Tag Archives: research

Dealing with Students’ Anxiety in the Classroom


Anxiety by Mariana Zanatta is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Anxiety disorders are one of the most common disorders to impact children (McLoone, Hudson, & Rapee, 2006). There are a number of different types of anxiety that children can typically present with, including Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Social Phobia, Separation Anxiety Disorder, and a few others. In addition, there is a high degree of comorbidity with anxiety, meaning the diagnosis of other disorders, such as ADHD in conjunction with an anxiety disorder (McLoone, Hudson, & Rapee, 2006, p. 224). This has important implications for schools and teachers because having a student with some type of anxiety disorder is common (10-21% of all children) although they are often undiagnosed (McLoone et al., 2006, p. 221). Until a child receives formal treatment, typically cognitive-behavioral therapy (McLoone et al., 2006), classrooms teachers are left to use their own resourcefulness and basic classroom accommodations to support anxious children.

I took time to learn more about childhood anxiety disorders this past week and then paused to reflect on the ill-structured problems teachers and students might experience when these disorders are present in today’s classrooms. An ill-structured problem occurs when a variety of different variables come into play uniquely with a problem, meaning that each variable needs to be examined and considered in-context, before the problem can be solved and even upon reaching a solution, the problem will likely manifest in new ways in other contexts (e.g., with a different child) and require a different solution (Spiro, Coulson, Feltovich and Anderson, 2004).

Some examples of ill-structured problems in a classroom with an anxious child might be, trying to meet the needs of all children at the same time and dealing with the competing wants of young first graders who need to stand up and move around (maybe through an active, responsive classroom greeting like “hit the floor”) and a child who feels overwhelmed and extremely worried about being the center of attention. A similar situation could arise for a child who has separation anxiety and has a difficult transition into the classroom each morning. Unfortunately, if a teacher is trying to warmly welcome each child as he or she enters the room and help the children start their morning work and possibly deal with other behavioral or emotional issues of other children, it would be difficult to also support a child who is crying in the classroom each day after separating with her or his parents. Therefore, the teacher is left with an ill-structured problem that needs to be addressed.

Luckily, I think technology can be a great tool to help assist teachers with these tricky ill-structured problems. One app in particular that came to mind for me was Stop, Breathe, & Think, a free mindfulness app that was designed for students. Mindfulness training has been shown to be an effective approach to helping students with anxiety disorders (Semple, Lee, Rosa, & Miller, 2010). Although there are a limited number of studies of mindfulness with young children and in a school setting, existing research clearly shows benefits for adults (Semple, Reid, & Miller, 2005). Research also suggests that when materials are adapted to be developmentally appropriate for young children (e.g., shortening meditations, adapting the language that is used), clinical levels of anxiety show a significant decrease (Semple et al., 2010).

The Stop, Breathe, & Think app is great because it prompts students to do a self-assessment each time they use it to explore and name how they are feeling in three distinct categories: mentally, physically, and emotionally. This can help students identify their feelings without judging them and come to better know and accept their thoughts and feelings (Semple et al.,  2010). With younger students, the app could be used as a support tool for one-on-one meetings or conversations between a teacher and an anxious child. Over time, it could become a go-to resource that the child could use whenever he or she wants support in dealing with anxiety, for example, before speaking in front of the class, when leaving for a field trip, or after participating in a high-stress group activity that might drain an anxious child. Older children (middle-high school) could probably begin using the app independently from the outset and could be encouraged to download it to their own device. Check-out the screencast below for a more in-depth review of the app.

Would you add this app to your teacher toolbox as a resource for your anxious students?

What about for students who might need support learning to redirect their attention or improve self-regulation?


McLoone, J., Hudson, J. L., & Rapee, R. M.. (2006). Treating Anxiety Disorders in a School Setting.Education and Treatment of Children, 29(2), 219–242. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/42899883

Semple, R. J., Lee, J., Rosa, D., & Miller, L. F. (2010). A randomized trial of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for children: Promoting mindful attention to enhance social-emotional resiliency in children. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 19(2), 218-229. doi:http://dx.doi.org.proxy2.cl.msu.edu/10.1007/s10826-009-9301-y

Semple, R. J., Reid, E. F. G., & Miller, L. (2005). Treating anxiety with mindfulness: An open trial of mindfulness training for anxious children. Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy, 19(4), 379-392. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.msu.edu.proxy2.cl.msu.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.proxy2.cl.msu.edu/docview/89071356?accountid=12598

Spiro, R.J., Coulson, R.L., Feltovich, P.J. & Anderson, D.K. (2004). Cognitive flexibility theory: Advanced knowledge acquisition in ill-structured domains. In R.B. Ruddell, N.J. Unrau (Eds). Theoretical Models and Processes of Reading (5th Ed., pp 640-659). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.


Working Towards Technology-Enabled Personalized Learning

I watched a great TED talk by Richard Culatta (2013) this week. It helped me reflect on what he calls the digital divide (the disparity between educators using technology to replicate old practices versus transforming teaching and learning). One key to transformative learning with technology is personalization so I found two research articles on personalized learning to help me dig deeper into the topic.

The first article, Fostering Personalized Learning in Science Inquiry Supported by Mobile Technologies (Song, Wong, & Looi, 2012), raised the idea that technology can be a mediator in developing student agency in personalized learning.

The study examined the effects of giving fourth-graders cell phones connected to an experiential learning study (Song et al., 2012). Students used their devices to participate in a mobile learning environment (MLE), scaffolding their entry into personalized, inquiry-based learning of the life cycles of animals and plants. The researchers investigated whether technology could be used not as the learning goal but simply a tool to access the MLE across contexts (i.e., school, farm, and home) and engage in documentation, reflection, research, and the creation of learning artifacts. They found that students who used the MLE and participated in continued learning after the field trip (e.g., raising a butterfly or growing spinach at home) experienced deeper learning. I appreciated their insight into creating a systematic process to help students become lifelong learners by providing tools (devices and a MLE) that guide them to consciously personalize their learning by actively making choices to reach their learning goals.

The second article, An Asynchronous, Personalized Learning Platform – Guided Learning Pathways (GLP) (Shaw, Larson, & Sibdari., 2014), proposed personalizing learning with a platform to transform how students learn.

The researchers shared a design for a new platform that students could access in formal and informal learning environments (Shaw et al., 2014). It combines students’ unique data to construct a personalized “guided learning pathway” that would constantly update in response to how students’ learn. The platform would be structured around expert-created content maps, guiding students to learn specific content. These maps are layered onto personalized visualizations, such as a map of baseball stadiums if the student reports being interested in baseball. As the student enters a stadium, she can choose from different “nuggets” of content which offer varied ways of learning (e.g., text, games, video) and at any point, students can take an assessment to measure mastery of the content. The available nuggets change in response to the assessment using a recommendation algorithm. This helps scaffold students’ mastery and provides the types of content that help them learn best before moving to the next place in their content map.

Like Culatta (2013), these articles suggest that technology can overcome the challenge of teaching all learners the same by developing customizable environments for every student. Tools like the GLP could allow students to set their own schedules. Students progress to the next piece of content when they are ready and their performance data helps them see when they have reached mastery. The MLE study also supports the idea of technology promoting student agency. The students in the study exhibited agency in deciding what artifacts to create and what to study, thanks to the resources on their devices and in the MLE. They became creators of content, designing animations and presentations that demonstrated their knowledge and added to the class database about life cycles.

I am hopeful that these tools will allow students to engage in constructivist learning in new ways (O’Donnell, 2012). What if the GLP platform also included experiential learning, whether through field trips or authentic, meaningful maker tasks? A nugget could consist of students learning by doing (trial and error) with scaffolding through tutorial videos or experts available by Skype. Then, students could upload artifacts they create to the GLP to be assessed and added to their learner/maker portfolio. Maybe some of their work could require them to solve problems in their community and engage in teamwork (O’Donnell, 2012). Technology would be the tool that helps them engage in and capture that work. How well their solution solves the problem could be part of the measurement of whether students reach mastery. As a learner, I would much prefer to engage in learning that is personalized to my current levels of mastery, relevant to my life, authentic, and supports me in constructing deeper understandings through hands-on creation and fieldwork.


Culatta, R. (2013). Reimagining learning: Richard Culatta at TEDxBeaconStreet [Video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/Z0uAuonMXrg 

O’Donnell, A. (2012). Constructivism. In APA Educational Psychology Handbook: Vol. 1. Theories, Constructs, and Critical Issues. K. R. Harris, S. Graham, and T. Urdan (Editors-in-Chief). Washgington, DC: American Psychological Association. DOI: 10.1037/13273-003.

Shaw, C., Larson, R., & Sibdari, S. (2014). An asynchronous, personalized learning platform-guided learning pathways (GLP). Creative Education, 5(13), 1189-1204. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.msu.edu.proxy1.cl.msu.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.proxy1.cl.msu.edu/docview/1553761060?accountid=12598

Song, Y., Wong, L., & Looi, C. (2012). Fostering personalized learning in science inquiry supported by mobile technologies. Educational Technology, Research and Development, 60(4), 679-701. doi: http://dx.doi.org.proxy1.cl.msu.edu/10.1007/s11423-012-9245-6