Quiet, Consistency, Deep Breaths, Nature: Ways to Create Calming Classrooms

Patrick: Teachers can incorporate anxiety-reducing measures into their daily school routines to aid their students' mental health

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Last month, the U.S. Preventive Service Task Force made headlines when it recommended that primary-care physicians screen all U.S. children ages 8 and older for anxiety. The announcement underscores the concerning state of young people’s mental health. 

It’s no surprise that students need more support, both in terms of diagnostic measures like screening and proven interventions like evidence-based clinical therapies. For the past several years, they’ve endured unprecedented stress from the pandemic, a rise in violence and social unrest.

School-based social workers, counselors and other mental health professionals play a major role in helping young people manage stress and anxiety by modeling everyday coping strategies.

Teachers, too, can help by building a less stressful classroom environment. Since anxiety is the most commonly diagnosed mental health concern for youth, and because teachers play such a central role in children’s lives, it makes good sense for educators to focus on incorporating everyday anxiety interventions into their classroom routines. 

While the root causes of anxiety can’t be solved without targeted interventions like clinical therapy, there are strategies any teacher can use to reduce some of the symptoms. Even better, these can benefit all children in a classroom, not just the ones with a formal diagnosis of anxiety.

Reducing environmental factors that exacerbate stress or anxiety is a good place for teachers to start. The less noise and disruptions students experience, the fewer potential triggers children are likely to encounter. Teachers don’t need a master’s degree in social work or counseling to provide this kind of intervention. 

Sticking with a consistent classroom daily routine — from how students line up to how they participate in discussions — can build a sense of security. So can a simple change of tone. Instead of yelling down the hall, for example, a teacher can walk up to a group of lingering students and use an “inside voice” to tell them to go to class. In situations like this, it’s as much about delivery as the message itself.

It’s also ok for a teacher to hit the “pause” button when feeling frustrated or stressed. In fact, this can model for the class what it means to take 30 seconds to reset with five deep breaths that fill the lungs. Afterward, notice how the tone of voice has changed — and maybe the sense of agency too. By modeling breathing strategies, teachers are giving students the space to tap into their emotions and respond to them in a healthy manner.

Another practical step teachers can take is helping students tap into their sensory systems of sight, smell and sound. Students can take those few deep breaths while picturing a beautiful sunny day, or while remembering the smell of a favorite meal and how it made them feel. These types of interventions are easy to incorporate in a daily classroom routine, and can reduce young people’s heart rates and allow them to shift to a calmer state. Less stress for students means more focus on learning and interacting constructively with their peers.  

Being in nature has a positive effect on reducing blood pressure and a racing heartbeat. Amazingly, so can just looking at a picture of nature. So why not take a field trip to a local park or even the school grounds? Or decorate the classroom with pictures of towering redwoods or shimmering mountain lakes? Or even repurpose a desk or bookshelf to display rows of potted houseplants? Knowing why the greenery is there can help both students and teachers feel calmer.

Will a row of snake plants or a gallery wall of nature photos prevent classroom panic attacks? Probably not. But for many students, it can reduce feelings of anxiety and stress and allow teachers to focus on getting more powerful interventions to students who really need extra support.

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