I remember feigning a stomachache for two weeks in second grade in order to go home from school.

Back then, the principal and my mom caught on that I was feeling anxious about being away from home. Now, as a therapist, I know that anxiety disorders are among the most common mental, emotional, and behavioral problems to occur during childhood and adolescence. In fact, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders affect one in eight children. Research shows that untreated children with anxiety disorders are at a higher risk to perform poorly in school, miss out on important social experiences, and engage in substance abuse, and that these disorders often co-occur with others such as depression, eating disorders, and ADHD.

Telling someone — whether or a child or adult — “Just think happy thoughts and it will be okay” rarely works. Emotions do not simply disappear. If we do not release or acknowledge feelings, they get stored and become part of our physical and emotional make-up. Children’s feelings that are stored and “stuffed” become activators for negative behaviors. And so, what we must teach them is how their emotional reactions affect their behavior. We want to help them become aware of situations that cause stress, frustration, or emotional upset and to develop strategies for reducing that stress.

In Anxiety and Depression in the Classroom: A Teacher’s Guide to Fostering Self-Regulation in Young Students, author Nadja Reilly presents a wealth of information for educators on the impact of anxiety and depression and other mental health issues in children. She provides suggestions to build resilience and teach self-regulation in order to help kids to succeed in school and beyond.

Everyone may have occasional moments of feeling anxious or worried, but an anxiety disorder is a medical condition that causes people to feel persistently, uncontrollably worried over an extended period of time. This can result in significant distress in a number of settings, such as school, peer relationships, and home life. And as Reilly writes and as the literature shows, stress in childhood leads to increased incidence of depression and anxiety disorders in young adulthood. Stressed children often get overwhelmed by upset feelings; act impulsively; misbehave, withdraw, or tune out; get distracted easily; have difficulty learning and remembering; are difficult for others to get along with; and engage in risky behaviors with drugs, gangs, or sex.

Children who are stressed or anxious do not have much fun and are not in tune with their minds and bodies. They may be too busy dealing with stress or they may feel that everything is serious, and they may have difficulty letting down their guard and playing. In turn, helping them to become more mindful and have fun can be important tools. Self-regulation (awareness), fun, and play activities are natural ways to relieve stress and worry and recharge energy.

To that end, Reilly discusses how to teach students deep-breathing exercises and various ways to understand their bodies. Indeed, the book provides very detailed instructions for readers who teach children in grades K-5. Reilly lists materials needed, gives step-by-step instructions, and offers variations to accommodate specific needs.

For example, to help children identify feelings and manage somatic symptoms, Reilly introduces an activity she calls Finding the Body Clues for grades K-3. It is a type of body scan to help kids identify where in their bodies they are holding tension, and it provides a fun way to develop the language they need to describe their feelings and link it to their somatic experience.

The teacher, Reilly writes, provides large sheets of paper on which students can trace their bodies. Then, students draw in the body sensations they notice in themselves, such as an ache in their tummy, or sweaty palms.

As Reilly explains, the teacher also encourages students to come up with funny or silly names for these sensations to make them less threatening. Afterward, everyone comes together to come up with ideas for decreasing these body sensations, such as deep breathing.

The book also provides a chapter on communicating with parents to promote teacher-parent collaboration and assist families with kids who are struggling. For use both in the classroom and with parents and home life, this is a thoughtful, invaluable book — and should be required reading for anyone working with school-aged children.

Anxiety and Depression in the Classroom: A Teacher’s Guide to Fostering Self-Regulation in Young Students
W. W. Norton & Company, May 2015
Paperback, 368 pages

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