Helping pupils to manage anxiety

Anxiety was increasing amongst children and young people even before the pandemic. Adele Bates looks at how anxiety might manifest itself in pupils, and suggests strategies to help to manage their anxiety in the classroom

Author details

Adele Bates is a teacher, speaker, writer and educator for students with emotional and behavioural difficulties. She is a TEDx Speaker 2020 and forthcoming author of Miss, I don’t give a sh*t with Sage publishing. With over 17 years’...

Think of a pupil you’re working with who struggles to come into school. I’m going to invite you into their head for a moment…

You have just woken up. You’re in bed and you’ve been told you need to get up or you’ll be late. You lie there imagining what might happen at school today.

The first person you will probably meet is a friend in your class who sometimes teases you. Or it might be your maths teacher – and you can’t remember if you were supposed to do homework for them. If you were, you haven't done it so you’ll be told off straight away.

You decide that your first interaction will not go well. You pull the covers up and think of ways to stay at home.

Identify patterns for pupils’ anxiety

That was a guess. We cannot fully imagine what is going on with each of our pupils and what may or may not be making them feel anxious. However, we can adapt our environments, learning spaces and interactions to support our most vulnerable pupils, so that they can access their learning and education.

So, if we know that a pupil – let’s call her Laura – is often anxious at school, it could become a block to her learning, or even a block to entering school at all. We can reflect on situations that have helped and hindered her.

In this instance, you could ask yourself:

  • Are all staff – including Laura’s maths teacher – aware of how seemingly small things can trigger her anxiety?
  • Do they know that the start of the day is an important moment for her and will be pivotal in determining how much learning she can do that day?
  • Which days has she started well?
  • What were the factors that made her day go well?
  • Have you noticed, when she attends form time with a teacher she trusts, that she is more likely to engage in lessons later?

Adapting to the pupil

Maybe there’s a certain member of staff who can meet Laura each morning, telling her how pleased they are to see her and checks in with her. It only takes a couple of minutes but that positive first moment impacts on the trajectory of the day. Later, if Laura is experiencing problems, she can return to this member of staff for support.

It only takes a couple of minutes but that positive first moment impacts on the trajectory of the day.

Another strategy is to ensure that Laura can speak to her friends first thing in the morning, if she feels calmer around them, or else she could go to the library.

We can adapt the environment or relationship so that, when Laura wakes up, she feels able to go to school that day.

This ‘start of the day’ scenario was shared with me by Dr Pooky Knightsmith – a force of a practitioner educating us on young people with anxiety.

When it comes to supporting pupils with anxiety, Pooky asks:

  • What can we do for everyone? Imagine making the start of the day positive for all pupils!
  • What can we do for vulnerable groups, such as pupils with anxiety or ADHD, or pupil premium?
  • What can we do for individuals?

Questioning ‘bad’ behaviour

During the global pandemic and post lockdown, we may see anxiety come up in different ways in unusual places – and signs of anxiety might not always look as we expect.

Unfortunately, some anxiety can be labelled as ‘bad behaviour’, ‘disengagement’ or ‘laziness’. Whilst those labels may make us as teachers feel better (‘It’s them, not our lesson, that is at fault’), it is much more useful to ask ‘Why?’. For example:

  • Sadia’s started turning up late to lessons, which is unusual for her – why?
  • Deci has started mixing with the ‘wrong’ crowd and backchatting in lessons – why?
  • Sam is refusing to go to PSHE – why?

When we know the reasons, we can adapt and differentiate.

We may see anxiety come up in different ways in unusual places – and signs of anxiety might not always look as we expect.

Strategies for managing pupils’ anxiety

If we know that a pupil or pupils are prone to becoming anxious, what strategies can we use to support them?

Regulate the body

Our biological reactions affect our emotions (and vice versa), so regulating ourselves through our body can send signals to the brain that we are safe. We can do this through breathing exercises or physical movement. These methods can be built into our lesson plans and even link to curriculum.

Meditation and mindfulness

In one PSHE lesson with a Year 11 class, I shared ‘five tips for successful exams’. At the end, I asked each pupil to tell me which tip was the most useful. All 32 of them replied: ‘That mindful thing’.

Simple mindfulness exercises throughout the day can make a big difference. They are simple, require no extra budget and can help to keep your own anxiety levels in check too.

Safe destruction

When a large pupil is waving a desk over your head,and you ask them to mindfully concentrate on their breath, it’s not always going to work. For pupils whose anxiety tends to go outwards, making space for ‘safe destruction’ can work wonders.

I was once the reading teacher for an SEMH pupil who had severe dyslexia and a hatred for reading. My lessons caused them much fear and anxiety. One day, when they had become particularly distressed, I gave them an old book (of which we had many copies) and invited them to rip it up. Paper shreds of literature littered the classroom. And it worked. The pupil was able to physically channel their anxiety, which calmed them down.

The pupil was able to physically channel their anxiety, which calmed them down.

We used the pieces in the next lesson to make a papier-mâché cover for the pupil’s book, and they were pleased to highlight all the words they did know, which turned out to be many more than they’d realised.

Harnessing sounds and music

Sound can be triggering – too much noise or, for some, too much silence, can be unnerving enough to distract you from your algebra. Consider using music to introduce sounds into the learning space to help soothe and calm your pupils (and perhaps yourself).

One of my classes could concentrate for a full double period, no problem, as long as I played classical music at the start of each lesson. Without it, they struggled to settle and I would waste a lot of time trying to calm them down.

Also consider the tone and level of your voice. A grating ‘Silence please, 7DT!’ doesn’t exactly ooze serenity, and can put your pupils on edge.

Careful communication

When pupils are in a highly anxious state, the way we communicate with them is important. It can be challenging sometimes to not get mixed up in the drama or to become emotional ourselves.

Have stock phrases available that you can use to calmly communicate that the child is safe and that you are there and listening to them. This will make the pupils feel safer, as they can see the adults around them are not worried, and that things are OK.

See Dr Pooky’s video for more ideas, where she also shares that a lower pitch and slower pace also sends signals that all is well and safe.

Know your pupils

A recent bereavement? A change into a care home? No breakfast? There are so many factors that affect pupils’, and all humans’, emotional state. The better we know our pupils and what they face, the more apt we are to supporting them.

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Last Updated: 
17 Aug 2022