Supporting COVID-19 anxiety in the classroom

Featured image

Anxiety is a common problem amongst children and adolescence. In fact, it’s estimated that around one in 14 children struggle with anxiety, making it likely that there’s at least one or two in every classroom. 

This is even more true now, given the unprecedented uncertainty and worry that the COVID-19 pandemic has created.

What is Anxiety?

Anxiety makes us feel worried, afraid, nervous, shy or sad, with an underlying fear that something bad will happen. It’s important to remember that having these feelings is a normal part of a child’s development and in most cases, the anxiety is short-lived.

Anxiety becomes an issue when the child continues to experience intense feelings and it starts to interfere with aspects of their daily life, including:

  • eating
  • sleeping
  • physical complaints about being sick
  • acting out
  • changes in behaviour like being clingy, angry or withdrawn
  • asking many questions
  • having difficulties concentrating, sitting still or participating in activities
  • being able to cope at school

If left untreated, anxiety can have a number of negative, long-term consequences for the child, their overall wellbeing and ability to learn.

Early intervention helps to reduce anxiety and improve the outcome for the child. Many of the skills needed to address anxiety can be taught from a young age.

Anxiety from COVID-19

During the COVID-19 crisis, children and families have faced significant and ongoing changes to life at home, school, work and in the community. Both change and uncertainty can be big causes of anxiety, which means many children, including those who may not have previously had feelings of anxiety, may have new worries about:

  • feeling unsafe/out-of-control in public
  • another wave of cases
  • changes in lifestyle
  • the return to the school routine after spending time in isolation at home
  • going into lockdown again
  • school bullying, after having time away from peers
  • what ‘normal’ will be after COVID-19

Many adults are also feeling the same types of worries, so the situation has certainly put additional pressure on all of us to be aware of our feelings, and how children are coping both at home and in the classroom.

Tips for Teachers to Support Anxiety in the Classroom

There are some simple things that teachers can do to support students with anxiety or worries about COVID-19 in the classroom:

  • Be honest and encouraging – we can’t tell students that ‘everything will be fine’ but we can be open and honest about the precautions schools are taking to minimise risks and protect health and wellbeing
  • Communicate clearly and in advance (if possible) about ongoing changes to school rules, routines and activities
  • Help students to regulate emotions – remind students that it’s normal to feel a range of emotions and encourage them to express themselves so they can feel validated and understood
  • For students who may be finding classwork harder than normal, reward effort, emphasise their strengths and tell them what they are doing well
  • Facilitate social interactions between students to support those who may find it difficult after being away from their peers
  • Explore the positives – talk about the things you can look forward to as individuals, as a class and as a school
  • Build partnerships with families – like any student who may be showing signs that they’re not coping, communicate with families if you notice changes in a student’s behaviour or learning as a result of the COVID-19 situation
  • Look after yourself and know your limits – ensure you give yourself time to reflect, debrief with family and friends, and manage your own feelings
  • Seek help – COVID-19 anxiety may become an ongoing issue for some students and they will need to be referred to a counsellor or psychologist for intervention support.

Positive Thinking Exercise

At the moment, it’s easy to think about all the negative things, rather than having a positive outlook for the future. Thinking about the negatives can lead to increased worry and stress, so encouraging positive thinking in the classroom can be a great activity to support students’ wellbeing.

The activity is simple:

  1. Give your class 10-15 minutes to write down 2-3 things that they’re proud of or something that went well over the last week.
  2. For older students, underneath the successes, ask them to write what they did to make them happen.
  3. Put the notes away until the end of term, or display them each week for everyone to read.

You could make it a Monday morning or Friday afternoon exercise, and at the end of the term or year, use it as an opportunity for students to reflect on everyone’s successes during these challenging times.

It is important for teachers to put some measures in place to support their class, given the uncertainty of when the COVID-19 pandemic will be over. These tips and exercises can make a real difference for students who are feeling anxious in the classroom.