Stress, anxiety and remote learning: What teachers need to know

Stress anxiety and learning

“Change is the only constant in our lives.”

Whoever said that quote sure knew what they were talking about!

Our lives now change on a daily basis- yesterday we entered our supermarket through one set of doors and today we had to enter through a different set. The rules keep changing, the ground is shifting, and uncertainty and anxiety abound.

How our bodies respond to all this change and uncertainty is different for every person and, as I’ve experienced, different every day as well. (Some days I live in my fridge, some days I don’t).

Welcome to the Covid-19 Rollercoaster!

In order to make sense of what some of this means for teachers and schools, I recently put some questions to qualified counsellor, Angela Mitten, from Chrysalis Counselling (who also happens to be a former primary school teacher).

Here’s how our interview went down:

There’s a lot uncertainty, change and disruption in our lives at the moment, what advice do you have for teachers in this time?

Anxiety and remote learning advice

Ange: The advice you’re given during pre-flight safety talks is to put on your own oxygen mask first. This is what we need to do right now.

Currently, our own nervous systems are on high alert. We’re trying to manage a major shift to the way we plan, relate to, and teach our students. Many teachers will be trying to work from home while teaching and caring for their own children. Some of us have ageing parents who we’re worried about and trying to protect and educate about the risks of coronavirus, while at the same time not being able to be close to them. We’re being advised on a daily basis about global death rates and the risks of dropping our vigilance around hygiene and physical distancing. Almost everything about our daily lives has changed.

It’s important to recognise the impact this has on your own nervous system and sense of wellbeing and take some steps to take care of yourself too.

Me: I really like your advice to fit your own oxygen mask first. I think this is very relevant for both teachers and school leaders, who may be feeling overwhelmed or anxious at not having full control over the situation they’re in (especially considering we’re all control freaks!). As a former school principal, I could only imagine the level of stress associated with leading in such uncertain times. That brings me to my next question:

What are the body’s normal protective responses to threat?

Ange: You’ve probably heard of the fight, flight and freeze responses – these are our primitive, survival responses to a perceived threat. These responses developed in the days when the threat might have been a sabre-toothed tiger; when faced with a threat, our bodies become primed with adrenaline to either fight with or flee from the tiger. If all else fails, we drop into our freeze response- play dead, and hope that the sabre-tooth tiger prefers a live meal.

When our bodies are charged with adrenaline, we want to do something with that energy. While we can’t run from this virus and can’t necessarily fight the virus, we can see this adrenaline being played out in different ways including through behaviours such as panic buying supplies. You may have also noticed the freeze response demonstrated through craving activities such as numbing out on the couch with Netflix, for example.

Me: These three responses have certainly resonated for me at the moment. I notice I have flitted between all three of them (and in fact, included a fourth response: ‘fridge’). Reflecting on how exhausting being in a constant state of fight, flight or freeze is, has made me develop a much greater awareness of the challenges faced by some of our trauma-affected students who may have been experiencing this on a daily basis well before the Covid-Coaster started.

I recommend this short YouTube video, explaining the brain’s fight, flight, freeze response for anyone interested in more info on this.

Do you have any tips for ways teachers can manage their own emotions at this time?

Ange: Finding ways to regulate our own emotions and take care of ourselves is super important at this time. In my practice I teach clients to ‘drop anchor,’ a process of acknowledging your thoughts and feelings and coming back into your body, grounding oneself in the present moment prior to engaging in an activity.

I also encourage clients to notice their breath and focus on allowing longer exhalations. These longer exhalations send a signal to our nervous system that we are safe.

I am currently using a resource called FACE COVID by Russ Harris to support clients through the challenges of Coronavirus. (This includes information on dropping anchor).

Me: Yes! Breathing is such an underrated but highly effective stress management tool. (Unfortunately, it’s one I always need reminding about though!)

Another thing that helps me to manage my emotions is exercise, particularly running. I did try a guided mediation on Youtube yesterday but found it difficult to feel Zen with 2 needy dogs trying to climb into my lap, lick my face and get me to pat them! I’ve decided to stick to running instead…

Other useful resources for managing emotions include this blog post by Smiling Minds on ‘staying mentally healthy when you’re working from home’ and this PDF from the Black Dog Institute on ‘Tips to manage anxiety during times of uncertainty.’

What do educators need to know about anxiety and learning?

Ange: Often, children don’t come out and tell you that they are anxious. Anxiety will come out in behaviours which can range from defiance, negativity, over planning and withdrawal.

When our threat systems are highly activated, we are operating from our primitive brain. Our cerebral cortex has gone “offline”. For educators, it is important to realise that engagement in learning is less likely to occur when our threat system is highly activated. We need to establish a sense of safety to bring the cerebral cortex back “online.” Dan Siegel’s hand model of the brain is a great way to teach children about the way the brain goes ‘offline’ when under threat. Children like to know what is coming next. Regular routines and structures promote feelings of safety, so establishing these early is important. It is also important for educators to find ways to connect with their students, and connect with each other, in the online classroom environment.

“Children and young people develop coping skills through exposure to manageable amounts of stress. However, when there are high levels of stress or multiple stress factors (especially those they can’t control) then it can impact on their physical and mental health, relationships, and learning and development.”

Beyond Blue, 2020

Me: Even though your comments are targeted at teachers, I think this advice is highly relevant for school leaders too; they may be working with staff who have highly activated threat systems right now, so will need to consider how they can support these staff to shift from the panic zone, back into the learning or comfort zones.

Speaking of the panic, learning and comfort zones…

What strategies can adults teach children to reduce or manage their anxiety (and draw them out of the panic zone)?

Ange: While some students will seemingly take all these changes in their stride, others may experience complex and shifting emotions as a result of Coronavirus and the impact it is having on their world. Children can be taught about the fight, flight and freeze response and learn how to recognise events that trigger their anxiety. Adults can build children’s emotional literacy by encouraging them to notice and name their feelings and develop a repertoire of regulating activities.

Children can learn breathing techniques to soothe their nervous system such as square breathing or, for young children, blowing the candles out (hold your fingers up as candles and get them to blow each ‘candle’ out) or bubble breathing (imagine breathing in and then blowing bubbles with a bubble wand).

Another challenge for teachers will be guiding parents in supporting their child’s learning during this time. Supporting parents towards emotional regulation, establishing routines and keeping things soothing will be important. Progressive muscle relaxation is a technique that parents, teachers and children could all learn and practice together to promote awareness of how we hold tension in our bodies.

Me: I agree, I think supporting parents in will be really important because they could be experiencing their own stress and anxiety during this time. The Australian Childhood Foundation have recently added a ‘response to Covid-19’ page on their website. It has some terrific resources for parents including a poster of ways parents can stay connected with children, an A-Z of activities to encourage family connection and links to social stories about change and Coronavirus. These resources could be really useful to send out in communications with parents.

Speaking of support for adults, can you tell me a bit about co-regulation?

Ange: How children remember this time will very much depend on how the adults around them cope and are able to support the children in their care. While self-regulation is currently a buzzword in education, I believe it’s important to go the next step and consider co-regulation. We cannot expect children to be emotionally regulated when the threat systems of the adults around them are highly activated. When we attend to our own emotional state, acknowledging the need to regulate our own emotions, we model to the children in our care appropriate ways to manage stress and anxiety. We acknowledge to ourselves, the children and their parents that our nervous systems need looking after. When we do this, we are not just more effective learners and educators, we are more effective human beings.

Me: Thanks Ange! You’ve provided some great info and advice to help us navigate this tricky rollercoaster ride. The biggest takeaway for me is the importance of self-awareness and self-care during this time. As educators, we can be guilty of always putting others first, but this is a time when it’s really important for us to lead by example and put our own oxygen masks on first. Challenge accepted!

Some picture story books that could be used to discuss the topics of worry, stress and anxiety with children:

What is your biggest takeaway from this interview? Share your thoughts in the comments below or post them over on the Oz Lit Teacher Facebook Group. Also, don’t forget to check out the free info and resources on the remote learning page.

Angela Mitten Chrysalis Counselling

About Angela Mitten

At Chrysalis Counselling I work with people of all ages and at any life stage, specialising in working with young people, their parents and families to achieve positive change. I offer a personalised approach and draw on a range of modalities to ensure each client develops strategies to help overcome challenges, and to feel empowered to move towards the lives they want. I look for ways to engage people (especially children) in a range of creative approaches, including Sandplay Therapy and art, encouraging them to work with their thoughts and emotions in ways that are meaningful for them. (You can contact Ange here).

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4 thoughts on “Stress, anxiety and remote learning: What teachers need to know”

  1. Thanks Riss, this is one of those articles that we need to read and come back to as the need arises. Presently, I’m feeling OK, but things can change quickly and dramatically. We are all not only teachers but have personal lives that are also impacted by many factors.
    Have a great first week everyone back ‘at work’
    ps. the sum at the bottom was way too difficult for early morning!

  2. Hi Riss, Thank you so much for your researched blog posts. I find them very comforting in a time where I cannot be in control of what is happening. I have been great all holidays but can feel the anxiety rising now as the term approaches and I still don’t know what it is all going to look like (I guess I’m a control freak too!). Will definitely revisit this article as the need arises.

  3. I love the analogy of ‘putting on the oxygen mask’. If we look after ourselves by putting on our oxygen masks we can then help our students, parents and peers. The reason why they tell you to put on YOUR own oxygen mask on an aeroplane is because once you do you can help others near you


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