5 things to say to students suffering from anxiety

[Editor’s note: Don’t miss our companion piece, “5 things to avoid saying to students suffering from anxiety.”]

Understanding anxiety is something that educators, parents, doctors, therapists, students, sufferers, and non-sufferers are still working on. Just like anything else we attempt to understand, we will never get there if we don’t, first, ask questions.

Yesterday, I explored five things I’ve heard and/or experienced being said to students suffering from anxiety that miss the mark in being supportive. Although parents, guardians, counselors, classmates, staff, and friends have great intentions, their comments are rarely productive. The statements they make are often judgmental and ignorant. The negative impact of saying the wrong thing to a student with anxiety might seem minimal—it’s supposed to be the thought that counts—but the long-term effects can be severe.

I challenged educators to consider the same comments being said to someone with diabetes. The statements in that context reeked of absurdity. The challenge becomes for people to view a mental illness from the same lens as that of a physical illness. Diabetes is easy to understand; if you don’t have insulin, you will not survive. No one diagnosed with diabetes is going to deny themselves the opportunity to be treated. Why, then, are individuals with mental illnesses expected to will themselves to happiness, i.e., healthy levels of neurotransmitters?

Understanding anxiety

Students with anxiety don’t understand the physiology of their own brains, and therapists tend to work to reduce symptoms instead of explaining the underlying causes. When students become symptomatic, they become fearful, panicky. What’s happening to me? Why do I feel this way? Not knowing the answers to these questions in the moment is a feeling of powerlessness unlike any other. And if those with anxiety don’t understand it, how can we expect those who don’t suffer to comprehend it?

Related: Student wellbeing & SEL are more important than you think

Fear from a lack of understanding mental illness has resulted in those with healthy physiology creating a stigma, and students with anxiety perpetuating it. It might not be well understood, or even make sense, but the students with the illness are the biggest culprits of the stigmatization of the disease. Trivializing the struggles associated with mental illness, even unintentionally, can reinforce the stigma. The pressure students put on themselves to “be okay,” “just relax,” and convince themselves that it’s not worth getting so upset about is all encompassing. No one wants the student to be “normal” more than the student him/herself. This intense desire to not have anxiety increases the intensity of the illness. We don’t need additional reasons to feel any more stigmatized than we already do.

How to speak to students suffering from anxiety

The responsibility of educators, parents, and guardians in scenarios where students are suffering from anxiety is to empower the students to learn the nuances of their disease and work with them to establish a comfortable, understandable, and fearless “normal.” We can do this by making use of the following five statements when dealing with students in crisis.

1. “Can you describe to me how you’re feeling?”
In most cases of anxiety or panic, it’s obvious how the student is feeling. But remember, she is trying everything possible to not stand out. When we tell her to just relax or breathe, it communicates to the student that her symptoms are visible to everyone and creates a snowball effect.

Asking her to describe how she’s feeling accomplishes two things: It helps her believe that her panic is not visible to everyone else and it empowers the student to speak for herself and have a sense of control over what she’s experiencing.


5 things to avoid saying to students suffering from anxiety

[Editor’s note: Don’t miss our companion piece, “5 things to say to students suffering from anxiety.”]

Currently, schools are being inundated with cases of anxiety in young adults. Although the dramatic increase in attention being paid to the illness has been beneficial to those suffering, the difficulty lies in the fact that everyone thinks they understand anxiety and how to overcome it.

As a public high school administrator, I lead interventions for students in poor academic standing. Although many students have logistical circumstances keeping them from being successful—homelessness, employment, learning disabilities, etc.—many of them are school avoidant because of anxiety that is, quite frankly, debilitating.

A quick look at anxiety

Anxiety is essential to human survival. It’s the basis of the fight-or-flight response that dates back to the days of our ancestors’ most primitive survival. Anxiety alerted our ancestors of danger. The emotional brain was, and still is, wired to be on high alert in case a predator was hunting our ancestors. Anxiety would tell them to flee. As a matter of fact, anxiety still tells us to flee if we perceive danger. For our ancestors, however, anxiety literally saved their lives.

As our world has changed, we’ve removed ourselves from nature in such a way that we no longer follow the rules of evolution and ecology. We are no longer in danger of being hunted down by predators in the bush, so we’ve lost the primitive need for our anxiety. But, physiologically, we are still wired to be on high alert for survival.

Related: 8 ways I practiced mindfulness this year

As stress hormones bathe our emotional brains in times of high anxiety, our physiology becomes validated. This is how anxiety evolves in students who suffer from it. For those with “quieter” emotional brains, understanding anxiety can be difficult. These people attempt to help those suffering by providing advice in times of panic. It’s an honest attempt at providing support and insight for individuals who are lost in their illness. I see these support attempts daily: Parents, guardians, counselors, classmates, staff, and friends all make a concerted effort to help, but rarely is it ever productive.

Responding to anxiety

The attention that a student’s anxiety brings can itself be anxiety inducing. Students often feel shameful that they’re struggling; they understand very little about their body’s physiology and its impact on their emotions. Teachers and staff try to help with words of encouragement and advice, but unless they too are suffering from anxiety, the chances of them understanding what the student is experiencing is very slim. Students need advocate and mentors. They need more than sympathy; they need empathy.


This program could help aspiring principals succeed

Students in schools where new principals participated in a research-based training program outperformed students in schools with new principals who did not participate in the program, according to a new study.

The RAND Corporation study focuses on the New Leaders program, which partners with districts to offer rigorous and research-based training for aspiring principals.

Read more: Principal prep is changing for the better

New Leaders’ hallmark program, the Aspiring Principals program, focuses on three core elements: selective recruitment and admission, training and endorsement, and support for principals early in their tenure.

Students in K-8 schools led by New Leaders principals scored higher on achievement tests when compared to K-8 students in schools whose principals were not in the program, a RAND study finds. Both mathematics and ELA achievement were higher and remained statistically significant even after corrections were made.


Want to improve your leadership development? Use simulations!

American schools are facing a crisis in the lack of professional learning for school leaders.

These leaders are required to be licensed, which usually entails a two-year program at a university or college. However, once they actually begin their careers, most of them will tell you that any further professional learning comes on the job. This vacuum of professional learning among principals and superintendents means many have to stub their toes by learning from mistakes, leading sometimes to grave consequences and almost certainly to less-than-optimal outcomes.

In my research, I’ve worked extensively with simulations that help our school leaders continue their professional growth well past their licensing requirements. Effective simulations present relevant scenarios that offer leaders the opportunity to listen and learn from their peers and to gain experience without risk.

Key findings of my research in using computer simulations for educational leadership professional development (PD) include:

  • Discussions generated by the simulations are the most valuable aspect of the experience, according to participant responses
  • Simulations spurred critical thinking, with participants indicating that the experience caused them to think more deeply about their decisions and their consequences
  • Participants said the simulations helped them to see the perspectives of others
  • Participants said they felt more confident about their abilities to lead during complex situations following their participation in simulations.

Inspiring leaders to examine their decisions

The goal of simulations is to help leaders learn more about themselves. We can’t assume that leaders are going to reflect into why they make the decisions they do. They’re busy, and new challenges are always arising, often preventing them to question why they did something.

When I administer a simulation, every school leader locks in their response before they talk to the person next to them or to the full group. Without that, many will simply agree with others in the room. And, of course, the goal isn’t coming to a “right” answer, but rather to help each person see how decisions play out and to facilitate a conversation about challenging situations with sometimes unforeseen consequences.

Related: How to be a collaborative leader

When leaders lock in an answer before sharing it with their colleagues, it’s staggering to see how many disagreements arise, even among like-minded participants. Those disagreements also lead to an examination of why they didn’t choose the other options, which offers just as much learning as an examination of the path they did choose.


5 unique TED-Ed Lessons to liven up the classroom

We’re past winter break, and while spring break is around the corner, we still have months to go before summer brings empty classrooms and a bit of relaxation. Teachers and students might need a bit of a pick-me-up, and these easy-to-use TED-Ed lessons can help.

Do you have a burning desire to learn about how imagination works? TED-Ed Lessons has a video for you. Wondering if a lottery windfall would actually improve your life? You can find a video on TED-Ed Lessons. You get the idea.

Read more: 8 TED-Ed Lessons to engage even the most uninterested students

The TED-Ed platform is especially cool because educators can build lessons around any TED-Ed Original, TED Talk, or YouTube video. Once you find the video you want to use, you can use the TED-Ed Lessons editor to add questions, discussion prompts, and additional resources.

1. The neuroscience of imagination: Imagine, for a second, a duck teaching a French class. A ping-pong match in orbit around a black hole. A dolphin balancing a pineapple. You probably haven’t actually seen any of these things. But you could imagine them instantly. How does your brain produce an image of something you’ve never seen? Andrey Vyshedskiy details the neuroscience of imagination.

2. Under the hood: The chemistry of cars: There are over one billion cars in the world right now, getting people from point A to point B. But cars aren’t just a mode of transportation; they also teach an excellent lesson in chemistry. Cynthia Chubbuck navigates the intricate chemistry performed in our car engines that keep them from getting too hot or too cold.

3. Can you solve the troll’s paradox riddle? You and your brother have discovered another realm and set off exploring the new wonderful world. Along the way, you see a troll catching creatures in an enormous net. The troll agrees to release the creatures if you can come up with a statement that is both truth and false. Can you come up with the correct sentence and force the troll to release them? Dan Finkel shows how.

Read more: Top 5 TED-Ed Lessons on creativity

4. The most successful pirate of all time: At the height of their power, infamous Caribbean pirates like Blackbeard and Henry Morgan commanded as many as 10 ships and several hundred men. But their stories pale next to the most successful pirate of all time, who commanded 1,800 vessels, made enemies of several empires, and still lived to old age. Dian Murray details the life of the fearsome Madame Zheng.

5. Would winning the lottery make you happier? Imagine winning a multi-million dollar lottery tomorrow. If you’re like many of us, you’d be ecstatic, unable to believe your good luck. But would that joy still be there a few years later? Raj Raghunathan describes a phenomenon called hedonic adaptation, which may shed light on the answer.


How we turned around our school culture and student performance


Santa Rosa County (FL) District Schools is a high-performing rural district of about 28,000 students that stretches from the Gulf of Mexico to Alabama. The district has 33 schools, ranks in the top 6 or 7 in every category in the state, and is growing by 400 to 500 students per year.

Biggest challenge:

“In Florida, as in many states, we’d been given mandate after mandate about standardized testing, teacher evaluations, etc.,” says Bill Emerson, assistant superintendent. The district suffered from loss of teacher morale and decided to focus on improving style and pedagogy. “We needed to get our students working toward the types of skills they needed to be successful after high school.”


The district partnered with Discovery Education and created STEAM Innovate!, an initiative focused on helping teachers get students involved in the 4Cs and away from the “sage on stage” model.

Emerson says there was a huge culture shift, but thanks to the five-year plan Discovery designed, they rolled it out slowly, starting with four innovators at 20 elementary schools. The innovators participated in five days of training each year as well as in-school coaching from Discovery; in addition, they led professional learning communities (PLCs) and opened their classrooms to help train their colleagues.

“Innovators had to apply, and we had lots of applicants,” says Emerson. In year two, five middle schools joined in; in year three, eight innovators at each high school came on board.

Recently, Emerson observed a STEAM lesson in a kindergarten classroom with 18 students. The children read Humpty Dumpty and designed a vehicle so that Humpty wouldn’t crack when he was dropped off of a ladder. “Groups of four or five students drew up ideas, built them, and tested them, and three of the four groups developed a system that kept the egg from cracking,” says Emerson. The coolest thing? Eleven of the 18 children had behavior challenges, and Emerson had no idea.

“Teacher after teacher, and parent after parent tell us kids talk about the STEAM activities,” he says. “We partnered with a local company that’s part of a global corporation and they are giving us authentic problems for our students to solve. They asked us to help fix their dangerous parking lot. Ten student teams presented their ideas, and some of those ideas were used in the final project.”

Lessons learned:

  • Training is crucial to make a change like this. The teachers who want to do this kind of thing hate being out of the classroom. Trying to find a balance between getting training and missing classroom time is tricky; it’s an ongoing challenge.
  • When you give something like this STEAM Innovate! a lot of attention, be careful to not diminish everyone else. People feel left out if they’re not a part of it. We say STEAMY education isn’t the only way to teach and to not be STEAMy every day. If you can start a PLC at your school and pick up ideas on how to integrate these activities, that’s more than the kids had the year before. Try to bring everyone along.
  • We had no idea how popular it was to have something that was not required.
  • One of our favorite parts of this program is the teacher’s ability to collaborate with each other–not just with a grade- or subject-level team. They work with teachers throughout the district.

Next steps:

Emerson says the district is teaching students important skills, but they need to better prepare kids for post-graduation. As a result, the district is beginning to think about more intentionally directing student toward an exploration of career possibilities: internships, certifications, etc.

Next week:

See how a district turned around its scheduling methods.


What you should know before moving ahead with online assessment

Even in today’s tech-heavy environment, before moving to online assessments, leadership needs to ask: Should we? According to Glenn Robbins, superintendent of Tabernacle Township (NJ) School District, and Dr. Donna Wright, director of schools, Wilson County (TN) Schools, too often the focus is on why everyone else is doing it or the idea that everything needs to be done on a computer. During their presentation, “Online Assessment: An Evolving Landscape and New Opportunities,” they discussed the lessons they learned when they made the transition and what they would change if they could.

Getting started with online assessments

First, Robbins proposed several key questions leaders should ask before even considering online assessments.

  • What is the experience we’re trying to create?
  • What is our curriculum?
  • Where are we going with the curriculum?
  • What are we using for assessment right now, why are we using it, and how could it improve?

In other words, leaders need to frame the potential value of online assessments before they discuss technology in the larger context of the curriculum. Wright added that leaders also need to think about how online assessments can impact a school’s culture and change teaching and learning. Most important, the new assessments must fit into the district’s strategic plan—both the overall goals for the school and the financial commitments.

Next, Wright and Robbins shared their perspective on the elements in CoSN’s Nine Key Recommendations for Leveraging Online Assessment Capability and Capacity and how that impacted their transition.

1. Create and sustain a cross-functional strategic planning team: Both Wright and Robbins said their schools had a lot of silos (not just edtech and instruction) that needed to come together and understand how their specific skill sets are necessary to the process. In addition, leaders need to bring parents in early during these conversations. Without support from parents, especially in this era of opting out of testing, the initiative will face significant obstacles.

2. Ensure ongoing funding: It’s not just that tech programs aren’t one and done, but that administrators can’t predict some of the future costs. Again, Wright emphasized changing the way leaders think about their funding and building line items for accountability and assessment into the budget.

3. Embed technology in instructional practice: If students are going to be tested with tech, then they need to be learning that way on a regular basis. This means, said Robbins, that principals and superintendents need to understand the realities of tech access at home for their students. Do they have reliable wi-fi? Do they have a device they can use at home? If not, how can the school help? Finally, school leaders need to model tech use to their teachers and show that the administration is all in on using tech for education.


4 ways I make learning fun in the classroom

As a middle school Spanish teacher, my #1 goal is to have my students fall in love with learning a language the way I did in middle school. When learning a second language, it’s important to teach reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills. Even though many of the ideas in this article have been created for a language classroom, most of them will work for any subject or grade level.

1. Play games

We play games in my classroom just about every day. Sometimes the games involve the use of technology. Sometimes they are interactive. And sometimes they are cooperative activities that require the whole class to work together.

Games that require tech:

  • Kahoot! – an oldie but goodie. Students still love Kahoot! and even like making their own to use as study tools.
  • Quizlet Live – the best thing about this game is that it gets students out of their seats and working in random groups. It can be a quick activity, a Do Now at the beginning of class, or an Exit Ticket for the last few minutes.
  • Gimkit – this is a newer game that was created by a high school student! Students may play as individuals or in groups. My students love this game because it allows them to earn (fake) money.
  • Quizizz – I love this tool the best because it tests accuracy instead of speed.

Games that don’t require tech:

Cooperative activities:

2. Give students choice

I think that it’s important to give students choices for in-class activities and projects. When a student has choice, s/he can enjoy what they are working on more and take ownership over their work. Middle-school students are developing skills and interests for the future; giving them choices offers them the opportunity to discover what they are passionate about.

One of the best ways to give choices during a classroom activity is to create a Tic Tac Toe sheet or a Hyperdoc. With these organized lesson plans, the student can choose activities during a specific day during class. Some teachers use Tic Tac Toe sheets for weekly homework assignments. Here is an example of a sheet used in a 4th grade math class.


How I empowered my students to love learning

Metal detectors, panic alarms, and active school shooter drills are often what come to mind when the education community first thinks of school safety. However, addressing this issue reaches far beyond the secure doors of our schools, taking into consideration factors such as school and classroom climate, positive discipline measures, and wellness promotion, according to A Framework for Safe and Successful Schools.

When we consider the studies showing the relationship between bullying, personal failure, and anger to school violence, we must pause and reflect on our own schools and classrooms. How can we develop a better school culture and make education a positive experience for all of our students? So many students who have acted out in violence were angry or bullied. And after violent acts occur, we hear stories about students who didn’t belong and missed that feeling of acceptance, making their school experience more than a little tough.

But what if…

What if they loved learning?

How many of our students feel excited to learn in our schools today? Most days, students walk through our doors and read the texts we have selected, participate in the activities we have planned, and complete the projects we have thought up. They comply and learn, but do they love it? Probably not.

Assign passion projects. In an effort to ignite a passion for learning, I took inspiration from John Spencer and A.J. Juliani and implemented passion projects. Passion projects are akin to genius hour or Google’s 20% time. Essentially, students pursue topics they are interested in and develop their own projects to demonstrate their learning. As a teacher, I facilitate learning and provide just-in-time instruction for my students.

This year, my students researched homelessness, modern slavery, home construction, and video game design. Projects ranged from writing songs and developing websites to creating artwork with poetry and coding video games. During these projects, I taught nonfiction-reading comprehension skills like summarizing, synthesizing across texts, and drawing conclusions.

Passion projects allow for a real purpose for learning, freedom for creativity, and opportunities to publish work for a large audience. My students showed a genuine interest in their research, they were invested in their own learning, and they made comments like, “Do we get to read more for our project today?” Toward the end of our unit, more than a few students came to school with huge smiles saying, “I can’t wait to do our project today!”

When students are excited to learn, a positive environment and culture forms. Learning doesn’t have to be boring, and challenges don’t have to lead to anger and frustration. If we can help students to realize their interests and develop their passions, they will want to learn. Empowered students have confidence and believe they can contribute to the school community in positive ways.


Take a peek at the research behind educator micro-credentials

Educator micro-credentials are gaining more mainstream acceptance, but it’s important to ensure the process surrounding micro-credentials is grounded in rigorous research, according to a new whitepaper from Digital Promise.

The whitepaper highlights Digital Promise’s micro-credentialing framework and takes a close look at the processes involved in producing educator micro-credentials.

The potential of these educator micro-credentials lies in their ability to help educators bolster their professional learning at scale, according to the report–they leverage an online tech platform that gives access to “competency-based, on-demand, personalized, and shareable opportunities to demonstrate and be recognized for their professional learning.”

Read more: The major momentum behind micro-credentials

The system is widely considered a step up from traditional professional development, which is often not tailored to individual educators’ needs or preferences and can be much less engaging and motivating.

Even though early adopters are singing the praises of educator micro-credentials, they still need research to encourage widespread and mainstream acceptance, the whitepaper’s authors write.

Drafting educator micro-credentials

Research from Digital Promise demonstrates how the development of educator micro-credentials has expanded across state education agencies and school districts. When research-based organizations translate their work into micro-credentials, it gives educators the ability to access resources that strengthen their instructional skills and give them new knowledge into critical areas of teaching and learning.