Anxiety/OCD Management Strategies

If the student has a treatment team outside the school setting, the student, their family, and/or their therapist may ask you to get involved in some way. In some cases, the student’s outside treatment team may accompany them to school to help them tackle certain feared situations or stimuli. If your involvement or assistance would be useful for this process, often the student, their family, and/or their external therapist will reach out to set up a plan for working together to help the student fight their anxiety/OCD.

If the student does not have a treatment team, however, there are certain things you can do in the school setting to help them manage their anxiety/OCD. It is important to note that the following strategies are not intended to treat the student’s anxiety/OCD, but instead are intended to be supportive. They help them learn tools to function within the school setting and beyond.

Anxiety Management Strategies

  • Deep (or “diaphragmatic”) breathingInstruct the student to take a deep breath in through their nose, inhaling as much air as possible. Hold the breath for a count of three. Then, exhale slowly through the mouth. Some students might find it helpful to place one hand on their stomach and the other on their chest, and practice breathing so that their stomach moves (or “puffs out”) but their chest does not.
  • RelaxationRelaxation techniques frequently involve deep muscle relaxation, in which large muscle groups are tensed and relaxed. Instruct students to choose a comfortable position and take several deep breaths. Then, guide them through a series of tensing and relaxing big muscle groups, such as the neck/shoulders, arms, legs, and feet. End with a few more deep breaths. As students become more familiar with this technique, they can guide themselves through the process.
  • Grounding“Grounding” involves helping students get out of their heads and back into their bodies and the present moment. There are many ways to do this, but one especially useful technique can be guiding students to take deep breaths, look around and see what’s happening, remind themselves where they are, and letting their bodies relax.
  • Visualization and guided imageryImagining a place that the child enjoys and makes them feel relaxed can be helpful. Instruct the child to imagine their favorite place and describe the details of what they are thinking of, including sights, sounds, smells, tastes, textures, etc.
  • OtherOpportunities for exercising, having fun, and listening to music are other activities that may help with anxiety reduction. Many schools promote the use of yoga and meditation techniques to help students manage stress in general.

 Cognitive Techniques

  • Constructive self-talkMany students with anxiety/OCD are critical of themselves for a wide variety of reasons. As such, they may engage in negative self-talk. Constructive self-talk can help change the negative messages into more positive ones. They may say, “I might be having a hard day, but I’m doing my best,” instead of, “I am having a hard day, why can’t I just be better?”
  • Cognitive restructuringThis technique involves helping student analyze their thoughts and compare them to what is real or reasonable. This can be especially helpful with students who overestimate risks or threats, or who have a sense of over-responsibility. Students take a step back and put actual estimates (likelihood percentages, for example) on the reality of their anxious and/or OCD-related thought happening.
  • Externalizing the disorder/symptomsA very common technique for youth with mental health conditions is viewing their disorder/symptoms as something outside of themselves. For example, older students may say such things as, “It’s not me, it’s my anxiety/OCD.” Younger students may appreciate assigning a character, such as a villain from a popular movie or one they invent themselves.

Strategies for Building Cultural Sensitivity

Educators should continue to build their knowledge base of the historical and current inequities contributing to student distress and trauma symptoms to ensure anxiety/OCD management strategies are practiced with sensitivity. Consider the following ways to build cultural sensitivity/humility:

  • Listen to how students define cultural sensitivity  Listen to and observe students’ needs. The videos below detail university students’ definitions of cultural competence and strategies for becoming culturally affirming:
  • Acknowledge areas for growth  Understand your beliefs, biases, privileges, and responses and how these may appear in the classroom or through interactions with students. Then, adapt your professional practices accordingly.
  • Learn about the communities you serve — Pursue opportunities to learn about different cultures, particularly those within the community you serve.
  • Grow your understanding of the impacts of racism and racial trauma — Build your knowledge of interpersonal, structural, and institutional forms of racism and how these may contribute to traumatic stress for BIPOC students. Resources on systemic racism are available through your local public library, educational websites, or through local forms of news/media.

Anxiety Management Resources

  • Feeling Thermometer — The Feeling Thermometer is a great tool to use with anxious students to help them figure out how their anxiety is affecting them, and track how it changes. It can be good to help youth set goals about getting to a certain point on the Feeling Thermometer before moving on, for example!
  • Gozen.comThis website contains modules of animated videos to teach youth research-based coping, resilience, and happiness skills. The GoZen! program will be helpful for all students experiencing anxiety in general. Meanwhile, the GoHackify! program will be helpful for students with OCD.
  • Headspace appThis app helps guide students through many of the anxiety management techniques listed above, with a specific focus on mindfulness and meditation. They have specific resources for youth 12 years old and younger, in addition to their general resources for all ages.
  • What to do When Your Brain Gets Stuck: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming OCD, by Dawn Huebner, PhD — This book may be helpful specifically for students with OCD. It contains kid-friendly information about OCD and its treatment, in addition to a variety of writing, drawing, and self-help exercises.

Click here for more resources for students, including apps and book lists.

Our Work Young Person with anxiety jumping over a ball
Our Work Young people with OCD helping each other
Our Work Teacher looking up info on OCD