Anxiety is a significant concern for school-aged kids, with nearly 30% of students battling it during childhood. Unfortunately, only 1% of those affected get help in the initial year that symptoms appear - and the others never receive formal support.
That means that students are handling these big, overwhelming feelings on their own. However, as a school counselor, there is a lot that you can do to help students manage their worries. Here are ten ways school counselors can help students with anxiety. These can be used during class lessons, in group counseling, with individual students, or shared with teachers and parents.
#1 - Psychoeducation About Anxiety
When it comes to supporting students with anxiety, one of the most important approaches is providing psychoeducation. This involves showing students how their anxiety works in their bodies and how they can use tools to manage stress in healthy ways.
By understanding how anxiety works, students can separate themselves from their worries. Depersonalizing anxiety, can help them challenge negative thinking and feel confident they can manage it. This also lets them start to be aware of their triggers, warning signs, and best coping strategies. Psychoeducation is the foundation for students to navigate these feelings on their own.
#2 - Deep Breathing
Deep breathing is one of the best tools to help students manage their anxiety in the moment. They don't need any props; their lungs are right there with them. In addition, school counselors can discuss how deep breathing helps regulate stress levels. This not only works at the moment but has long-term benefits.
A simple deep breathing strategy is to breathe in and count slowly up to four, hold your breath for two seconds, and slowly breathe out while counting up to four again.
Check out the posts below for more ways to teach deep breathing to elementary students.
#3 - Encourage Physical Activity
Physical activities during the school day are the perfect stress relievers for students. This can be recess, movement breaks, yoga, or even being the class messenger. Incorporating physical movement throughout the day is a natural and healthy way for students to manage anxiety.
You can also combine this into counseling sessions through different movement games or taking a mindful walk. What do students notice as they are walking? It's a perfect opportunity to introduce grounding.
#4 - Guide Students Through Progressive Muscle Relaxation
A progressive muscle relaxation is an excellent tool for anxiety relief. Try using this at the end of group counseling or as part of a whole class lesson. You can create recordings of guided muscle relaxation or find one on the web. These are perfect for sending to parents of anxious students or sharing in your newsletter with teachers. I have used these in professional development sessions with teachers and had them add them to their classroom routines.
#5 - Build Healthy Habits
Give a whole class lesson on building healthy habits. This includes getting enough sleep, eating healthy, and staying active. For anxious students, also focus on establishing and maintaining social connections. This doesn't have to mean becoming an extrovert but can instead mean nurturing one positive relationship. Having these students schedule positive activities, such as journaling or spending time with a loved one, is effective.
#6 - Real People
Sometimes you can talk until you are blue about how anxiety works, strategies they can use, and how capable they are, and it doesn't get through. However, seeing how someone you admire learned to handle their stress might make it click for them. This might be someone famous, or it could be someone they know.
Salt In His Shoes is an excellent book about Michael Jordan. (affiliate link)
#7 - Time for Gratitude
Focusing on gratitude is a simple and effective practice for improving happiness and putting negative events in context. Each day, have students write down three things they are grateful for.
Free Positive Thinking Strategies Resource
#8 - Using Feelings Trackers
In counseling, have students track their feelings over time. Having a concrete representation makes it easier to talk to students about stress, pinpoint triggers, and acknowledge positive feelings.
For example, you can have a simple worksheet that a student completes daily with the feelings they experienced or the dominant feeling that day. Then, at the end of a month, they will be able to see the patterns and anticipate where their stress is coming from.
#9 - Give Them The Antidote
Antidote plans are an excellent way for students to prepare for anxiety-provoking events. These plans help the student identify how they will respond in certain situations and how to cope when their feelings become overwhelming.
Antidote plans usually have five components: relaxation strategies, self-talk, support people, healthy habits, and goals.
Students should identify a simple relaxation strategy like deep breathing, grounding, or coloring. They can then identify a self-talk phrase they can remember.
The plan should also include adults or peers the student can seek out for support. An essential part of these plans is proactive strategies. First, you can help students plan healthy habits, like getting enough sleep and eating a nourishing snack. Last, they can set goals around managing their stress using all their strategies.
#10 - Social Narratives
Social narratives (or stories) are an excellent way for school counselors to help students with anxiety. These stories provide a structure that can be used to prepare students for new events by assisting them in understanding how they should respond in certain situations and how to cope when feeling overwhelmed. By using social narratives, school counselors can equip their students with the tools they need to manage anxiety and build confidence in themselves.
Ways School Counselors Can Support Students with Anxiety
School counselors have a unique opportunity to help students with anxiety. You can provide tools like social narratives, progressive muscle relaxation, or deep breathing techniques. You can show entire classes how anxiety works and how to build healthy habits. As a school counselor, you are well-equipped to foster positive mental health in schools.
Feelings Check-In Tools
These Feelings Check-In tools and activities let students practice recognizing their emotions and determining how to manage those feelings in the classroom.
Anxiety Counseling Map
The checklist and map cover psychoeducation about anxiety, self-awareness, self-management, goal setting, mindset, problem-solving, and social connection.