Educators can do many things to proactively manage anxiety at school and create a safe learning environment for all students. These include whole-school, classroom and student-specific practices that target the physical environment, daily routines and interpersonal relationships.
Whether you are a classroom teacher, itinerant teacher, educational assistant, administrator, child and youth worker, or school counsellor, you already use several practices that establish behavioural expectations and set the tone for learning. The following activity invites you to consider the specific strategies you (and others in your school) use to create an environment in which all students feel safe and supported enough to engage in learning and take healthy risks even when they feel anxious.
In each of the spaces below, list some routines and practices you currently use, whatever your role, to create a calm and consistent climate at various times throughout the school day. When you’re done, click on “What others do” for ideas from other B.C. educators.
Starting the day
What others do
- Take a moment before school begins to centre yourself (e.g., take a few deep breaths or do some stretches).
- Meet and greet each student as they enter the classroom.
- Create morning routines that are predictable and set the tone for the day (e.g., establish a soft start to the day with 15 minutes of independent play or work to allow the teacher time to connect with parents or others).
- Post a visual schedule of the day and review it with students first thing. This can be done at calendar time with younger students or during morning meetings with older students.
What others do
- Provide fair warning and information to make transitions between subjects and spaces smooth.
- Use reminders and cues to signal transition times (e.g., sing a song, use a hand signal, ring a small bell or shake a maraca). Introduce the signal before using it the first time and ensure that it’s noticeable but not startling.
- Use self-regulation strategies (like those described in the EASE lessons Worry Scale, Calm Breathing and Being Mindful) to help students regulate their emotions and bodies before, during and after transitions.
- Consider designated roles for students or line-up orders to promote consistent, calm and orderly transitions from one physical space to another.
- Use visual supports to explicitly teach how to approach tasks (e.g., graphic organizers, picture cues, comic-strip conversations).
- Create a calm atmosphere by encouraging positive words, gentle tone and soft volume (e.g., give behaviour-specific praise that focuses on the thing you want to reinforce: “Great job lining up quietly” or “You really focused on your math today”).
- Focus on student strengths and celebrate successes both one-on-one and as a class (e.g., schedule regular activities that set a positive tone for working together).
- Offer students choice about where they work and how they demonstrate their learning, providing clear expectations of behaviour and consistent follow-through when expectations aren’t met.
- Monitor and manage classroom mood and energy levels by incorporating music, active games and physical activity into daily routines.
- Allow plenty of time to finish the day and end on a reflective, positive note (e.g., allow 10 minutes at the end of the day for students to “check out” and share one thing that made them feel grateful).
- Give students notice of any changes to the next day’s schedule.
- If possible, make a connection with each student as they leave your classroom (e.g., stand at the door to say goodbye or collect exit slips as students leave for the day).
- Take a personal moment to reflect on the day: What went well? What would you change? Educators often dwell on the parts of the day that didn’t go as expected. Instead of starting your reflection on the day with the things you would change, begin by giving yourself a pat on the back for the things that went well.
Activity: Tense and relax
When confronted with threats (either real or imagined), our muscles tense as part of a fight-flight-freeze response. Muscle tension provides a feedback loop to our brain that can sustain anxiety. Practising progressive muscle relaxation (PMR), a method for systematically tensing and relaxing muscles, can break this cycle.
Try this: While sitting down, grab the seat of the chair with both hands and pull up. Hold for 10 seconds, then relax your shoulders and arms, noticing how the tension melts away.
What happened? What physical and mental changes did you notice after using the PMR technique? When would this strategy be useful in your classroom?