Strategies to Reduce Anxiety in the Classroom 

By: Laura Driscoll
Read Time:  min
Create a calm and supportive environment where students can learn to handle stress.

Is it really necessary to incorporate strategies to reduce anxiety in your classroom or school? Short answer, yes. 30% of students will struggle with significant anxiety at some point during their childhood and adolescence. Most of them, will never receive any formal support and only 1% of those affected will get treatment in the first year that symptoms begin.

That means that students are handling these big, overwhelming feelings on their own. Unsurprisingly, they aren't that good at it yet. As a counselor or teacher, there is a lot that you can do reduce stress and help students manage their worries.

Anxiety Strategies Help Everyone

Everyone has worries. It's completely normal. We can all benefit from strategies, calm surroundings, and supportive people when we are stressed. The anxiety strategies in this post will help everyone and will especially help students who are struggling with big feelings.

Quick Aside - Anxiety Disorders

First, it's 100% not your job to diagnosis a student. So don't worry about that and don't do it. But it can be helpful to know what the different anxiety disorders are. Give these a toggle if you want to a quick description. 

This post from Understood.org does a great job of comparing and contrasting typical anxious feelings with anxiety disorders.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Persistent, excessive, and unrealistic worries that are not focused on one specific situation. For example, they could worry about their health, a family member's safety, a natural disaster, an animal attack, school performance. They have a difficulty time managing these worries which can cause them to have difficulty focusing, learning, or interacting.

Panic Disorder

Often starting in adolescence, but can begin earlier. They will experience significant fear in certain situations and have a panic attack. Panic attacks can be shortness of breath, fast heart rate, pins and needles, feeling faint. Panic disorders can become very disruptive as children begin to worry about future attacks.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

The hallmark of this disorder is intrusive, unhelpful thoughts which cause anxiety, such as a fear of germs. The person then relieves the anxiety by performing a repetitive task (compulsion), such as hand washing.  Other common compulsions are checking something over and over again or rereading something. This often surfaces between 8-12 years old.

Specific Phobia

Being afraid of the dark or of thunderstorms are common childhood fears and are usually outgrown. For some, these fears become more intense and cause significant disruption. 

Social Anxiety Disorder

This disorder is marked by excessive fear of being rejected, humiliated, or embarrassed in front of others. Worries tend to focus on speaking in front of the class, participating, talking with adults, joining a conversation, eating in public. It can be limited to very specific situations and children will often avoid these at all costs. Many students with school refusal struggle with a social anxiety disorder.

Selective Mutism

Children with selective mutism speak freely in some situations or environments and become mute in others. This often happens where children speak at home, but do not speak in school. It typically surfaces in preschool and elementary school. People often mistake this disorder for expressive language impairments, when in fact the cause is excessive anxiety.

Separation Anxiety Disorder

Children experience significant anxiety when they leave their home or caregiver. This can interfere with their social and school functioning. 

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

PTSD is the result of a traumatic event, such as violence, accidents, illness, abuse, or disasters. PTSD can include avoidance, detachment, sleep difficulties, flat affect, outbursts, difficulty concentrating, and reliving stressful memories.

Your Calm Room

Anxiety strategies are not always about deep breathing or naming how you feel. Before students ever walk into your room, you can set up your space to lessen anxiety. This is done with the physical layout, routines, and designated spaces. 

Routines

Routines are simply the actions that you regularly do in your classroom. For example, how students line up or ask for help. Your classroom routines create predictability, decrease downtime, and reassure students.

Keep them consistent and simple. Organize the room to help routines run seamlessly. Don't forget to teach them like anything else.

  • Arriving in the morning
  • Leaving at the end of the day
  • Returning to the classroom after specials
  • Morning meeting structure
  • Working independently or in groups
  • Taking tests
  • Asking for help

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Declutter

Your classroom environment can do a lot to promote calm feelings. That doesn't mean there has to be ocean sounds playing all day long. Keeping the classroom free of unnecessary stuff can help decrease anxiety.

Look around the room and find where things look cluttered. Is there an old anchor chart still up? A pile of books on your desk? Messy student supplies?  Visual clutter can be distracting and overwhelming. Make sure anything that is out in your room has a purpose.

All student materials should be easily accessible, labeled, and organized. This keeps everything flowing and allows students to be independent.

Set aside times for students to organize their desks and materials. Nothing like not being able to find something to increase your stress.

Calm Space

Create a designated space students can go when they are feeling overwhelmed. If possible, students should be away from what's happening in the classroom and able to focus on feeling calm. The space should give them simple steps and familiar strategies to try.

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This customizable calm corner bundle will help you get set up. It includes a calming strategies notebook and a lapbook if you are short on space.

Flow

How does the traffic flow in your room? Less accessible places  or dead ends can create behavior issues and stress for students and yourself. 

Think of the places that students seem to get stuck or the spots where you have a hard time supporting students. Are there blind spots in the classroom where you can't monitor them?

Consider removing extra furniture to let traffic flow freely. 

Actions That Cut Down Stress

How you run your classroom and interact with students is probably the biggest difference maker for students with anxiety. As you read some of these suggestions, reflect on your strengths and areas where you could improve. The point of these teaching practices isn't to coddle or lower expectations. It's to give reassurance and support.

Clear, Fair, Consistent Expectations

When you don't know what will happen or how someone will react, you likely will get nervous. It's important for students to know what is expected of them.

This obviously comes into play clearly with classroom rules and consequences. But it is also part of setting expectations during lessons. Be clear about what students should do. For example, what are the expectations during group work or when they complete an activity early. 

Normalize Worries

Being nervous or afraid can come with some level of shame. In your day to day conversations, explain that worrying about something is completely normal. Everyone has worries and we can use strategies to manage them if they are getting in the way.

Model Optimism

You are constantly trying to model positive behaviors for students. Showing them how to think optimistically is another time to show them how to handle discouraging events.

Work Demands & Time Limits

Time constraints and workload can sometimes cause stress for students and negatively impact their ability to complete anything. If you have some flexibility, can you allow students more time to complete something or reduce some of the work that is required? This isn't about lowering your expectations, but setting students up to do their best work.

Catching Up

When students are out sick, they can get overwhelmed with everything that they missed and feeling out of the loop. Take a moment to meet with the student to create a plan to catch up over the next week.

Multiple Ways to Participate

Getting called on unexpectedly, reading out loud, presenting in front of the class. I get sweaty palms just thinking about it. Are there different options you can give students to participate or demonstrate their learning.

Break Tasks Down

The classic accommodation! Breaking tasks down into manageable chunks helps students feel like something is more doable.

Peer Pairs

Working with a classmate can be stressful or uncomfortable. Consider connecting anxious students with peers who are patient, supportive, and positive. You can also have a conversation with students to see who they think would make the best partner for them.

**You could have students complete a survey about partner work. In it you can ask them to list two peers they work well with and two peers they don't work well with. This is actually great data to understand social relationships in your class. Take note of students that are on the not list and the students who don't show up on anyone's list. 

Anxiety Reducing Activities

When you and your classroom are regularly working to keep anxiety in check, you can use use direct activities to help students manage their worries. Anxiety strategies like positive thinking or cognitive restructuring teach students valuable life-long skills. 

Social Narratives

A social narrative is a written story that explains a situation to a student. They are commonly used with students with autism, but are helpful for students with anxiety as well. You can use them to preview the details of an upcoming event, answer questions, and remove unknowns that might raise anxiety.

Positive Thinking

You can put sticky notes on student's desks with positive messages or quotes on them. Use your morning meeting as an opportunity to have students practice positive thinking first thing in the morning.

Try to focus on effort based self talk (I can try) vs ability based self talk (I am smart). Research has shown that this is more effective for students who doubt their skills.

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This positive thinking lesson and craft helps students identify triggers, and negative thoughts. Then create their own positive-self talk phrase to use.

Responsive Strategies

There are also activities that teach students anxiety strategies so they can use them when they need them the most.

Brain breaks are a common classroom tool. Try sorting breaks to make them more responsive to student needs. For example, you can have breaks that help students focus, feel energized or feel calm.

Look at your schedule and make note of student behavior - do they need a calming activity like mindfulness after recess? Maybe deep breathing before a test.

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Reframing

Reframing a thought is a common anxiety strategy that anyone can learn and use. Simply, you change a negative thought into a more positive or realistic thought. 

For example, you can use the strategy Ugh, But. Say the thing that happened that wasn't so great, and then say something about it that isn't so bad.

"Ugh, we have book report presentations this week, but I have been practicing and feel prepared."

Learning to reframe anxious thoughts can be an invaluable tool for worriers. 

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Success Chains

There is some research that reflecting on past accomplishments can help you feel more confident.

Students write down their successes during the year on strips of paper. You can then make each strip into a chain link and chain the strips together. You can display it around the room to remind students of all they have learned.

Gratitude Prompts

Have students do a daily gratitude exercise for a week. They write down three things that went well that day and tell why it went well. These can be small things like they worked with a friend or they got extra recess time. 

There are many ways to create a classroom that supports anxious students. Comment below with one idea that you are going to try.

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About Laura

I’m a school psychologist who left her office (closet?) and got busy turning a decade of experience into ready to use counseling and SEL resources.

I live in New York City with my adventurous husband and relaxed to the max daughter who’ve grown to appreciate my love of a good checklist.

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