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Teacher's Guide to Manage Children's Anxiety as they return to School during COVID-19

TEACHERS GUIDE TO MANAGE CHILDREN’S ANXIETY AS THEY RETURN TO SCHOOL DURING COVID-19

 

I gave this presentation to a group of educators when I worked with Kidz2Kidz and Cool2beKind and thought that I would make it available to all of you.

 

What is Anxiety

Anxiety can be normal in stressful situations, like taking an exam or having to give a talk to a crowd of people.  Anxiety can help motivate you to work harder and is normal for survival in real danger situations.  It is when feelings of fear, worry or nervousness starts interfering with daily living and becomes excessive and all-consuming that it becomes an indicator of bigger underlying and undiagnosed issues.  It is basically those unhelpful, distressing feelings that go on for far too long and gets in the way of normal life.  Anxiety becomes a problem when you are unnecessarily overly worried or afraid and when the feelings are so strong and intense that you cannot function at a normal level through your daily activities or routines.  Basically you become a prisoner of your own thoughts and fears.

 

Some might use the following words to describe anxiety:

Edgy                Uneasy                       Nervous                      Fearful             Scared

Frightened       Alarmed                      Terrified                       Jittery              Jumpy

 

While most children will bounce back and recover on their own time and with the right tools, COVID-19 can trigger PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and ASD (Acute Stress Disorder).

 

Most Common Types of Anxiety

  • Generalized Anxiety - long-lasting worries about non-specific life events, objects and situations
  • Social Anxiety - excessive fear of being negatively judged by others in social situations or of public embarrassment
  • Health Anxiety - excessive fear about one’s health
  • Separation Anxiety - fear of being away from home, a place that provides feelings of security or loved ones
  • Obsessive-Compulsive - recurring irrational thoughts that lead you to perform specific, repeated behaviours
  • Panic - brief and sudden attack of intense terror and apprehension
  • Phobias - excessive fear of a specific object, situation or activity

Personally, I think that COVID-19 Anxiety is a blend of all these.

 

General Symptoms of Anxiety

Feelings:

Feeling restless or tense                                Sweating and/or Trembling

Breathing rapidly and shallowly                      Having an increased heart rate

Feeling weak or tired, trouble sleeping           Having trouble concentrating

Jumpiness, Dry mouth, Nausea                     Numbness or tingling

 

Thoughts:

Thinking there is danger everywhere

Worry too much about bad things happening

Having difficulty controlling worry

 

Behaviour:

Having urge to avoid potential stressful situations

Clinging to safe people and sometimes refusing to leave them

Temper tantrums or outbursts when facing feared situations

Rituals

 

Most Common Causes of Anxiety

There are so many causes and it normally is not caused by one thing alone.  Usually it happens due to a combination of things, like bad experiences, chemicals in the brain, stress or chronic illnesses.  It is even caused by instability at home or unpredictable circumstances at home, in the community or even in the country (as we are currently seeing).  COVID-19 is now added to this list.

 

Now with COVID-19, we find that families are facing major changes and are forced to confront the unknowns.  They are feeling the pressure of being ready of what is to come.

 

Questions like “what if’s” and “should have’s” come more to the forefront.  Children are being pulled from their normal daily routines and are pushed into an atmosphere of significant change.

 

I have found that children are unsure of the routine that is expected from them now that they are returning to school.  Questions like “will I be able to cope with the new workload?”, “will I be safe at school?”, “will I be able to finish my school year still in this year?” and statements like “I am going to miss my family” and even “my pets are going to miss me when I go back to school” seems to come more to the forefront.

 

Tips for Support

  • Routine & Structure – return to routine and structure as soon as possible. It serves as a type of “security blanket” to students when they get re-introduced to their known boundaries and predictable daily routines.

 

  • Communicate 1 – use a known communication method to inform students and families of the changes the school will be implementing. Inform them what will stay the same and what will be different.  This will give the families the opportunity to prepare the students on what to expect.

 

  • Communication 2 – if you do not know how to solve the student’s fears, be honest and open yourself up to discovery and research. It could be a beautiful journey that the two of you can do together.

 

  • Be Curious – ask open questions and use active listening skills to understand the student’s thoughts and feelings.

 

  • Validate their Feelings – let the students know that what they are feeling are normal and there is nothing wrong with their feelings.

 

  • Acknowledge their Efforts – acknowledge the work that the students have accomplished up to this point. They have done their distance-learning homework and managed to submit their assignments.  This validation and acknowledgement will automatically lift their mood.  Also, take time to learn more about the learning and study methods that the children have practised at home and allow them time to transition back into the new school routine and expectations.

 

  • Check-In and Listen – check in frequently with students and listen attentively to what they are saying to you without interrupting them. Get the message across that you are there to help and support them, without judgement.

 

  • Catch the Signs Early – catch the signs of anxiety early. Should you see signs, ask the child to rate their feelings on a scale between 1 – 10 (10 being the worst).  The child will feel validated and supported by you just noticing the signs and reaching out.

 

  • Focus on What you can Control – instead of dwelling on the negative and what is out of our control, use rational thinking to calm the student down. Focus on tangible and controllable tasks that will motivate the student to think more logically and rationally.

 

  • Breathing Exercise – they can control their breathing (deep breathing 6 counts in (breathe calmness in) – 4 counts hold breath in – 6 counts out (blow all the bad out) and with the out breath, relax muscles in the body).

 

  • Implement Physical Activities – this is another action that can be controlled. Exercise allows the brain to get oxygen, function at a higher level and improves problem solving abilities.

 

  • Encourage Positive Thinking – reframe negative thoughts to be more positive. Ask the student what he/she is thinking and help the student to investigate whether the thought is valid (fact) or false (what-if thinking).  If it is false, help the student reframe the negative thoughts into something more positive and valid.

 

  • Stay Connected – some friendships might have diminished during lockdown. Encourage students to reach out to others, build friendships and become part of a group dynamic again.  When children isolate (even though not in lockdown anymore), it is very likely to manifest into depression.

 

  • Harness Self-Isolation Experiences – do not only harness the student’s self-isolation experiences, but use that to build their self-confidence. Use their persistence and willpower to show them what they have already accomplished.  By doing this you will be able to instil confidence in them and show them their own self-direction capabilities.

 

  • Provide Reassurance – as mentioned before, we cannot always solve all the problems and anxieties of the students. Sometimes it is enough to just be there, sit and listen.  Just to feel understood and supported can alleviate stress and anxiety tremendously.

 

  • Seek Help – if a student experiences persistent anxiety, stress and/or depression, please suggest therapy as soon as possible. CBT proved to be very effective.

 

As always, I like to end my blog with a quote or two and the following really enforces what I am trying to say in this blog.  This one is a quote from Mellow Doodles saying “Look how much you’ve already managed to adapt to.  Look how resilient you’ve already been.  There’s no “right” way to respond to this because it’s never, ever happened before.  Give yourself some credit.  There’s no one in the whole world who has this figured out yet.  So, it’s absolutely okay if you don’t either.”.  What more can I say?  It kind off says it all in a little nutshell.

 

As a reminder, GEM Mental Health Therapy and Coaching has decided to offer Skype Sessions, Zoom Sessions, WhatsApp Calls and WhatsApp Video Chats in order to reach as many people as possible.  I have also decided to incorporate Counselling via Email, which seems a bit unorthodox, but some clients do not have the freedom and privacy to discuss heart matters in the enclosed environment that they find themselves in at this time.  Please do not hesitate to reach out so that we can work together on your mental health as we face these challenging times.

 

Thank you very much for reading my blog.  I truly hope that it helped somebody, somewhere.  Please send any feedback or comments to info@gemtherapy.co.za and remember to have a look out for a new blog every week.

 

For more information on Kidz2Kidz and Cool2beKind, please reach out to Samantha Heald.  They are working extremely hard to give a voice to Bullying behaviour and offer training to educators and parents.  You can reach them on info@kidz2kidz.co.za or sam@kidz2kidz.co.za.