While some students view January as an opportunity to verbalize their hopes and dreams for the coming year, many others enter the new year struggling with anxiety. Coming out of the holidays and looking at the unknowns associated with the months ahead, student anxiety can pique in this month. Student anxiety and depression levels are already at unprecedented highs. Kids’ stress and anxiety levels, academic struggles, and behavior issues are indicative of long-term increases of sadness and hopelessness, to the point that in 2021, a U.S. Surgeon General advisory declared mental health among American youth a public health crisis.
According to 2022 Boys and Girls Clubs of America youth data, 71% of youth say they cannot stop worrying when something important goes wrong – and 67% report that they try to hide it from people, avoiding the topic in discussion. “That’s why it’s more important than ever that young people have safe, nonjudgmental adults they feel comfortable approaching about tough topics,” says Kate Endries, MSW, Senior Advisor of Trauma-Informed Practice, Boys & Girls Clubs of America. “Normalizing conversations around mental health is key to ensuring young people have the emotional, social, and mental support they need,” Endries explained, proposing that the pandemic is “a rare silver lining that…heightened our awareness…and started necessary conversations.”
Unlike clinical psychologists, school counselors do not have the luxury of numerous sessions with a small handful of clients. Instead, they are immersed in reporting demands of school districts and often carry large caseloads—making it difficult to get to know and bond with each of the students they serve. Yet, for many of these students, school counselors are their only mental health resource. So how can school counselors still meaningfully contribute to reduced anxiety for students and get connected to further resources? Here are three approaches counselors can try to help reduce student anxiety in schools:
- Reframe anxiety as an opportunity for self-discovery. School counselors can help students reframe anxiety as a message their body is trying to give them. Anxiety is an opportunity to get curious about what is causing the trigger, and what helps them regain their sense of internal focus and calm. From there, students can create their own personal “in case of emergency” kit to calm themselves in the future. This self-discovery process can become very empowering for students. School counselors discussing their own student anxiety reduction practices described this adventure of self-discovery for one of their students in this way:
One student…was experiencing high anxiety in class and could never pinpoint a trigger. Over time, we were able to identify when she was experiencing an anxiety attack and the best methods for her to be able to return to class. She brought her own small “coping toolkit” to leave in the school counseling office for when she needed it. We developed a hand signal with her classroom teacher so the student could let her teacher know if she felt an anxiety attack coming on and needed to leave the room. Eventually, she was able to stay in the classroom and work through her anxiety without needing to leave and come to my office.
- Make sure students have the accommodations they need. The stresses of the past few years have brought previously undiagnosed learning challenges to the surface for many students, and caused new cognitive, behavioral, and emotional challenges to emerge. Anxiety may be significant enough to warrant attention on its own, or it may be indicative of a deeper issue. School counselors may find it beneficial to collaborate with teachers, parents, and students to ensure that all diagnoses, IEPs, and/or necessary 504 accommodations have been made to mitigate the negative impacts of anxiety on students’ ability to flourish.
- Create quiet space. Counselors can collaborate with teachers and school officials to dedicate time and space to provide calming, mindful moments for students. This could include a quiet space for students who struggle with anxiety or anger to come for guided meditations at the beginning or end of the day, optional yoga during breaks or lunch, or simply short breathing exercises to start a guidance session.
The Lincoln Center for Family and Youth (TLC) is a social enterprise company serving the Greater Philadelphia Area. Among its five divisions, TLC offers School-based Staffing Solutions, Mobile Coaching and Counseling, and Heather’s Hope: A Center for Victims of Crime. These major programs are united under TLC’s mission to promote positive choices and cultivate meaningful connections through education, counseling, coaching, and consulting. For more information, go to: TheLincolnCenter.com/
About the Author
MaryJo Burchard (Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership) is co-founder and principal of Concord Solutions, a Virginia-based consultancy firm focused on helping leaders and organizations thrive while facing major disruption. Concord Solutions offers consulting, coaching, training, research, and keynote speaking surrounding trauma-informed leadership and assessing and building change readiness, trust, and belonging