Tipping the Anxiety Scale: A School’s Strengths-Based Approach

“So-and-so is having an anxiety attack in my classroom RIGHT NOW. Please come!” At the sight of his urgent email from a concerned colleague, I drop what I’m doing, rush upstairs, and find a normally collected student red-faced, short of breath, sweating, tearful, and somewhat disoriented. It’s a panic attack alright. This sophomore gets up from her unfinished, timed quiz, and we head toward my office together, but not before I check whether she feels OK to walk down a flight of stairs on her own. Panic attacks can cause dizziness, putting some kids at risk for passing out. Sadly, I know the drill.

When I entered the school counseling field in the early 2000s, anxiety was not as prevelant in the way it is today; I don’t recall covering panic attacks in my coursework, though surely we must have. Now, adolescent anxiety is among the most common concerns I address in the counseling office. According to the American Psychiatric Association, anxiety becomes cause for concern when fear or feelings of a lack of control cause “significant distress and/or impairment of functioning.” And we are certainly seeing such levels in schools—kids who wake up sick to their stomachs on test days, who become paralyzed when a routine or expectation is changed, whose brains routinely lock up during assessments, or whose interpersonal relationships suffer from their inability to effectively and confidently connect with others. Students dealing with chronic anxiety simply cannot rise to their full potential when their brain capacity is so compromised.

Independent schools, with our emphasis on knowing and valuing each child, are in a particularly fitting position to sensitively and effectively address the negative impact of anxiety and get the most from students. The steps schools can take to do this well do not require a degree in mental health, are in keeping with best educational practices, and will result in a classroom atmosphere that serves our most anxious kids as well as the general student population.

Positive Action

The recipe is grounded in the principles of positive psychology, which Martin Seligman, one of the field’s founding fathers, describes as the “study of human flourishing.” Whereas traditional psychology has historically looked at people’s deficiencies, positive psychology looks at individual and group strengths and studies how tapping into them can enhance well-being. By identifying and applying one’s unique set of strengths, a person can lead a life richer in meaning, engagement, purpose, relationships, and achievement. Concerned with their college résumés, many of today’s students seem to have the achievement thing down pat, but they could use all the help they can get with the previous four.

At Severn School, all upper school students and faculty take the VIA Character Strengths Survey, a free online inventory that provides participants’ strengths in order of prevalence. We pay particular attention to our “signature strengths,” the top five or six that are core to who we are and that we use most often, most easily, and most readily. My own signature strengths, for example, are love, curiosity, honesty, fairness, humor, and my personal favorite, zest—all of which I get to use every day in my work as a school counselor. When students know their own signature strengths, they can seek out opportunities in which their strengths will shine. And they have an affirming explanation for situations that make them feel depleted—perhaps the circumstances don’t match their unique set of strengths. Of course, knowing this doesn’t mean they get to give up, but it does provide a reason for why they may need to work harder at something that seems to come so easily to the kid one seat over.

Exploration of character strengths can also provide school communities with a common vocabulary. As the school counselor, I try to ask incisive questions that incorporate students’ strengths. In the case of the panic attack, I might ask—after the attack had subsided—“How can you use your bravery to overcome future feelings of fear?” or “How can your strength of perspective help you in this moment?” or “Since love is a high strength for you, how would you like your friends and family to show you their love right now?” By showing students how to tap into their strengths in times of crisis, I hope to build resilience by providing students with personalized coping toolboxes while highlighting their unique gifts.

Teachers and advisers can incorporate students’ strengths into feedback, even the “needs improvement” type of feedback. For example, when one student is taking over a group project, there’s a chance she’s overusing her strength of leadership. A teacher might say, “It’s clear leadership is one of your gifts—you’re a natural. In your group project you need to make sure you are finding the sweet spot for your leadership skills and that all group members have a chance to contribute.” Corrective feedback can be difficult to hear, but strengths-based corrective feedback could actually serve to enhance the student-teacher relationship.

Small Steps, Big Gains

We may not be able to fix the current mental health crisis, but perhaps we can tip the balance in a healthier direction. Research in the field of positive psychology suggests that experiencing positive emotions temporarily broadens peoples’ thinking—and also their response to challenges. Therefore, if we can help students identify their strengths and take steps to enhance their positive emotions, we equip them to better navigate learning tasks in our classrooms. We turn them into more creative problem-solvers and better academic risk-takers. We set them up for feelings of competence and confidence, antidotes to the anxiety plague sickening our children and teens at the moment. And, done on a broader and consistent level, these small steps stand to improve whole-school culture and connectedness.   

Here are a few ideas to get started.
  • Greet all students by name as they enter your classroom. Over the course of a week or two, make a point of having brief, one-on-one interactions with each student about how their day is going.
  • Bring small unexpected moments of humor into classroom, such as a funny image on a PowerPoint slide or a goofy activity to get kids smiling. One of my favorites is to ask kids to partner up and create a secret handshake.
  • Start your class with music that relates to the day’s lesson.
  • Introduce a “mindful minute” of silence to help students get centered before a lesson or during transitions.
  • Tailor your assessments to your students’ strengths—perhaps even let them choose the method through which they will be assessed.
  • Take brief brain breaks—even in high school classrooms—to help students refocus and renew their concentration.

In It Together

When the student in the midst of a panic attack and I enter my office together, I ask, “Lights on or off?” I take out the portable speaker I keep in my desk drawer and hit play on a guided meditation app on my phone. For seven minutes, we listen quietly to instructions designed to regulate breathing and clear the mind of unhelpful thoughts. By the end, my student is no longer hyperventilating. She is slumped in her chair, exhausted. “I’m OK now,” she says with a slight nod, almost as if she’s assuring herself, not me. “You used a lot of bravery just now,” I remind her. “This is tough stuff you’re dealing with.” We talk about how I’ll need to call home to tell her parents about this event, and what to do in the future if she feels an incident like this creeping up at school. And we make a plan to communicate with her teacher about making up the quiz she just missed. We talk about her outside therapist, whom she likes a lot and who is helping her develop strategies to manage her anxiety. And, as she’s about to leave my office, I open the glass candy jar I keep on my desk, “Want a lollipop?” I offer. She gives me a smile now, takes the candy, and heads back to face her day.
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Samantha Straub

Samantha Straub is upper school counselor at Severn School in Severna Park, Maryland.