• Kelly Priest

Fifth Grade Focus: Managing Anxiety

Updated: Aug 2

In fifth grade, school SEL programs often help support the development of emotional literacy, impulse control, and active management of attention. But each year there seems to be increasing demand from 5th grade teachers and parents for SEL approaches to managing anxiety.

Some of the need for this shift is perennial and unsurprising. Fifth graders and their parents have long looked to the transition to middle school with some level of apprehension and wonder. Fifth graders have always tended to become preoccupied with their connections to peers as they wean themselves from dependence on their parents – but at a stage when their problem solving skills are still in raw form. And of course puberty has always brought hormonal shifts, beginning one to two years before the first visible signs of puberty. This is happening earlier than in our parents’ and grandparents’ generations, but what has remained stable is that these biological changes can heighten sensitivity to anxiety and other feelings. These are all solid reasons to include anxiety management in SEL curriculum.

However, at this particular time, we are choosing to devote more time, energy, and expertise to supporting our fifth graders with anxiety due to our increasing recognition of this particular generational cohort’s needs and characteristics.

A range of demographers and researchers – from government agencies to independent research foundations to corporate forecasters – are identifying some strikingly consistent features of “Generation Z.” Born between about 1994 and 2015, their most formative years have been heavily influenced by the effects of the Great Recession, and by the increasingly palpable effects of climate change. A primary defining characteristic of this generation is their resulting feeling of unsettlement and insecurity about their future, paired with a high level of assumption of personal responsibility for their own fates and the fate of the planet.

No pressure.

As witnesses to their parents’ experiences adapting to economic turbulence, a shrinking middle class, and older siblings and cousins struggling to find their footing in a new employment landscape, Generation Z is more entrepreneurial, more financially literate, more worried about getting an education, making a good living, and dealing with student loan debt than previous generations. They clearly correlate their current academic achievement with opportunity for future financial security, which they do not take for granted.

They are also more risk averse. This generation wears seat belts almost uniformly, regardless of variations in state laws and penalties. They drink less alcohol and start drinking later, and they binge drink far less than previous generational cohorts. Their rates of teen pregnancy are 40 percent lower than their parents’ were. This is becoming widely considered the most conscientious, pragmatic, serious cohort since the Greatest Generation, which came of age in the despair of the Great Depression and stormed the beaches at Normandy.

In the face of all of this, Generation Z is exposed to more of what is going on in the world via the devices that are in their pockets, without the cushioning effects of the slower pace, context, and dialogue that those of us who grew up reading the newspaper and discussing it with our parents experienced. This generation is acutely aware of the perils of online life: Sexting, online predators, lurid content, anonymous surveys! Yet they are still developmentally programmed to take impulsive risks and push boundaries.

Fifth grade teachers and administrators have always encountered a small percentage of students who truly struggle with anxiety. For some, it’s genetic. For others, there are other issues or life events that lead to it. Either way, there’s never been a better time to be anxious. We have effective treatment options and an increasingly compassionate understanding of anxiety.

And yet, with this particular generation, we are observing that our most anxious students are struggling more than the most anxious ones did five to ten years ago. Many in the wide mid-range of coping skills are noticeably more anxious, and those with low anxiety and/or solid coping skills are still impacted by their classmates’ anxiety levels. We need to meet our students where they are, to be attuned and responsive to their needs so they can be successful learners.

To be clear, our call to action to help support fifth graders with managing anxiety comes not because the fifth graders these days are delicate, hot-house flowers whose helicopter parents have bubble-wrapped and catered to them.

We work on teaching anxiety management skills because in addition to the usual challenges of growing up, this generation is inheriting a profoundly complex and troubled world from us. We know it, and more importantly, they know it. Today’s fifth graders are going to have to save the planet while also saving for their retirement. Equipping them with the requisite skills – including managing their understandable anxiety – is the least we can do.

© 2020 KP&A