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Est 2011

Alleviating Anxiety at Kairos, by Teacher Karen Grade 1

As a Foundation Phase teacher, I have experienced many incidents of anxiety in young children. These have presented themselves in different ways. Most common are the morning drop off and saying goodbye to parents, transitioning from one task to another and making connections with other children.

The anxiety that children experience can differ in severity. In some children, anxiety can be easy to manage, while with others it impacts their learning. Both their academic performance and their relationships with others can suffer.

Certain signs and symptoms of anxiety can be physical, such as stomach aches, headaches, fatigue or restlessness. They could exhibit avoidance behaviours, clinginess, temper tantrums, irritability or they could have difficulty concentrating. Children might also avoid social interactions, have difficulty forming friendships, or experience heightened sensitivity to criticism or rejection.

A child may struggle to say goodbye to a parent in the morning.They may be clingy, say goodbye to a parent more than once or become tearful, avoiding the transition into joining the school community that morning. A child that struggles to move from one task to another will try to avoid the next task and sometimes refuse to do it all together. We observe them exhibiting this same behaviour during playtime, coming across as really shy and choosing to play by themselves or to stay with the teacher most of the time instead of playing with their classmates.

It is important not to force the child into situations in which they are fearful and to give them time to adjust to the environment. At the same time, it is important to communicate confidence that the child is capable of separating from the parent, saying goodbye and joining the activities of the class community.

Building confidence is key. In the Kairos classroom, we will have discussions and role-playing activities to help children manage their anxiety. We also teach children, via our agreements, how to be respectful, inclusive, helpful and understanding, without labelling a child, so that all the children can contribute to making a child feel more comfortable.

I have found there are many ways that these moments can be managed creatively. I find it vital to do whatever I can to create an environment where an anxious child experiences a sense of safety, through which he or she can grow inconfidence each day. It is most important for  children to feel seen and heard — after all, all their feelings are valid, and their needs are legitimate even though sometimes they have found strategies to satisfy their needs from a place of fear rather than from joy and confidence. As their teacher, I need to model calmness for the anxious child to gradually grow more calm. 

Children will likely feel stressed if their parents or teachers are feeling stressed. Similarly, they will feel joy and calm if joy and calmness is modelled for them. Dropping down to their height, making eye contact, gently explaining the situation step-by-step all can help reduce anxiety. Having an enjoyable activity ready or inviting a friend to join the child can help with transitions. Parents can assist by explaining or talking through the day’s expectations, so that the child is mentally prepared and knows what to expect a day in advance. If the child is feeling overwhelmed, it is better to remove them from the activity and change it to something more calming, like reading a book, drawing a picture or even just a walk around the playground — giving the child a chance to process what is expected of them. It helps when they come to trust that we adults (and their classmates) are there to support them, and communicating this fact can be valuable if they can learn to trust it to be true.

At Kairos, we play a vital role in helping children become aware of whatever is alive in them at any moment, all their feelings and sensations, including feeling anxious. We endeavour to work alongside  parents, supporting them and ensuring communication between teachers and parents remains open and honest.

We create a school environment which is as nurturing and supportive as possible. All teachers are aware of any individual child with particular emotional needs. The younger children also benefit immensely from being paired with an older pupil for the purpose of support, collegiality and tutoring (and the older mentors benefit just as much!). Kairos is an inclusive school climate where children feel seen and heard, valued, accepted and supported. Positive reinforcement, encouragement, and empathy from teachers and staff contribute to a sense of safety and belonging for anxious children.

I have seen anxious children thrive in our environment. A child that might have been clingy or struggled to participate in activities often gains confidence within only a few weeks. I have seen them grow in independence in only a few months. Suddenly I see them participating in activities with joy, making friends, trusting the teachers and mentors. They have learned coping skills and know how to manage their anxious feelings. Even though there are still days that might be difficult for the child, they are aware that their confidence has grown, because they feel more safe, and this regular success story is a testament to this supportive ethos of our school. 

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