Confronting Student Anxiety Head-On

Jake Gallinger, Principal, Bialik Hebrew Day School in Toronto, Ontario

Understanding the Process of Worry

Anxiety ImageOn the third day of school this year, I walked a nervous and tearful Jr. Kindergarten boy into school. As I held the boy’s hand on the way to his classroom, I did everything I could to help him feel safe, loved and supported. At the door of his classroom, the boy looked up at me, wiped his last tear away, and said, “Thank you, Gallinger.” Although he had forgotten the “Mr.,” this moment truly made my day and reminded me why I am so fortunate to work in education.

The child in this story was experiencing separation anxiety, a common form of anxiety that we see at Bialik Hebrew Day School in Toronto, Ontario. Although separation anxiety is most prevalent among our Kindergarten students, students of all ages can experience these feelings, along with other types of anxiety. The difficulties of saying goodbye to a parent usually fade as our students feel increasingly comfortable and confident in their new classes; however, the day-to-day rigors of school life can still bring out a variety of worries. These may include anxiety, discomfort or nervousness involving homework or formal assessment, or apprehension surrounding recess, washrooms, social situations, friendship or other personal trepidations.

At Bialik, we recognize the prevalence of these anxieties, and our staff began the school year with a focus on better understanding and supporting the mental health and wellness of all our students. We invested significantly in a meaningful Professional Development (PD) Day with Lynn Lyons, an internationally acclaimed psychotherapist, author and speaker, who helps educators, children, and families manage anxiety disorders. 

Lyons treats anxiety using a skills-based approach that focuses on managing our relationship with worry. She encourages children and parents to focus more on understanding the process of their worry, rather than its content, and teaches that anxiety is a normal part of growing and learning. 

Our teachers and professionals have welcomed Lyons’s expertise, and at Bialik, we are now working on making a critical, school-wide shift in the way we approach our students’ relationship with anxiety and worry.

We have adopted her skills-based model, a positive approach that puts children in charge of how they choose to respond to worry, rather than seeking to avoid it. We have learned that encouraging children to avoid unpleasant and uncomfortable situations may temporarily alleviate the symptoms of anxiety, but the approach does not treat the anxiety itself or equip children with the skills required to persevere, demonstrate grit, overcome challenges and be successful in all aspects of life.

This learning process involves lots of love and encouragement from supportive adults. It also means allowing students to take risks, try things that may bring nervous feelings, and ultimately make mistakes. At Bialik, we encourage our students to bravely step into fearful situations and to adopt a courageous mindset when they engage in activities or situations that feel uncomfortable or uncertain. This approach promotes flexibility, the development of self-esteem and self-advocacy and teaches students to self-soothe and problem-solve.

Our school counsellor, Laura Mincer, utilizes Lyons’s model for tackling anxiety on a daily basis to support dozens of children. As Mincer explains, “We have seen, firsthand, how this model empowers our students. It teaches them to take control of the way they react and respond to worry, instead of allowing worry to be in charge of them. Our students are adapting the way they acknowledge, tackle and speak to their worries.”

To complement our teachers’ learning, we recently hosted a parent seminar, led by Ms. Lyons, that armed parents with strategies to manage anxiety and support learning at home. By inviting parents into our school to learn alongside our teachers, we provided our community with the opportunity to begin speaking the same language, using consistent vocabulary at school and at home. 

We are more confident than ever that our educational team, with support and commitment from our parent body, is equipped with the requisite skills and understanding to positively impact student mental health and wellness. And we believe that our focus on the whole child will continue to have a positive impact on student life, happiness and academic success. We look forward to continuing to build our school community’s knowledge and to keeping this important conversation going.

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