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Easing the Cycle of Anxiety

Walter Lyons, May 28, 2020

How Anxiety Can Affect Learning

Executive functioning is the set of mental processes that helps us pay attention, organize, plan, prioritize, and start and complete tasks. However, when anxiety increases, executive functioning decreases. During this era of remote schooling, parents and teachers may be seeing students have trouble doing things you know they can do. If you find yourself asking questions like, “But you knew this yesterday.” or “Why haven’t you started your homework?”, anxiety may be the cause.

Unfortunately, the more attention we draw to the concern, the more we risk launching a vicious cycle in which increasing the stress adds to anxiety, which decreases executive functioning. What can we do to break this cycle or at least offer support to a student wrestling with anxiety?

Strategies for Helping Children Manage Anxiety

 1. Decrease the anxiety.

Stop and take a break. Dr. Blaise Aguirre, Medical Director of 3East Continuum at McLean Hospital, suggests validating what the child is feeling. For him or her the feelings are real. Try to talk about what is happening at that moment; but if the child can’t discuss it, let it go. You may still feel strongly that the child has to finish the assignment; but be aware their anxiety may make that impossible at the moment.

 2. Help with the process.

Many students can continue on their own once they get started or organized. Adults can help children prioritize and organize. Work cooperatively to decide what to do first. Begin by asking, “What’s next?” or “Where do you think we should start?” The student may need support making their work area functional or deciding on what computer settings to use.

An overwhelmed teen may find a to-do list more intimidating than helpful. Rather than look to the end of the project or assignment, focus on the next step. Both large and small assignments can be broken into a series of actionable steps.

 3.   Work through anxiety.

When anxiety rises, executive functioning and working memory can falter. Noted Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) Jessica Minahan, author of The Behavior Plan: A Practical Guide to Understanding the Most Challenging Students,writes, “We have all experienced losing basic skills in times of stress: forgetting your basic address when asked during an interview, blanking out when asked your sibling’s age on a first date. Children who are anxious often have to exert more effort to perform well, as they drain resources to manage their emotions.”

When we work with our students ahead of time to better organize, plan and begin their assignments, we reduce their anxiety, provide support, and enhance opportunities for collaborative learning.

 4.   Manage anxiety triggers.

Anxiety can be extremely challenging for students, parents and teachers alike. But we can very effectively reduce anxiety by eliminating its source.

Parents are the experts in knowing what is best for your child, and teachers are proficient in knowing how to best meet a child’s educational needs. It is important to remind ourselves that we are all working together, and sometimes wearing many hats, when trying to figure out how to best care and provide for our children and students.

Perhaps it is okay if not every assignment is completed. Maybe if a student is unusually resistant or is shutting down, it is okay to put the schoolwork away. Doing so may offer an excellent opportunity for a conversation, a walk around the block together or a moment to acknowledge that you are listening to your child and respecting their choices.