Face student anxiety head-on in light of coronavirus uncertainty

Students with and without pre-existing anxiety may feel overwhelmed and uneasy because of the COVID-19 outbreak. Here are 7 ways educators can help them remotely
By: | March 27, 2020
Providing support remotely may have students with anxiety stay on track academically and behaviorally.Providing support remotely may have students with anxiety stay on track academically and behaviorally.

Students with and without established anxiety may be feeling overwhelmed because of the COVID-19 outbreak. They may be worried about their own and their families’ safety, and may feel uneasy because of the change in routine and not being able to get together with friends.

Providing support remotely may help these students stay on track academically and behaviorally, despite school closures.

“We are all trying to figure out what our new normal is,” says John Garruto, president of the New York Association of School Psychologists. “Continuing to be a steady rock for students and checking in with them is important.”

Below are some ideas administrators and educators can try to address student anxiety:

  1. Consider enrichment. Depending on the level of anxiety students have and your state, district, and school requirements, administrators may advise teachers to consider postponing diving into new lesson plans a bit and instead emphasizing enrichment and reinforcement of previous instruction, Garruto says. “It may not make sense to expect students to be responsible for new learning yet. We’re in the middle of something we’ve never seen before, so teaching new skills remotely may be troublesome.”
  2. Present confidence. Recognize that students often take their cues from adults, so encourage colleagues to present a calm demeanor even if they are not feeling very confident about instructional changes or their health, Garruto says. “Be someone the student feels he can lean on. If adults are dealing with things calmly and rationally, it is my experience that students will usually take their lead.”
  3. Reach out in different ways. Students may not express that they are worried, but they may act out or go off-task during online lessons or while working independently at home if they are anxious, Garruto explains. Email, send a private message, or call students you know have a harder time with stress and ask them if they are doing OK, especially if they are not keeping up with their work. Also reach out more globally as a district to students through social media videos, says Jessica B. Petronis, a certified school psychologist and licensed psychologist for South Middleton (Pa.) School District. Educators can read to younger students and offer tips for staying calm for older students. Petronis and other school psychologists in her district are writing letters to students about what they can do at home to support their mental health, including going outside and exercising, taking care of their pets, and doing chores to help them stay engaged and feel good about themselves. The messages can remind students to balance the amount of time they spend reading or watching the news so they aren’t constantly consumed by it, Petronis says. “They should not be overwhelming themselves with so much information that would heighten their anxiety.
  4. Help create a schedule. Students who are learning online with live sessions may benefit from a schedule similar to what they had in school, Garruto says. But if creating a new routine for students to learn at home is necessary, try to stick to it as much as you can after setting it up. “We want to make things as reliable as they always have been,” he says. “That can be reassuring.” A student with autism and anxiety in particular may struggle to focus because of all the changes to his routine, so be sure educators help create and provide access to developmentally appropriate social stories and other visual supports to explain the coronavirus and related changes, Garruto says. “You want to take a logical point of view and say these are the things we’re doing to stay away from people who may be sick and until school starts up again.”
  5. Promote virtual peer connections. Remind students that they can engage in video conferencing with friends at home, Petronis says. “The social isolation involved in social distancing can create and worsen anxiety and depression so students should create connections through other modalities.”
  6. Build in breaks. Encourage educators to build movement and calming breaks into the day to help decrease students’ anxiety and improve their focus, Garruto suggests. Ask teachers to inform students and their families about free mindfulness and mediation apps, such as Headspace and Calm, for deep-breathing and other activities, Petronis says.
  7. Don’t let instruction exacerbate anxiety. Ensure educators keep in mind that some students with anxiety may not want to be seen online by the rest of the class for long if class is being taught live through Zoom or another video conferencing software, Petronis said. Talk individually with students about options, such as just having them visible to peers when they “raise their hand” to ask a question or make a comment.

Cara Nissman covers autism, school psychology, and IEP team issues.

Also read: How to propel social-emotional learning in online education