Helping Students Cope with Anxiety
By Nell Branco, LCSW, MPH, Upper School (5-8) Counselor and Margie Schwartz, LCSW, Lower School (K-4) Counselor

Anxiety is a normal part of life and it can be protective and helpful. Anxiety helps us to detect and avoid potentially dangerous situations.  When anxiety gets big and powerful, it can be very disruptive at school, home and in other areas of life. As school counselors, we have seen a rise in anxiety in students and parents over the past decade. At MCDS, we want to help our students to reduce their anxiety, learn coping skills and bolster the strength and resilience they have inside them. 

A few statistics about anxiety:

  • Anxiety is the #1 mental health problem in the U.S.
  • An estimated 1 in 8 kids has a diagnosable anxiety disorder 
  • In 2009 and prior years, only 37% of students who entered university counseling centers complained about problems with anxiety. The percentage of students with anxiety complaints reached 46% in 2014 and 51% in 2016. Anxiety is now the leading problem for which college students seek help. 

Even if it doesn’t reach clinical levels, there is a lot we can do to help kids manage their worries and practice the skills needed to work through the obstacles that anxiety presents.

What we are noticing in our schools

When we consult with other counselors in the Bay Area and in other parts of the country we hear a consistent concern about the increase in anxious symptoms over the last 20 years. In school we see signs of separation anxiety, social anxiety, test anxiety, and phobias, in addition to generalized anxiety. Even if it doesn’t reach clinical levels, there is a lot we can do to help kids manage their worries and practice the skills needed to work through the obstacles that anxiety presents. 

What we are doing to help students develop coping skills and resilience at school

In Lower School
In the Lower School (grades K-4), the goal is for teachers to provide both formal and informal learning to help students develop a set of social and emotional competencies including: cooperation, assertiveness, responsibility, empathy and self-control. 

The formal programs we implement are Responsive Classroom, Energy Time (ET) and Social Emotional Learning (SEL) classes. Responsive Classroom provides a variety of practices to help students to develop their academic, social and emotional skills in a learning environment that is developmentally responsive to their strengths and needs. Energy Time, an aikido program started at MCDS 30 years ago by kindergarten teacher Janet Diajogo, teaches children to build their personal power, to be centered, and to be open to experiencing the world around them knowing that there can be things that are challenging and exciting. Starting in fourth grade, students attend SEL class twice a week.

In addition, teachers, administrators, the school counselor, the school nurse and school staff work daily with students to help them to resolve conflicts, handle worries and solve social, behavioral and emotional problems. Students know that there are many adults at school who are available and who want to help them.

Students in the Upper School are usually more able to name their emotions and we can discuss the various factors that may be contributing to their anxious feelings.

In Upper School
In the Upper School (grades 5-8), students learn about self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, personal decision making, and relationship skills in their SEL class. This class is an opportunity for students to learn about the skills, practice through role play, and apply them to real life situations.

Our grade level teams work together to provide support to our students emotionally as well as academically. Our advisory system is also designed to provide more individual and small group learning, support and guidance, and meets at the beginning and end of each school day.

The Upper School counselor works with students individually and in groups and consults with teachers and parents on an as needed basis. Students in the Upper School are usually more able to name their emotions and we can discuss the various factors that may be contributing to their anxious feelings.  Not only can we identify the situations that may trigger the worry but also the thoughts and expectations that could be exacerbating it. Students are interested in learning how anxiety works in the brain and body and are motivated to learn what helps them manage it. For example, mindfulness, recognizing thought distortions, problem solving, getting enough hours of sleep, and using positive self-talk are all helpful coping strategies when a student feels stress or anxiety.   

What parents can do to support their children at home

Time on social media
According to the nonprofit organization Common Sense Media, teens spend on average about nine hours per day on screens, and 8 to 12 year-olds spend about six hours, that is in addition to whatever they are doing on screens for school. Research is showing that such heavy use is associated with problems in the social lives of children as well as negative mental health outcomes. 

Recommendations for parents:

  • Place clear limits on device time: For younger children, delay for as long as possible the incorporation of device time into daily routines. Parents can limit screen use to weekends. As children get older, it is recommended that screen time be limited to 2 hours per day. This amount of time, thus far, is not shown to have negative effects on mental health.
  • Pay attention to what your children are doing: Talk with your child about the apps they and their friends are using. Which ones are essential for direct communication? Which ones promote FOMO (“fear of missing out”), social comparison or present an unrealistic presentation of the lives of others?
  • Pay attention to what you are doing: Is your use of your device taking away from quality time with your child? Is your device ever present? Is it at the dinner table with you? Parents need to model what they want from their children.
  • Protect your child’s sleep: electronic devices need to be off 60 minutes before bedtime. The blue light from the device can impact sleep. The device needs to be out of a child’s bedroom.

A good bedtime routine can really help kids get the quality and amount of sleep they need for school. It can be doubly hard for worried kids to fall asleep and then not feel recharged and ready for the day ahead of them. When kids feel tired they notice a difference in their school performance and parents notice a difference in mood and behavior. Figuring out an after school and evening routine that is conducive to a reasonable bedtime is worth the effort. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children 6-12 years of age should sleep between 9-12 hours and teenagers should sleep between 8-10 hours. Studies find that sleep helps mood, memory, attention, behavior, learning, and emotional regulation. 

Good nutrition and exercise are very effective stress management tools. Kids need to have healthy snack options throughout the day, eat regularly, and consume sugar in moderation. Exercise, being outside, and being part of a team are great ways for kids to increase connection and improve their mood. Research has shown that active kids have a more positive response to stressful situations. We also know that the endorphins that are released as a result of exercise help improve mood, sleep, and children’s energy level. 

Taking care of our own anxiety and modeling ways of handling stressful situations

Certain parent behaviors are also linked to anxious behavior in children: overprotectiveness, catastrophizing their child’s anxious symptoms, being overly-critical, or difficulty in modeling healthy and effective coping strategies. Learning to calm your own anxiety, practicing language that bolsters your child’s ability to problem solve and not feeling quickly overwhelmed or doubtful of their ability to persevere through moments of challenge are big steps. Recognizing our own triggers as parents (e.g., politics, social situations, work-related, the high school or college application process) are important to name and anticipate. 

Children must be exposed to challenges and stressors -- within limits -- to help them develop and become capable adults. You may have heard the eternally good advice: prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child. By allowing your children to be exposed to everyday irritations and provocations, and to know that they are either capable of handling them or can learn how to with some support (or through trial and error), you will raise children who are wiser, stronger, and more capable of thriving in school and beyond.

mcds school counselors

Book Recommendations from Margie and Nell




For Adults:
The Opposite of Worry: The Playful Parenting Approach to Childhood Anxieties and Fears by Lawrence Cohen
Freeing Your Child from Anxiety  by Tamar Chansky
Worried No More: Help and Hope for Anxious Children by Aureen Pinto Wagner
You and Your Anxious Child: Free Your Child from Fears and Worries and Create a Joyful Family Life by Anne Albano and Leslie Pepper
Anxious Kids Anxious Parents, 7 Ways to Stop the Worry Cycle and Raise Courageous & Independent Children by Reid Wilson and Lynn Lyons
Helping Your Anxious Teen: Positive Parenting Strategies to Help Your Teen Beat Anxiety, Stress and Worry by Sheila Achar Josephs

For Children:
What to Do When You Worry Too Much by Dawn Huebner, PhD
The Anxiety Workbook for Kids by Robin Alter PhD and Crystal Clarke MSW, RSW
Mindfulness for Teen Anxiety: A Workbook for Overcoming Anxiety at Home, at School, and Everywhere Else by Christopher Willard
When My Worries Get Too Big by Kari Dunn Buron
Playing With Anxiety: Casey’s Guide for Teens and Kids by Reid Wilson and Lynn Lyons