake news” inadvertently without applying common sense.
- Being aware of feel-good news and sharing these stories with your learners to facilitate a more positive mindset and create awareness of the “silver lining” despite the crisis.
Monitor your learners
Teachers do not always recognise signs of anxiety in their learners. Identifying anxiety in a child can be tricky because it involves a pattern of behaviours that is unique to each child. The following behaviours could indicate anxiety:
- Reassurance-seeking (asking questions like “Are we going to be okay?”)
- Reluctance to separate from parents (this can manifest as children expressing that they are missing their parents or want to go home)
- Physical symptoms like headaches or stomach aches
- Moodiness and irritability
- Tantrums or meltdowns
- Trouble sleeping (while you as a teacher may not know whether a child is struggling to sleep, look out for excessive tiredness or sleepiness in a learner)
Talk about their anxiety
If a learner displays any of the above symptoms, or you feel that they might be feeling anxious, take a few moments to talk to them between classes or during break time. How you approach this discussion is going to differ depending on the child’s age. Here are some tips:
- Younger Learners – Younger learners may not always be able to express how they are feeling. For younger learners, use a “feelings chart” with pictures describing emotions instead of saying “Tell me how anxious you are”. With a feelings chart, which you can find on the internet, you can ask the learner to point to the feeling and/or picture representing an emotion that they are currently experiencing. They can also draw pictures about things they feel happy or sad about.
- Older learners – For learners who are more aware of, and able to articulate, how they are feeling, it is better to ask what psychologists call “forced-choice questions.” If you ask a vague question, you’re going to get a vague answer. So instead of asking “How are you today?” which is pretty vague, maybe ask “Is your anxiety getting in the way of you having a good day today?”.
- Teenagers – If you are teaching teenagers, you need to approach discussing their anxiety differently. If you’re concerned about a teenage learner, take them aside for a few minutes to chat to them. Start talking about yourself first. You can start the conversation with something like, “I saw this article today and it made me wonder about this and that. Did you experience something like that? What’s your reaction to it?”. Do not force teenagers to talk about their feelings unwillingly as this can create tension and cause them to feel hostility towards you, whether you’re a parent or a teacher. Wait a bit first and then attempt to discuss the matter with them at a later stage when they are calm and more willing to talk. If this still does not work, suggest that they use a journal or art activities to express their feelings and experiences.
If you are concerned that a learner is struggling with anxiety, or if they have expressed as much during your conversation with them, be sure to contact their parent or guardian to relay this information and to discuss a way forward.
How to help your anxious learner
If it becomes apparent that a learner needs some help while in class, try the following:
- Avoid giving too much reassurance. Avoid getting into a cycle of providing too much reassurance. Children of all ages can become too reliant on reassurance and want to hear it more and more often. They may seek it out from teachers as well as parents or guardians, and when a teacher isn’t able to give them complete reassurance, their anxiety can worsen. Instead, try the following:
- Remind learners of the things they are doing to take care of themselves (like washing their hands, wearing a mask when in public, and staying indoors),
- Remind them of what they can still enjoy despite challenges,
- Encourage them to focus on the present.
- Give them hope for the future, by asking them to make a list of, or draw things, they are looking forward to doing when the lockdown is over. This creates a sense that current circumstances are only temporary.
- Don’t be afraid to discuss the coronavirus. Not talking about something can make children, regardless of their age, worry more. If a learner asks about the virus, convey the facts in a realistic and reassuring way. You can, for example, say, “People are getting sick, but most of them get well and healthy again”.
- Acknowledge your own anxiety. Take care of yourself. Remember to “put the oxygen mask on first” before you help a learner. If your own wellbeing is compromised, you might miss signs that a learner is struggling, and you will not be able to support them as best you can.
- Focus on what you’re doing to stay safe. Children of all ages feel empowered when they know what to do to keep themselves safe. Remind them that if they wash their hands frequently and wear their masks in public, they will be safe. You can create a handwashing song to make this activity more fun for younger children.
- Calm yourself.Don’t share your worries with your learners or become panicked. If you are feeling anxious, find ways to deal with these anxieties. The way you react to the current crisis will teach your learners how to deal with future challenges.
- Be aware of signs and symptoms that a learner may be experiencing anxiety. Now is not the time to “wait and see”. Advise parents to seek professional help if a learner’s normal functioning is impaired by their anxiety.
By Dr Jeanné Roux, Educational Psychologist