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Elementary counselors help students put aside anxiety

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Everyday at local elementary schools, students are arriving at school too nervous to be able to think clearly.

The students may be worried about an upcoming test, whether they’ll be able to pass or what will happen if they don’t do well.

Or they might be preoccupied because they’re moving in with multiple families members, their parents are divorcing or because a relative has died.

When students come to school overwhelmed or worried, they can’t focus on their teachers’ lessons.

Third- and fourth-graders also could struggle to concentrate on the standardized tests they’ll have to take this month and next month, including ISTEP and IREAD-3, counselors from Creekside, Whiteland and Isom Elementary schools said.

The counselors at the three elementary schools haven’t tracked how often students in younger grades have come to school anxious or worried.

But they’re noticing students as young as kindergarten are concerned about situations with friends or family away from school, or about how well they’re keeping up in class, compared to other students.

“Those kiddos are smart, and they know they’re being expected to perform a task, and sometimes that brings on anxiety,” Whiteland Elementary counselor Kristy Boone said.

The counselors have been working with students one-on-one and in small groups to learn more about why they’re anxious, and to show them how to calm down during school. That includes showing them breathing and stretching exercises to help them relax and helping younger students, who don’t always know why they feel stressed, identify what’s worrying them and change their thinking about it.

“It’s hard to lump all kids into one group and say ‘you’re anxious,’ when it looks so different, feels so different for each child,” Boone said.

Teachers watch for students who have repeated upset stomachs, sweaty hands or say they aren’t sleeping well. A teacher may contact a student’s parents and ask them to see a doctor who can rule out any medical problems. If the student is physically healthy, the teacher can recommend that the student see a counselor to talk about what might be worrying them, Isom Elementary student services coordinator Yolanda Santos said.

Recently, Creekside and Isom Elementary schools both had programs specifically for kindergarten through fourth-grade students who were coming to school worried about situations in and outside of school. Counselor Samantha Vidal has been at Creekside Elementary for the last five years as the school’s first full-time counselor, and she’s conducted its program, called Warthogs, for the last three years for students.

Vidal talks with her students about what they’re afraid of or anxious about, and how many of those fears they actually control. She also reads a story with a character called the What-If monster, which tries to show the children how thinking about a worst-case scenario can worry them more than necessary. If, for example, a student is worried about how well he’ll do on an upcoming test, Vidal tells him not to think about failing the test, and instead think about how well he can do on the test.

Vidal also uses bubbles to help the students develop breathing techniques that can relax them. Using wands and bubble mix, Vidal shows the students how to breathe so they can blow the biggest bubble possible. The same breathing technique — in through the nose, out through the mouth — also will relax students when they’re stressed, Vidal said.

She tells third- and fourth-graders prone to anxiety that if they get overwhelmed, they should close their eyes, picture the bubbles and remember their breathing techniques. She can check in with the students she worked with, and can provide individual counseling if necessary.

At Isom, Santos can reconvene a group if students have interest, she said.

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