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By Shawn Biegler, M. Ed., Prince William County School Counselor; Dr. Kimberlee Ratliff, Program Director, APUS School Counseling Program & Active Minds Advisor; and Dr. Marie Isom, Associate Professor, APUS School Counseling Program
It is not uncommon for elementary school counselors to treat students between the ages of five and 11 who experience daily symptoms of anxiety. Although some symptoms may be similar, others vary greatly. Sometimes the symptoms of anxiety in schoolchildren may appear more dramatic, such as experiencing panic attacks and becoming physically ill. Anxiety is more than typical childhood worries, such as performing well on an upcoming test and can interfere in a child’s education.
In one elementary school counselor’s experience, common student worries included their house catching on fire, getting lost or fearing being kidnapped or removed from their family. The anxiety might be so severe that it causes night terrors, which interferes with a child’s ability to sleep.
Fire Drills May Cause Panic Attacks in Children
Children who fear their house catching on fire may also experience panic attacks during a routine fire drill. When anxiety is accompanied by panic attacks, students may experience physical symptoms such as shaking all over, a rapid heart rate, headaches, heavy breathing and a diminished ability to focus their eyes.
During these panic attacks, the student may need about 45 minutes to calm down. For some children, the severity of the anxiety significantly interferes with their learning and social interactions at school. Making it through an entire school day can be a challenge when the symptoms are severe.
Anxiety from Social Media or Cyberbullying
In addition to their fears about personal safety, some children have reported anxiety related to social media and cyberbullying. In the worst-case scenario, anxiety stemming from social media or cyberbullying has led to suicidal thoughts. For other students, their anxiety has been linked to publicized school shootings, creating visceral reactions to today’s widespread practice of lockdown drills.
During a lockdown drill, students must remain quiet in a dark room, out of sight of windows and doors. One elementary counselor shared a personal experience that clearly demonstrated how a lockdown drill can trigger anxiety. When the power went out during a recent lockdown drill, some of her students had severe anxiety reactions.
After the drill, the school counselors spent the remainder of the day trying to calm those students and prepare them to return to class. Some reactions were so severe that several students became physically ill and had to be sent home. These student reactions clearly show how anxiety can interfere with students’ daily functioning.
Some Students Not Getting the Treatment They Need for Anxiety
After considering these school counselors’ observations, how common is anxiety in children? It is estimated that almost 32% of children meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder. The median age of onset was six years old, several years younger than the median age of the onset of other mental health disorders, including ADHD and depression.
Even more concerning is the estimated 80% of youth with a diagnosable anxiety disorder who receive no professional outside treatment (Merikangas, et al., 2010). This statistic may help explain why school counselors are the ones who address anxiety among children and adolescents on a regular basis. It appears that anxiety is common, but many sufferers are not receiving psychological treatment for their symptoms.
Because learned fear is at the heart of most anxiety disorders, successfully predicting when they most likely will occur can minimize anxiety (Dumas, 2017). With this knowledge, counselors can create a consistent routine within the school setting and encourage parents or guardians to do the same, particularly in fear-causing settings. Additionally, physical activity, diet and positive coping strategies are best practices to combat the pathology of anxiety (Dumas).
Mindfulness-Based Interventions Have Benefitted Students with Anxiety Disorders
One modern approach to addressing anxiety in children and adolescents involves mindfulness-based interventions, first introduced by Dr. John Kabat-Zinn, founding Executive Director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
Mindfulness focuses on one’s awareness in the present moment, focusing on one task and bodily sensations. This focus on the present and individual tasks can help reduce ruminating on the past or spending too much time worrying about the future.
Preliminary research indicates several benefits of mindfulness, including improved attention, emotional regulation and reduced anxiety (Liehr & Diaz, 2010; Semple, Lee, Rosa & Miller, 2009). Mindfulness approaches can be beneficial in the school setting by reducing a child’s anxiety.
In turn, reduced anxiety helps improve the child’s focus in the classroom, which sets the stage for improved learning. For this reason, school counselors are embracing this approach to help children cope with symptoms of anxiety.
School counselors and educators are implementing mindfulness by using a variety of practices, including meditation, diaphragmatic breathing (belly breathing), journaling and reflection practicing. Teachers have used mindfulness practices to start the day as a replacement for discipline to promote positive behavior. School counselors have applied mindfulness techniques through individual, small group and classroom lessons.
Opening circles and morning meetings allow student classrooms to practice and promote whole group relaxation and positive interaction. Relaxation rooms are also a useful resource to calm physical symptoms and to practice appropriate coping strategies.
Games, calming cards, yoga cards, mandalas (spiritual and ritual symbols in Hinduism and Buddhism) and other hands-on resources can successfully promote mindfulness in elementary school age children.
The MINDUP curriculum (Scholastic, 2011) is one example of a research-based resource with lessons for educators that:
- Promote focusing attention
- Improve self-regulation skills
- Build resilience to stress
- Develop a positive mind-set
By learning how the brain works, the relationship among our senses, and the way we think, combined with mind-set and mindful behaviors, educators and counselors alike can promote positive social skills and improve learning (Scholastic).
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About the Authors
Shawn Biegler, M. Ed, is an elementary school counselor for Prince William County Public Schools. Mrs. Biegler is a former teacher and a recent graduate of American Public University’s School Counseling Program.
Dr. Kimberlee Ratliff is a Program Director and Professor of School Counseling at American Public University. She earned a B.S. in Psychology at Fayetteville State University, an M.Ed. in School Counseling at Campbell University, and an Ed. D. in Counseling Psychology at Argosy University/Sarasota. Kimberlee is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor (WA), a National Certified Counselor and a National Certified School Counselor. She holds school counseling certifications in Virginia and Washington State. Her research interests include suicide prevention and child and adolescent mental health/wellness. She also serves as an advisor for Active Minds of American Public University.
Dr. Marie Isom is an Associate Professor of School Counseling at American Public University. She earned a B.S. in Psychology at Central Michigan University, an M.A. in School Counseling at Marymount University, and an Ed. D. in Counseling Psychology at Argosy University/Phoenix. She is a National Board Certified K-12 Professional School Counselor, National Board Certified Counselor, Career Development Facilitator, Approved Clinical Supervisor and Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor. She specializes in counseling and therapy with children, adolescents, and families.
Dumas, T. C. (2017, October). Calming an overactive brain. [Lecture Notes]. Institute of
Brain Potential, Los Banos, CA.
Liehr, P. & Diaz, N. (2010). A pilot study examining the effect of mindfulness on depression and
anxiety for minority children. Archives of Psychiatric Nursing, 24(1), 69–71. DOI:
Merikangas, K. R., He, J.P., Burstein, M., Swanson, S. A, Avenevoli, S., Cui, L., Benjet, C.,
Georgiades, K., & Swendsen, J (2010). Lifetime prevalence of mental disorders in U.S.
adolescents: Results from the National Comorbidity Survey Replication–Adolescent
Supplement (NCS-A). Journal of American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 49(10),
Semple, R. J., Lee, J., Rosa, D., & Miller, L. F. (2009). A randomized trial of mindfulness-based
cognitive therapy for children: Promoting mindful attention to enhance social-emotional
resiliency in children. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 19(2), 218-229.
Scholastic (2011). The MINDUP curriculum: Brain-focused strategies for learning—and living.
NY: Scholastic Teaching Resources.
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