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How to Reduce Students' Anxieties about This School Year

Big week for me--I dropped my first-born child off to live away at college! This is a significant life milestone for her and for me, compounded by the unusual circumstances of going to school during COVID-19. 

Like most new college parents--and the students too--​I am experiencing a whirlwind of mixed emotions. Excitement, fear, concern, anticipation, pride among other feelings are swirling around.

Good thing I know enough to take life a little bit slower than usual this week and to be gentle with myself and others, as I process this big change. 

Another good thing is that I have been designing my college class on Social-Emotional Learning this week. The subject of emotional trauma and regulation is on the top of my mind!

Within my own reflection, I'm thinking a lot about the swirled-up feelings of students right now. They too have a wild mix of emotions about returning to school this year, but not all have the skill to slow down and sort through them. In addition to the complexities of the global health crisis, in the US we are experiencing racism, economic stressors, and political turmoil. For anyone paying attention to the world around them, it's not an easy time to focus on your school work.

In turn, we parents and educators can expect to see more eruptions of emotion, more social withdrawal, and more overall anxiety as emotional tornadoes get pushed down instead of processed.

In one word, this school year will be Stress-Inducing. Maybe not for every student, but for more people than usual. We all need to be ready to provide extra support.

How to support students and reduce anxiety? The research on this is plentiful and advice is practical:

1. Encourage both structure and flexibility. Set expectations and schedule, such as routines, have long been known for alleviating anxiety. Recent research also shows that practicing flexibility also produces positive effects for reducing stress. For online learners, this may look like planning a set location and time to engage in work, but not rigidly grip that schedule. If it turns out working at the table is uncomfortable, no big deal: try another spot. Need a little longer than expected to finish that paper due to "corona brain," no big deal: ask your professor if an extension this one time will be permitted.

2. Encourage both solitude and social connection. Whether online, hybrid or in-person, this school year has the potential to be a lonelier one than usual. More independent learning and more social distancing result in being alone more often. This can be freeing for students who don't thrive in extroverted environments, but it can run the risk of students being "in their own heads" too much and for too long. Parents and educators must help students build a sense of community, feel connected to others, experience belonging to something outside of themselves. This core psychological need is described in Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect by social neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman. Social interactions also help them externalize their inner ideas. My work with students is a piece of this: a working relationship with someone outside of them to get their thoughts out and to sort through the ideas and feelings of their week.

3. Encourage both mistakes and successes. Acknowledge that missteps are actually good news and that even small achievements are worthy of celebration. This perspective is the cornerstone of a Growth Mindset. Every coaching session of mine starts with these prompts--1) what "wins," no matter how small, have you had since we spoke and 2) what did you hope to do that you didn't and what can you learn from not doing it? It never ceases to amaze me how simple yet powerful those questions are. Students seem to grow before my eyes when I ask them.

4. Encourage "name it to tame it," an approach coined by neurobiologist Dan Siegel. Emotional literacy means you can access words to describe your feelings. Doing so shifts neural activity from the emotional center to more cognitive regions...what we'd colloquially call "calming down." We can provide supports for students amid this emotionally complex time to identify what they're feeling with a word or two. Ask them to expand: Is "anger" the right word here or is it "frustrated"? Try using a Feeling Wheel of words, created by Dr. Gloria Wilcox. It may seem silly but my college students appreciate it.

There's no magic wand to alleviate the heightened anxiety we can expect to see among high-school and college students this academic year. Being ready for supporting students is the best we can offer, as well as the very least we can do for them--these young people who have woken in a crisis discoloring their school years.

My hope is that parents and educators apply the research-backed approaches to these reducing anxiety. Like me as I process the big changes in my household, let's all take things a bit more slowly, be gentle with ourselves and others, until we all come out stronger. 

Want more perspective on young people and education? Make sure to be signed up for my emails at If you're a parent or caregiver of college-aged or college-bound students, join my private Facebook community "Your College Partner."

Want personalized support for a high-school or college student you love? Check out my coaching services at Both one-on-one and group programs are available to help everyone through the whirlwind of life today.

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