Reducing Student Anxiety in the Midst of COVID-19

By Stephanie Filio

Reducing Student Anxiety in the Midst of COVID-19What. In. The. World. Coronavirus? A pandemic?!

Every day I am getting closer and closer to being able to begin to process what is going on, but it is certainly slow going. First, there is my baseline: if I read about the symptoms of any illness, you can bet that as I look cool and collected outside, the inside of my head is a hot mess fixating on every symptom. I start to feel warm, dance a little with panic, and then talk myself down. Needless to say, I am working overtime trying not to get stuck in a coronavirus-anxiety hidey-hole.

For the last couple of weeks and possibly right this moment, our students and children are watching and talking about imagery that will likely be engrained in their heads for the rest of their lives. Grocery stores with empty shelves, hazmat suits and bodies under blankets on the news, celebrities who contracted viruses on news feeds, and hushed parents discussing possible economic fallout.

For anyone, these images are scary. To a child, who has even less context for complex perspective and reasoning, these may be terrifying. How, at home and through our digital schools, can we help?

Keep Them Busy

Much like ourselves, the best thing we can do to help student anxiety is to keep them busy! When we are idle, we are in our heads thinking. And with so much uncertainty, that thinking can become quite dark. Digital instructors and parents can post and watch or participate in a whole host of online events that are popping up every minute! Some of the early links I have sent to my students include:

Pick the Right Words

In addition to imagery, our kids are also hearing a lot of fear-provoking things. Kids are freaked out. Adults are freaked out. We are all in collective shock that this situation is even happening. This is our new life, and it will take a long time to feel secure again. I have been really touched by the way I have seen humans interact lately. People are being kinder, we are appreciating each other, and we are much more apt to reach for humor than cynicism. More than ever, words matter.

There are many signs that a child is ruminating on something, signs that often appear “between the lines.” When we see these signs in kids, we can take the opportunity to start conversations to help them course through their feelings.


Many of my students have sent me messages or posted on discussion boards that the COVID-19 quarantine scenario is all blown out of proportion. Though my instinct was to send information about social distancing and data coming out of Europe, I had to dial myself back.

These kids are scared. Downplaying and making light of situations like these is part of the mind’s way to self-preserve. Instead of adding more shock, I keep my responses positive and keep the goal in mind: “Either way, we will get to see each other soon and we will all be healthy and ready to return! In the meantime, here are some fun things you can do at home to pass time!”

Random Thoughts on the Future

Walking out of the house on Friday morning my son randomly said, “Mom, I don’t think I’m going to travel for the eleventh-grade music field trips. It just seems like there can be a lot of danger in other countries.” He’s in eighth grade. He hadn’t really talked a lot about the COVID-19 threat, but he was telling me that he was indeed thinking about it and applying it to years ahead in the future. This was an alert telling me we needed a conversation. He needed to vent about his fears, and he also needed to return to the present time to stop worrying about things that haven’t come yet.


If students are not talking about COVID-19, they are likely thinking about it on their own. It is important to be cognizant of the conversations we are having around children and either restrict some of what we are saying or have follow-up conversations to ensure that there is appropriate closure.
When students are not given a full understanding of what they hear, their imaginations will fill in the gaps. Again, the idea is not to push them too hard to talk about something they are not ready to actualize, but soft explanations may offer hope and encouragement for when life returns to a somewhat normal state.

Sudden Irritation

Personal feelings can be a tricky thing in times of crisis, and this goes for kids and adults. “It’s just a cold or flu” is a common phrase we are hearing lately. But what happens when you say this to someone who lost their parents to a cold that turned into pneumonia? Or a mom who lost their young child to the flu? Illness has touched all of us in ways that others may not understand if they do not share the same experience. New trauma such as a pandemic can easily be a trigger for old trauma.

If your student is suddenly irritated at sounds, closeness, or other stimuli, it may be because something else is bothering them. Try to express to them that you are there to talk, but also make sure they know you will respect their space as long as they trust that you are there for them.


One of my very good friends has an anxiety monster that is besties with mine (she knows who she is). She and I have passed articles and emerging facts back and forth since the early days of this pandemic’s coverage. We are obsessed because we are worried and can’t stop thinking about it, and we know that. Kids, on the other hand, may not realize that what they are doing is feeding their anxiety. Help remind kids to log off of the news feeds and remind them that in times that are very dark, we should stay informed but also find light, airy, and fun diversions!

Return to Mindfulness

Just in time, there has been a ton of recent attention on mindfulness and peaceful thinking, which gives us many resources for a strong home practice. Mindfulness helps us return to the present and be aware of ourselves. Particularly in our current coronavirus situation, it is easy to feel anxious about what a pandemic is, what the dangers to ourselves and our families are, and what complications the future might bring.

Mindfulness asks us to focus on our physical state in the moment and calms our mental state. Finding proof in our consciousness offers reassurance that we are indeed a breathing, safe, and well-functioning being with a purpose. This might seem like a no-brainer, but when our anxiety has taken over, we are thinking beyond even these simple securities. Some simple anxiety-reducing mindfulness activities include:

  • 4×4 breathing. Breathe by inhaling for four counts, holding for four counts, breathing out for four counts, and holding for four counts. Repeat as needed, maybe even with eyes closed!
  • Mental body scans. Close your eyes and “check in” with each part of your body with a little mental tap, or mentally imagine you are picturing your blood flow through your entire body.
  • Hand tracing. Move your index finger along the outline of your hand over and over again until you feel yourself self-soothe.
  • Silent visualization. Close your eyes, picture scenery or movement in nature, and try to fall into the visualization by becoming more and more relaxed.

Implications Everywhere

Many of us have had work- or school-from-home days due to snow, flood, hurricane, or other issues. In Virginia Beach, a couple of inches of snow and a little bit of ice can easily shut down our city for weeks. In these cases, students understand that the main reason for staying home is usually because transportation is not safe.

With the COVID-19 scenario we are in now—the threat of widespread illness—students may feel more like they are under attack and no one can keep them safe. This is a whole different feeling for them and could have long-term implications on their educational outlooks moving forward. By providing healthy connections to important places in their lives (such as school) and providing much-needed mental health support at home, we can help transition them into their new normal.

Stephanie FilioStephanie Filio is a middle school counselor in Virginia Beach. She received her undergraduate degree in interdisciplinary studies from the University of Virginia and her M.Ed. in counseling from Old Dominion University. In a discussion with one of her UVA professors about her desire to stay in school forever, her mentor wisely responded, “If you want to be a lifelong learner, go into education,” and so she found her place. Prior to her six years as a school counselor, Stephanie worked in private education, specializing in standardized tests, test preparation, and future planning. She writes about her career and hobbies at her blog, Weekend Therapy, and can be found on Twitter @steffschoolcoun. Stephanie also enjoys spending time with her books, crafts, and family.

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