Addressing student anxiety

Addressing student anxiety

Early intervention is the best approach for children with anxiety.

At St Charles Catholic Primary School Ryde, a group of students have been learning strategies to manage their worries so they can get on with the things that are important to them.

While anxiety is a normal part of life, Rita Osborne, school counsellor at Sydney Catholic Schools Inner Western region, says it becomes a problem when it gets in the way of enjoying life, including learning.

“In the past, a common belief was that children would grow out of their anxiety,” says Ms Osborne.  “We now know that for many that does not happen and early intervention is the best approach.”

‘…anxiety is a normal part of life, but it becomes a problem when it gets in the way of enjoying life, including learning.

– Rita Osborne, school counsellor at Sydney Catholic Schools Inner Western region

One evidenced-based program used by schools has been Cool Kids, developed by Macquarie University to address student anxiety. During Term 4, Ms Osborne and Anne Wagstaff, Diverse Learning teacher at St Charles’ Ryde, have been piloting ProACTive for children, another evidence-based anxiety treatment program developed by Westmead Hospital.

The program is designed to help children between seven and 11 learn more helpful ways of managing their anxiety in order to gradually face their fears. They are helped to do this by being led through topics and activities in their workbook on mindful thinking, problem-solving, social skills and assertiveness.

At the beginning of the program, the students explore the topic of anxiety and how it affects their thoughts, body and behaviour. They also look at what’s important in their lives.

While some anxiety programs focus on challenging anxious thoughts, ProACTive for children emphasises creating space for uncomfortable feelings and thoughts and gaining understanding that they are just feelings and thoughts and we can choose to see beyond them.

For example, a student may think they are going to make a fool of themselves if they put their hand up to answer a question in class. Changing that thinking to, ‘I am having a thought that I am going to make a fool of myself’ creates space for the thought.

The students are also introduced to mindfulness thinking, breathing, walking, smiling and eating, which encourages focusing on the present not the past or the future.

“Mindful breathing using the Smiling Mind app is very useful to help children to sit and be aware of their thoughts and feelings and to increase their capacity to create space for the thoughts rather than reacting to them,” Ms Osborne said.

After six weeks undertaking the program and doing practice tasks at home, Ms Osborne says the St Charles’ students are now talking about their worries in a different way.

In 2017, ProACTive for children, will be available more widely at Sydney Catholic Primary schools.

Seven tips for parents with anxious kids

  • Listen to your children and help them problem-solve
  • Monitor screen time and have a balance with other activities
  • Spend time with your children in the park, in nature, as a family as that’s an effective way to explore relationships
  • Encourage friendships and play dates
  • Encourage exercise, involvement in team sport and other interest areas
  • Promote good nutrition and good sleep habits
  • Teach your children to take deep breaths down to the belly as this activates a rest response and is a good way to calm down and think your way through an issue or problem.

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