By Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., author of Self-Regulation in the Classroom: Helping Students Learn How to Learn
Part of our Cash in on Learning series by Richard M. Cash, Ed.D. Click to read other Cash in on Learning posts.
Recently (11/28/21), the Minneapolis Star Tribune ran an article entitled “Schools see overload of kids in crisis.” Counselors, social workers, and school psychologists are being inundated by students needing mental health supports. The COVID-19 pandemic has not only had an effect on student learning progress—it has also had a devastating impact on how kids are feeling. Stress, anxiety, feelings of loneliness, and pressures from being bullied are just a few of the issues kids are reporting. As stated in the article, strategies kids used during the last two years to cope outside the classroom often aren’t working now that they are back to in-person learning.
To assist our students in dealing with the complexities of the new world we live in, and to help them get focused on learning and find success in school, we can teach them ways to be in the present, to understand and manage how emotions impact behaviors, and to avoid being self-critical. Adding the strategies below to your classroom routine can help you do this.
Begin Each Day with Positivity
Be intentional in starting each class period with something positive. Whether it be a cartoon, joke, or announcement of something to look forward to, students need to feel the joy of every day. Dwelling on the past won’t change the future. What does change our future is the way we look at today.
You may also want to consider using a daily affirmation. Affirmations are as simple as a sentence (“There is no one else in the world like me!”) or a saying (“Success is about being your best self—not about being better than others. Failure is an opportunity—not a condemnation. Effort is the key to success”¹).
A quick internet search will bring up hundreds of appropriate cartoons, jokes, affirmations, and positive sayings. Another idea is to use quotes from influential people—this can really enhance your content!
“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” Martin Luther King, Jr.
Teach Students How to Develop Positive Self-Talk
Sharing one’s feelings, thoughts, and actions in an affirmative manner can build confidence to continue. Using statements such as “I will do well on this test by reducing my anxiety, staying focused, and thinking clearly” can have a profound effect on learning. It is critical for teachers to model positive self-talk and make it a routine for all throughout the day.
Share these strategies with your students to increase their self-talk:
Talk and really listen to yourself. Say the directions over and over again to yourself until you understand what to do or what steps to complete. This can help assure success when working on a task.
Use self-talk to guide your learning. Ask yourself questions to secure your accuracy, identify flaws in reasoning, ensure evidence supports your thoughts, reframe the ideas, keep the situation in perspective, or adjust your feelings.
Keep the self-talk positive. After making a mistake, adjust the way you think and then speak to yourself about it (“Well, I’ve learned I won’t do that again!”). Staying positive can change the way you feel, behave, and think about learning.
Offer Students Strategies to Reduce Anxiety and Stress
There are physical costs to anxiety and stress and to feeling overwhelmed. There are also physical ways to reduce the impact they have on mental and physical health.
Regularly practice deep breathing. Deep breathing is a mindfulness technique. “Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention to the present. This state is described as observing one’s thoughts and feelings without judging them as good or bad.”² Taking in a full breath and holding it for 2–3 seconds helps clear our brains of the negative chemicals that cause us to feel bad about ourselves. Focusing on breathing slowly in and out takes the mind away from stressors. Do deep breathing with your class several times a day to help keep students’ thinking clear and free of negative thoughts.
Move, move, move. Our brain works best when we are in movement. Students can sit for up to six hours a day without much movement—which is detrimental to both physical health and mental health. During the stay-at-home time, many kids may have sat in front of a TV or computer screen for long stretches, increasing lethargy. Make it a point to get your students up and moving around the room every 10 minutes or so. You will see a marked improvement in behaviors and quality of thinking.
Use affirmative language. Avoid being negative by eliminating deficit thinking from your language as well as your students’ language. For yourself, rather than thinking, “They can’t do this because——,” consider, “They may not have the strategies to do this, so I’m going to make sure to provide the strategies for them.” Deficit thinking “blames the victim.” Affirmative thinking builds confidence and promotes a can-do attitude. It is also akin to the “yet” philosophy: “I can’t do this . . . yet.” Teach students to use affirmative language in their self-talk and when speaking to others.
Offer ways to deal with worry. Remind students that everyone worries—worry is okay, but we can’t let it take over. Worrying about something won’t change the outcome. Teach your students to recognize when they are caught a negative spiral of worry. Offer them ways to deal with the worry. For example, they can draw a picture of their worry and then throw it away. They might speak to their worry to better understand it. Or have them consider the best- and worst-case outcome and then recognize that the actual outcome will fall somewhere in between.
Make a list. When students are feeling overwhelmed, encourage them to make a list of everything they need to do. Prioritize the list (from “needs attention now” to “it can wait”). Prioritizing is a life skill that is often overlooked. List making and planning has an enormous impact on reducing anxiety and stress. It can also be a powerful way to help students reach meaningful goals.
It is up to all of us to help our students deal with the complexities of our new world. We must ensure students know they are not alone in how they feel, as well as provide them with the tools to deal with stressors. Please share other ways you help your students become more mindful in your classroom.
1. Carol S. Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, 2006, pg 42.
2. Psychology Today
Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., writes the monthly Cash in on Learning blog posts for Free Spirit Publishing. He has given hundreds of workshops, presentations, and staff development sessions throughout the United States and internationally.
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