SPARKLERS / Managing emotions

Anxious or Worried

Anxiety and worry have gotten a bad reputation, but they're pretty normal emotions. Here's some tips on how to support tamariki who feel worried - a little, or a lot..
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A bit of background

Having worries is a sign of normal, healthy brain development in children. As adults, we sometimes think childhood is a worry-free part of life, devoid of responsibilities and challenges — but it isn’t. Children worry, just as we do, sometimes more. So it's important not to dismiss tamariki worries or try to ‘fix them’ in someway. So what can we do?

Some of the ‘worry with worry’ is that it’s been heavily medicalised, is readily called ‘anxiety’ and it’s often thought to need professional intervention. Mostly, it doesn’t and there are lots of things we, as teachers and parents, can do to help.

Inspire (and try)

In the moment

If you’re on this page, you’re likely to know that ‘worry’ doesn’t always look the same. Behaviours can include:

  • Clinginess and/or upset (wearing the emotion honestly)
  • Aggression or over-bossiness (trying to find some control in the situation),
  • Avoidance, disengagement or defiance (trying to escape the situation) or
  • Seeking attention from others (attempts to find distraction and/or comfort from others).

We believe it's important to normalise worry for all your students because sometimes tamariki are so good at hiding it, that we wouldn't even know they did! And, everyone worries sometimes, so it's good to know when we do, it's normal. The other thing is that our 'worriers' often don't want to be singled out, this can be just another reason for them to worry more.

One way to kōrero with your students:

Let them know that you're working your way through some Sparklers activities around wellbeing, and it's suggested that as a part of this we understand our emotions.

NB - that's pretty easy and a great thing to do to help your tamariki with their emotional literacy and regulation. Look through the other emotions we discuss, or head here for activities with this very focus!

Let your tamariki know that worrying is normal we all do it, because it’s actually necessary and mostly the right thing to do.

Worrying comes about as a result of when our brains were first formed – think cave-person times. If a sabre toothed tiger is running at us should we worry? Yes! And it’s ‘worry’ that sends all the right messages from our brains to our bodies to prepare us to…. (ask tamariki what they’d do) – run, climb a tree, swim across the river or hide…! Great answers!

Draw a picture of a person and add in the body parts as they’re discussed – what needs to happen in our body for us to escape?

We need adrenaline – what does this do? Makes our heart pump faster, or breath becomes shallower, our muscles contract through our body – think about what happens for you during the athletics day sprints. Much the same thing.

And in terms of our brain, all we can think about is escaping the sabre-toothed tiger, so this huge outside area of the brain shuts down a bit (cortex) – and especially this bit at the front of our brain (prefrontal cortex) because in moments when we’re really, really worried, we don’t need them. We just need lots of adrenaline to run or hide really fast!

One of the things that’s happened though is our world has changed really, really quickly since cave person times.

  • Perhaps try plotting a timeline from when sabre-toothed tigers existed, till now.

Think about all the change that’s happened – even just in the last 300 years. Add in vehicles, technology, loss of dangerous animals in our backyards! The world is actually safer, but have our brains have had a chance to catch up? – no. Evolution takes hundreds, if not thousands of years. This means that sometimes our brains and bodies react like there’s a sabre-toothed tiger in the room, even though there isn’t. So it's normal to over-worry sometimes.

What experiences can make us worry so much our brains peskily release adrenaline when we don’t need it?

  • Starting something new
  • Standing up in front of people or being noticed
  • Meeting someone new
  • New places
  • Lots of noise
  • Lots of people
  • Being in big open spaces
  • Having a big test or assignment
  • Not being with people we love

Lots of things can make us worry and cause our brains to release adrenaline when we don’t actually need it. It’s a pesky thing for sure, and can actually be really scary.

Explain that sometimes when this happens we do things that aren’t very helpful e.g. become angry and defensive, or disengage… things that aren’t fun for us, or for anyone!

Let tamariki know that there are some things we can learn to help re-engage our whole brain and stop the release of adrenaline when it’s not needed. We know that it’s our brain that’s decided there is a sabre-toothed tiger in the vicinity, so we need to let our brain know, that this time, it’s got it all wrong! The way we do this is through breathing right down into the base of our tummies and engaging our Vagus Nerve. This is weird, but amazing, because if we do this, breathe deeply, then it tells our brain to calm down. And the best thing is it’s scientific! We know it works!

Try Tummy Breathing or we love these printable breathing exercises which allow tamariki to choose the technique that suits them best.

When there's time


We love Karen Young’s website Hey Sigmund and especially her book From Worrier to Warrior where anxiety is explained as: “Worry happens because a part of your brain thinks there is something it needs to protect you from. If it senses trouble it fuels your body so you can be strong fast and powerful, kind of like a superhero.”

This must give you some good ideas for classroom activities and fun!

She also explains that body fuel is: “when a part of your brain thinks there is something that could hurt you, it powers up your body with special body fuel (oxygen, adrenaline & hormones) to make you strong, fast and powerful in case you need to run for your life or fight for it. This causes some pretty amazing things to happen inside you but it doesn’t always feel that amazing".

Continue the kōrero and techniques with some of our Sparklers activities -

Encouraging emotional literacy – try Managing Worries

Teaching and practising calm down strategies – try Tummy breathing

Building on tamariki strengths

Enquire (and notice)

Parents and whānau are usually well aware of their children being ‘worriers’, and just quietly will probably be worriers too. Welcome them into your plans so tamariki can practice any strategies at school and at home. Our parenting guides on ‘How to help kids manage worries’ and ‘How to help kids feel good and have fun’ may help too.
There are some fantastic resources online that we love.

And books galore, which again can be used across home and school.

Plan (and reflect)

A child who worries, also has wonderful strengths – humility might be one. Sometimes we get caught up in thinking that a child IS that emotion. This is especially true of anger and anxiety. We often hear – ‘he’s an anxious child’. Think about ways you personally can see beyond this and build their self esteem – point out what they’re good at and include activities that make this more available.

Sometimes anxiety (especially if it is school-based) is paired with learning differences such as dyslexia. If people find reading and writing challenging and are faced with a whole day of it, this is always going to be anxiety producing! This is worth bearing in mind and ensuring that tamariki who find some subjects and activities challenging have appropriate supports. Have a look at our tips for the classroom around this.

Review (and follow up)

We love the TKI Encourage Positive Behaviours approach and encourage working in this creative and strengths-based way. We’ve adapted this model for Sparklers but if the behaviour continues we recommend using Encourage Positive Behaviours as the go-to for further analysis and as a matter of good practice.

Encouraging positive behaviours via a classroom and whole school approach… how cool is that?

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