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?

Using stations to teach mindfulness

This is the first end of August in the last 10 years (aside from one summer I was on maternity leave)  that I am not preparing to return to school. I’m not creating my forms, planning out my scope and sequence for classroom lessons, or setting up my office. If you’re a regular to my blog, you know that about 7 months ago, I shared that I had resigned to stay home with my daughter.

Instead, I’m planning activities for my daughter and finding ways for myself to work and learn from home.

But, I did want to share a mindfulness lesson I taught last year to grades 4-6. I specifically want to share this lesson because I have taught mindfulness before, but this time I focused on hands-on experiences for the students. I didn’t just want to teach mindfulness and give them an opportunity to try one skill; I wanted them to be able to actually do it.

When planning this out for my older students, I had done some reading about school counselors using centers during their classroom lessons. I didn’t know if I could pull it off in the short time I had, but I decided to give it a try!


I brought a bag full of items that I placed in different areas of the classroom. As I walked to each area, I put down a piece of paper with instructions for that center and briefly described what it was. I put students in 7 groups (very small on purpose), and then directed them to their first station. As time allowed, each group rotated through each station after approximately 3 minutes (sometimes shorter depending on lots of things). We finished by coming back to our seats and I had each student fill out an “exit slip” to rate which station was their favorite and why (great data for me and their teachers!).

Now, here come my positives and negatives about this set up.


  • Fast-paced for students with short attention spans. They tried something new every few minutes. Great way to combat boredom!
  • Students were able to actually do each mindfulness skill. They got to bend their body into happy baby pose and find a mantra that helped them feel good inside.
  • In most classrooms, the stations created such a positive buzz! Students were excited to be up and moving around!
  • This was an excellent way to model for classroom teachers how to have students try mindfulness (and see how natural it can be).
  • Having the tools used in the classroom back in my office was a great tie-in to the lesson. Students would see the breathing ball or glitter bottle and remember the lesson! I also had students request more mandalas to color in their classroom.
  • There was enough variety that most students were able to find a mindfulness skill that worked best for them.


  • Be prepared to run non-stop from station to station! This is not an “oh, I have them set up and they can do it independently” kind of thing. It is hands on, constant redirection, modeling, explaining over and over again, and then modeling again. Keep in mind that students’ knowledge base and comfort level with mindfulness will be all over the map, so they will need your encouragement! (Tip: If you’re being observed by an administrator, don’t pick this lesson to showcase your superb teaching abilities. It might look like a total cluster to an outside person, even if there’s a method to your madness!)
  • Time. Each of these stations could have been at least a 10 minute exercise, so sometimes students felt rushed through when they only had 2 or 3 minutes.
  • I felt like I needed 5 of me to be at each station to help model and talk students through the instructions. My constant close proximity around the classroom had to suffice.
  • Some students just won’t participate in a positive way. They might think it’s “babyish” or “stupid.” You’ve got to be okay with this kind of feedback. And don’t let it deter you.

Here is my Google presentation that I printed to use as instructions in each station.

*Note: I decided not to use the bubble wrap or pinwheel as stations just for planning purposes.

If you have ever tried stations/centers in your classroom lessons, let me know in the comments! 🙂

Mindfulness: Simplicity and complexity in one lesson

When I returned to school after missing the first 8 weeks to take care of my nugget, I spent a lot of time trying to catch up. I’m still catching up. But one thing I couldn’t wait to get back into – visiting classrooms to do lessons! Still, I had to figure out how to start, since my beginning of the year wasn’t the beginning for everyone else (Does that even make sense? Sorry, I’ve got the mom brain).


Anyway, I landed on mindfulness. Why? I am often incorporating mindfulness techniques in my individual sessions with students, and even in some form during classroom lessons. Basically, my students need it! And I decided it was best to teach it more explicitly to 100% of my students.

Here’s what I did:

To keep things simple, I introduced the topic in all K-6 classrooms, and stuck to doing 3 basic mindfulness activities.

  1. Mindful moment – we practiced keeping our bodies still and quiet while we listened to silence. I called it a listening game that began with a chime sound, and challenged them to listen to the chime as long as they could hear it, and then to stay quiet for a while longer to listen to any sounds in the room. They shared what they heard after the game was over, and we discussed if staying still and quiet was hard for any of them, and it was!
  2. Deep breathing – I used my mini sphere ball to help with the inhale/exhale rhythm. I knew this was going to be difficult for some of my students to do without getting silly, so I instructed them to just bring their focus back to the ball and no one else.
  3. Relaxation – in the younger grades, I played relaxing music while they each colored their own mandala however they wished. In most classes, this was the activity that really seemed to bring their energy to a nice, calm state. In the older grades, I played relaxing music while I read a guided imagery exercise about a magic carpet. The students could sit or lay around the room however they were comfortable.

There were of course some variations in what I did depending on the grade level. In K-1, I had the students do belly breathing while laying flat on the floor and watch their hands rise and fall with each deep breath. In K-3, I read the very short story called Take the Time by Maude Roegiers to help us talk about how mindfulness can help themselves feel better.  And in grades 4-6, students completed a stressed vs mindful emotions worksheet, to help us discuss how mindfulness strategies can help them reduce stress and focus on what’s important.

Also in grades 4-6, I asked each student to do an “exit ticket” by writing on a post-it about how mindfulness can help them. This was a way to summarize the lesson, see what they learned (what “stuck” with them), and to use as evidence about why mindfulness is important for our students to learn and practice. I have been blown away by many of their thoughtful responses!

mindfulness post its2.jpg

mindfulness post its3.jpg

While I was a bit worried how the lessons would go; if students or teachers would think it was silly or a waste of time, I have been very impressed so far! Many students have thanked me for the lesson and said they wish they could do these things everyday (which I tell them they can, of course!), and many teachers have enjoyed the calmness of the lesson and asked for more mindfulness resources to continue to use with their students.

If you would like a copy of the lesson plans I created with ASCA standards and the purpose/skills listed, please click on each link below:

Mindfulness grades K-1

Mindfulness grades 2-3

Mindfulness grades 4, 5, 6

If you would like access to free mandalas to print and color, go here:

These lessons have been so much fun to teach, and leave me with a calm feeling too! Definitely a win-win! Hope you enjoyed reading and find these resources helpful. 🙂