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Strategies for Reducing Student Anxiety in the Elementary Classroom

Kayla L. Malcolm

North Carolina State University



For this action research project I decided to focus on determining how my students

experience and respond to anxiety. I provided them instruction on how to utilize anxiety

reducing strategies within a five week time frame to determine if the implementation of these

strategies would better prepare them for their middle school transition and the end of grade tests

they will be taking over the next month. I decided to address this issue because I have realized,

throughout my years as a teacher, that anxiety within the school setting does not receive much

attention. I realized that using my understanding of anxiety as well as some simple strategies

that can be utilized in any scenario, I can positively influence the students that I teach by sharing

this information. The limited understanding of anxiety and strategies my students exhibited the

beginning of the study resulted in a dramatic improvement. Not only did students learn about

anxiety, but they also learned proactive solutions to use for the rest of their life.

Keywords: anxiety, strategies


Strategies for Reducing Student Anxiety in the Elementary Classroom

In this fast evolving world that we are living in, many challenges arise. Pressure to do

well in our academics, staying healthy, job security, financial obligations, personal obstacles

with family and friends, and living in general is a delicate balance for many. With all of these

pressures, stress and anxiety begin to take effect on our mind and body. Even in the elementary

schools there is testing being done at an early age, which results in a feelings of pressure to do

well on their end-of-grade tests. Other factors that result in an outstanding amount of stress and

anxiety for young students include transitioning to different schools, dealing with peers, and

learning the common core curriculum. Anxiety disorders are at a higher rate than ever before

with 31.4% of children and adults diagnosed with a generalized anxiety disorder (Minahan,

2015). If adults are struggling to manage their stress in healthy and positive ways, then in turn

the children are replicating those behaviors. What strategies can we teach our students to

manage stress in a healthy and positive way so that they may succeed in life?


Description of the Problem

Throughout the school year, parents have shared their worries about their children

becoming overly worried about different events going on in the school year. Students worried

about making friends, moving from a different school, leaving home for a three day field trip, the

list of stressors that have been shared with me are more overwhelming than previous years.

Hearing about their worries with their grades, seeing them perspire during tests, hearing their

voice fluctuate during group presentations and sometimes even seeing individuals pull out their

own hair in what appears to them to be a stressful situation is causing a need to help these pained

students to ensure their future success. With this group of students, there are multiple counselor

referrals a week, either by the parent or the student themselves, multiple breakdowns in the

classroom with refusal to do work as well as numerous multiple students that have missed fifteen

school days already this year. Anxiety that is so debilitating that it is affecting their school work,

is a serious problem that needs to be addressed and taken care of before it becomes a habit in

their lives and affects the future.

Evidence Explaining the Cause of the Problem

Whether it be about tests or moving on to middle school, friendships, the change or

presenting to the class, feeling overly worrisome is affecting their performance in the classroom

every day. Anxiety disorders are at a higher rate than ever before with 31.4% of children and

adolescents diagnosed with a generalized anxiety disorder (Minahan, 2015). When students are

feeling anxious for one reason or another, it is difficult for them to focus, and in more severe

cases, not come to school at all. To better teach my students the required curriculum, I need

them to be at school and focused on the task at hand without other impeding stressors that get in

the way to be able to teach them to their full potential.

With an alarming increase of anxiety disorders in young children, we as a profession, are

not taking action to observe what effects this is having on our students. From a neurobiological

viewpoint on anxiety, anxiety impairs the brains ability to process, acquire, or store new

information. (Minahan, 2015). From a psychological viewpoint, anxiety has debilitating effects

on students academic performance, motivation, and problem solving confidence (Palethorpe,

2011). Anxiety reduces students motivation to learn and students have a greater tendency to

avoid coping with problems with academics and in general. With these many effects of anxiety,

teachers tend to interpret these as troubling behaviors which may then become an even more

stressful situation for students.

Research Question

How do fifth grade students experience and respond to anxiety prior to and after

receiving instruction on anxiety-reducing strategies that are taught in the classroom? Knowing

the students since September and dealing with the many issues that comes with teaching I

wanted to get a better understanding of their viewpoint on the matter. I wanted to teach them

exactly what anxiety is and how to reduce some of it, because as we all know it will never go

away, instead hopefully a balance will be achieved.


With the knowledge of the many effects anxiety has on students, the next and obvious

step is determining how to help our students learn to manage it in the classroom. Anxiety is not

something that just disappears, instead if it is ignored, more severe cognitive depressors surface

through eating disorders, depression and substance abuse, as well as severe physical effects

including high blood pressure, asthma, insomnia and obesity can occur (Wright, 2010).

Educators need to teach students how to use strategies to help them manage their anxiety in the

classroom in order to help them succeed in the future.

I decided to break the interventions into five lessons which included an overview of stress

and anxiety, strategies to use inside and outside of the classroom as well as prevention strategies

to incorporate into their daily lifestyle. The interventions took place over a six week period with

one lesson taught each week.


Each lesson took 20 minutes with a 10 minute journal reflection afterwards. Day 1 took

place on March 15th with an introduction PowerPoint on what stress and anxiety is, the signs,

symptoms, causes and effects of stress. Day 2 took place on March 22nd with a lesson on

awareness and mindfulness. This concept was a bit abstract for the students therefore we

participated in many examples together. Teaching an awareness of what anxiety is and teaching

them to be mindful of what is happening in that moment creates a sense of control over any

situation (Palethorpe and Wilson, 2011). This is a new strategy that has been used and takes

some time to practice, but has had some positive results. Day 3 took place on April 5th with a

lesson on self-regulation, using positive self-talk to change our negative outlook. Students

received a handout (see appendix) to choose some positive self-talk phrases that they could use

and add some of their own. Using positive language can self-regulate feelings related to a task to

help students feel empowered in their learning. Using sayings such as I believe I can do this.

is a powerful strategy to build up confidence (Minahan and Schultz, 2015). Day 4 took place on

April 12th with a lesson on classroom relations, helping students acknowledge what they are in

control of in the classroom and using deep breathing to maintain control. Deep breathing can be

done silently without anyone even being aware, which is ideal for test taking time. Teaching

students to use self-calming strategies, including; deep breathing, meditation, and mindfulness

are great to use inside and outside the classroom. Day 5 took place on April 19th with a lesson

on preventative strategies to use daily to keep our lives in balance with regards to stress.

Possible stressful situations were discussed and alternative strategies were introduced to use to

handle those situations. Students came up with six proactive measures to put in place in their life

to lead a healthier life. Daily physical exercise (yoga or running), sufficient sleep, listening to

music or practicing a musical instrument, laughing daily, partaking in something relaxing and

sharing your feelings either with someone who is trustworthy or in a journal. There are many

new ideas about the benefits of yoga in the classroom to calm ones minds and our bodies. Yoga

might help in some stressful situations but would be best taught with a combination of strategies

previously taught. Incorporating the use of mindfulness and deep breathing into yoga poses can

create a sense of calm right before a possibly stressful event. Teaching specific poses that are

simple yet effective can help learners use their bodies to reduce their anxiety as well as help care

for their body (Morgan, 2011). Journals are a great tool for students to use to release all the

stress when there is no one to talk about it with. Using the journal as an end of lesson reflection

helped students become more familiar with the idea of journaling, and it became a window for

me to see what each individual student was getting out of the lessons that were being presented.

Methods for data collection included qualitative data from three sources. Students

completed a pre- and post-questionnaire of their understanding on anxiety and how to handle it.

Students wrote a reflection in their journal after each lesson, mostly open-ended to express their

thoughts and feelings as a way of reflecting on the lesson. This journal was a continuation of a

morning journal that they already have been writing in, therefore they are clear on what is

expected. Prompts were given to those who needed some assistance getting started.

Observational notes were also taken after lessons with their participation in the exercises,

common themes in their writing, and if they needed prompts to complete a full page.


In analyzing the data from the pre- and post-questionnaires I was able to group similar

answers to notice themes in my students responses. In the observation notes that I took during

their journaling time I confirmed those themes that were developed through the questionnaires.

Theme 1

Prior to receiving instruction on anxiety and anxiety-reducing strategies, 54% of students

did not have an understanding of what anxiety was or did not experience anxiety. 54% of

students did not know of a strategy that they used when feeling anxious. 27% of students didnt

do anything when they felt anxious. Students answers in the pre-questionnaire were very vague

but it was clear that they were not familiar with the term anxiety. After the survey and during the

introductory lesson they became very conversational about their thoughts on the topic. They

saved those thoughts for the journal entry. Observational notes concluded that students were not

familiar with the term anxiety but were familiar with the term stress. The journal entries on the

first day were filled with more notes than reflection on what anxiety is, symptoms of anxiety and

how it can affect minds and bodies. Some students even drew comical pictures of what anxiety

can look like if not managed.

Theme 2

After receiving instruction on anxiety and anxiety-reducing strategies, there was an

understanding of the term anxiety, therefore only 4% of students replied that there were not times

in school when they felt anxious. Clarifying the term anxiety for students gave them the

understanding that they needed to answer the post-questionnaire thoughtfully and truthfully.

Journal entries confirmed that they were not familiar with the term anxiety but after the

introduction lesson they were comfortable with using the term.

In reviewing the post-questionnaire, 100% of students used a strategy or multiple

strategies that were taught in the lessons. The strategies that students used the most and wrote

about the most were deep breathing exercises and positive self-talk. 50% of students said that

they used deep breathing and 36% of students said that they used positive thinking. Journal

entries confirmed that deep breathing helped them be in control of something when it seems as

though they are not in control. Positive thoughts were discussed in journals and students added

their own phrases that were more personal. Some students now add positive phrases on their

notebooks to decorate as a reminder to themselves to stay positive. To be able to understand the

topic and apply it in the daily routine tells me that these strategies are more than just during a

stressful situation, it is a way of life.


In the duration of this action research project I found that my students were very engaged

in the lessons, knowing that this was something relevant to their lives at this moment in time.

Many students expressed situations where they felt an overwhelming amount of stress and how

they managed to get through it because of something that they learned. In realizing what anxiety

is, it is apparent that many students are suffering from anxiety but didnt have any strategies to

manage it before those strategies were taught.

In reaching out to all students at my school and this need to manage stress, I will be

sharing my information to my team members so they will be able to present the information and

strategies to their students before the End of Grade tests. Two teachers have already used my

information and started lessons with their students.


In the end of this action research project I am pleased with the amount of positive

feedback I have seen and heard from my students and parents. Not only are they using the

strategies that I taught them, they are following up with our six proactive measures to stay in a

healthy balance with stress. In return, my students have reminded me to slow down, take some

time for myself, laugh, exercise and breathe.

Working on this action research project has taught me to lessen my enjoyment activities

to get the work that is needed done on time and correctly during the work week, waiting till the

weekend to work on a large project like this is not thinking about the time management that is

needed. Working a full time job, taking classes as a part time student, managing a household and

all of the other responsibilities that need to be taken care of is extremely stressful. Finding time

throughout the week to gradually work on this project was difficult to do, but I could dedicate

certain days of the work week to devote to school work. Procrastination is a cause of stress,

knowing the causes and being proactive does not always solve everything, but being

knowledgeable about it can help in the long run.


Action Research Project Timeline

Date: Theme: Sub Theme: Evidence:

Day 1: 3/15/16 Introduction to Stress Definition of stress Pre-Questionnaire

and Anxiety and Anxiety Observational Notes
Response Journals
Signs, Symptoms and
Causes of stress

Effects of Stress

Day 2: 3/22/16 Awareness Present moment Observational Notes

awareness and Response Journals


Day 3: 4/5/16 Self-regulation Regulation of Observational Notes

thoughts and feelings Response Journals

Positive self-talk

Day 4: 4/12/16 Classroom Relations Regulation of Observational Notes

classroom behaviours Response Journals

Deep breathing

Day 5: 4/19/16 Addressing future Transition to Post-Questionnaire

stress secondary school Observational Notes
Response Journals
Home-related stress

Daily proactive

Your teacher is working together to learn more about when you feel anxious in school and
what you do to when you feel anxious? To help better understand, please answer the
following three questions:

1. Have there been times in school when you have felt anxious? Explain.






2. What did you do when you felt anxious during those times?







3. What else do you know about handling situations that make you feel anxious?






Positive Self-Talk Phrases

A panic attack will not hurt me.

I no longer accept negative thinking as part of who I am.

When I notice negative thoughts coming into my mind, I quickly replace them with

truthful, positive thoughts.

I am strong and capable.

I am in control of myself and the thoughts and choices I want to make.

I am allowed to be me without apology, guilt or shame.

I am proud of myself and my accomplishments, no matter how small.

I am calm, positive, confident and self-assured.

I am confident and I am getting stronger every day.

I am okay and doing well. I am healthy and strong.

I have the power to control the thoughts I want to think. If I dont like my thoughts, I can

change them.

I choose thoughts that are encouraging and helpful to me.

I can do this.


A few weeks ago, I asked you to think about times you felt anxious in school and how you
handled those anxious situations. Now that you have had a chance to think about this, I
would like to ask you those same questions again to see if you have anything to add to your
previous answers.

1. Have there been times in school when you have felt anxious? Explain.






2. What did you do when you felt anxious during those times?







3. What else do you know about handling situations that make you feel anxious?






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