This is what anxiety looks like

Can you see it?

Take a minute to look over the picture above. Notice the details around the table. Do you see any patterns? Are the items grouped in a certain way? How is the space used? What feelings does this picture convey?

When one of my students chose to spend his 30 minutes with me carefully selecting animals, trees, vehicles, and scenery items, and even more carefully setting them up just so, I had an inkling that it might be difficult for him to clean up his work at the end of our time. So, I snapped this picture.

After painstakingly pawing through my bins of miniatures and standing them up in their rightful place, he told me what each part was, and he also had this to say: “This is my world. The world stinks and I wish it was like the one I made.”

Pretty incredible insight for a 1st grader if you ask me!

To me, this picture of his “world” is the epitome of trying to tame anxiety – of feeling like certain things are out of your control, and that when things are out of your control, it can feel pretty scary. To tame it, he created a “world” in which everything has it’s place and purpose; it’s black and white with no shades of gray.

Over my years as a school counselor, I’ve learned that anxiety can look like lots of things. It can look like the kid frozen in her seat, unmoving and non-responsive to your request. It can look like the kid bolting from the classroom. It can look like work avoidance. It can look like extreme silliness. It can look like hiding in the tiniest places imaginable. It can look like tears, or screams, or hitting. It can look like trying to be perfect. It can look like fingernails that are bitten down so low, they’re almost bloody. It can look like intense anger, an immature tantrum, or complete refusal. In some cases, it can look like pulling hair out until there are bald spots, yanking up glued down carpet, or digging at the wall so hard that it leaves holes in the drywall.

I have found that staying curious when a student is showing us behavior is our best option. It’s easy to dismiss a behavior as “just behavior,” and completely miss the anxiety underneath. But dealing with the outward behavior while not acknowledging and addressing the actual issue is a bit like pushing a car uphill instead of finding gas for the tank – you can make it (the kid or the car) do what you want for a while, but it won’t last and you will kill yourself in the process.

So, what do we do?

Here are a few strategies I have found useful when working with students exhibiting anxiety:

How do you help address anxiety with your students?

A perfect combination: Mindsets and standardized tests

Ahh, testing. In education, you can usually count on at least one time of the year when the energy in your school shifts. As School Counselors, I think we are in a unique position to see and feel the shift in our students, staff, administrators, parents, etc.

In my experience, this energy shift usually occurs slightly before, during, and shortly after state testing. And it comes as no surprise. Almost everything changes when testing comes along – schedules, closed doors, seating arrangements, staff assignments, access to materials like laptops, and my personal favorite: voice level expectations – it seems like everyone goes around whispering, even when no longer near a testing environment.

This year, I had a few teachers reach out to me about doing a lesson to address their students’ concerns and anxieties regarding the state tests. I thought about doing simple test taking strategies or stress reduction techniques, but then my previous work with mindset seemed to make the most logical sense. After all, how we think about things greatly impacts our stress level and ability to perform on challenging tasks.

So, I put together a lesson for my 3rd-5th graders to talk about the upcoming testing and mindset. I let the students share their thoughts and feelings about the tests – many admitted to feeling stressed, pressured, nervous, and worried. We then shifted to talking about what they thought mindset is, and the difference between open and closed.

I wrote a couple of statements on the board to help them understand the difference. Under closed mindset, I wrote: “I can’t do this” and “This is too hard.” They told me someone who said those things to themselves wouldn’t learn or do very well on the tests. Under open mindset, I wrote: “This is hard, but I’m going to keep trying” and “I can’t do this…yet.” Comparing the two, students commented on how much better someone who said the last two statements would learn and perform on test.

Closed Mindset Statements

Next came the fun part. We formed a circle and I put a recycling bin in the middle. I gave one student at at time a slip of paper that had a closed mindset statement on it. After reading it out loud, I asked the class how we could change the words to make it open mindset. Once I was satisfied that we really changed the words to change the mindset, I instructed the student holding the slip of paper to crumple it up as tightly as they could and chuck it into the recycling bin. My students had a blast with this activity!

Crumpled Mindset Statements

To wrap up, we watched Rock This Test! The video is adorable and the tune (set to “Dynamite” by Taio Cruz) is super catchy! I asked students to be thinking about what kind of mindset the students in the video have, and I let them share their opinions and reasons why afterward.

I received great feedback from students and teachers alike about this lesson and how they could easily incorporate mindset for not only the state tests, but any challenge they ask of their students!

If you would like to access the mindset statements I used in this lesson, please click here.

I hope this gives you another tool to address testing anxieties in your own schools! And if your school has already completed state testing, I’m sending an online high-five your way! 🙂

 

The Worry Box

I am always looking for counseling techniques to use individually and in small groups. There are so many ideas! I lean toward techniques and strategies that are easily accessible, effective, and FREE! This post is dedicated to a strategy that I discovered on a fellow school counselor’s blog (Scrapbook of a School Counselor). As soon […]