SPARKLERS / Managing emotions

Worries 101

Teaching tamariki the neuroscience behind worrying helps them make sense of the way it feels, so they can better work through it.
Connections with the NZ Curriculum and Mental Health Education Guide (learn more)

Learning outcomes

Tamariki know some of the science behind worrying and have a strategy for coping with times of worry, such as tummy breathing.

He aha ai? – Why we love it

Teaching tamariki the neuroscience behind worrying helps them make sense of the way it feels, so they can better work through it.

Tāngia ēnei tohutohu – Print me

Print a Worries 101 worksheet for each student OR ask them to simply copy the four boxes from this worksheet into an exercise book. Either is ka pai!


Worrying happens because of the time when our brains were first formed – think cave-person times. If a sabre toothed tiger was running at us should we worry? Yes! Worrying sends messages from our brains to our bodies to prepare us to….?

  • Run, climb a tree, swim across the river or hide… great answers!

Draw a picture of a person on the board and add in the body parts as they’re discussed – what needs to happen in our body for us to escape danger? To run away from a sabre tooth tiger or try to fight it off, we need adrenaline. Think about what happens for you during the athletics day sprints. It’s sort of the same feeling. Adrenaline makes...

  • Our heart pump faster
  • Our breathing become shallower
  • Our muscles contract!

Changes take place in our brains too. Because our top priority is escaping the sabre-toothed tiger, the huge outside area of the brain (cortex) shuts down –especially the front of our brain (our prefrontal cortex) because when we’re really, really worried, we don’t need it. We just need lots of adrenaline to run and hide, or react and defend ourselves.

But our world has really, really changed since the cave person times. Think about all the change that’s happened – even just in the last 300 years! There’s been the invention of vehicles, technology, computers and more – and we no longer have dangerous animals in our backyards.

The world is actually safer, but our brains haven’t had a chance to catch up. Evolution (changes to our brains and bodies) 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 and feel a bit anxious sometimes.

Hei mahi - What to do

Ask tamariki to refer to their worksheets and complete the cave person side of the sheet.

Then kōrero: What experiences can make us worry so much our brains peskily release a surge of adrenaline when we don’t need it?

  • Trying something new
  • Speaking in front of a group
  • Meeting someone new
  • New places
  • Lots of noise
  • Lots of people
  • Fast or noisy traffic
  • 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. Explain that sometimes when this happens we do things that aren’t fun for us, or very helpful e.g. we become angry and defensive, or we disengage…

Let tamariki know that there are some things we can learn, that help. When we do these things, we re-engage our whole brain and stop the release of adrenaline when it’s not needed. These things let our brains know that there is no sabre-toothed tiger in the vicinity – and no need to panic!

Ask tamariki now to complete the ‘nowadays’ side of the worksheet and talk through some of the things that can help calm us down.

Emphasise that an important thing to do when we feel very nervous, worried or anxious is to focus on our breathing – inhaling right down into the base of our tummies. When we do this our body tells our brain to calm down. This is weird and amazing, but it’s scientific! We know it works!

What next?

This activity is a great introduction to Tummy Breathing or Body Scans – awesome skills that grow stronger with regular practice.

If your tamariki still want to talk about worries and anxiety – keep the kōrero going with the science experiment-based activity: Managing Worries.

In fact, simple experiments are also another great way to explore the build up of our emotions such as apprenhension turning to worry, turning to fear, turning to panic.

Two other great experiments which are useful to kōrero about worries include:

A book we love too that help explore our worrying is Aroha’s Way by Rebekah Lipp and Craig Phillips - in fact any from this series are New Zealand reads that we’d totally recommend too.

This activity is also a Sparklers at Home activity helping you extend this mahi to whānau. The at home version can be found here - Worries 101.

Ngā mihi

This activity was extended by a cool team of University of Canterbury students - Grace, Rebecca, Emily, Charlotte, Jenna and Sarah, as part of their HLED122 paper.

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