Worry Dolls in the Classroom: Helping Anxious Children Cope

On a recent trip to Mexico I encountered one of my favorite souvenirs, the worry doll.

Worry dolls, or trouble dolls, are tiny, only about one inch tall and an eighth of an inch wide. They are handmade in Mexico and Guatemala, with tiny clothes and painted on faces. The legend says to tell the dolls your worries before you go to bed and place them under your pillow. As you sleep, the dolls are supposed to “fly away” through the night and take care of all your troubles.

I had a set of these dolls as a child; my nickname was “worry wart.” I started making to do lists in kindergarten, afraid that I would forget what I needed to do that day. I worried about friends, family, school, pets, impending illness and future situations.

I learned to manage my concerns and lists, however children do need assistance and support from their peers and authority figures. Some simple steps can go a long way to ensure the problem doesn’t worsen in later years. Additionally, if teachers implement some regular classroom routines which include relaxation, yoga or meditation, the benefits will be widespread across the class.

Where does worry come from?

Anxiety is a natural response to stress. Children and adults can use anxiety to respond quickly to situations that may be dangerous. Although a moderate amount of worry can also be beneficial, when it becomes extensive anxiety can be very detrimental. Some children are born worriers like I was; they may have a tendency toward perfectionism and be preoccupied with future safety or success.

Other children may worry as a part of natural development. As children become more aware of their surroundings they often form anxieties around the dark, strangers, monsters, etc. Worry can also stem from major life changes such as a move, switching to a new school or a divorce. It can derive from traumatic events: a car accident, sudden death of a family member or experiencing a fire.

Finally, excessive worry and anxiety may be caused from abuse and neglect.

What are the health implications of worry?

The fight-or-flight response causes the body’s sympathetic nervous system to release stress hormones such as cortisol. These hormones can boost blood sugar levels and triglycerides that can be used by the body for fuel. When the excessive fuel in the blood isn’t used for physical activities, the chronic anxiety and outpouring of stress hormones can have serious physical consequences. These include suppression of the immune system, digestive disorders, sleep disturbance, irritability, difficulty participating in daily activities, muscle tension, poor memory and poor concentration.

How can we help our student worriers?

1. Try to lend an ear to worried students. 

Sometimes talking about fears will help children feel like they have more control over them. Keep communication open with co-teachers, parents and supervisors about what a student is experiencing. You may also need to refer a child and their family to a school counselor or local behavioral specialist if their anxiety is particularly prevalent. Remember, if you suspect that a child has been abused or neglected you must report it following your school’s procedure.

2. Provide literature to help students understand what they are feeling.

For preschool:

Older students can read:

High Schoolers may appreciate:

3. Introduce calming rituals into the classroom like yoga and meditation.

Some of my favorite guides are:

For younger children:

For older students:

4. Find time to help your students relax during the day.

Children react differently to stress and have various calming mechanisms. Some prefer group activities, while others prefer free choice or alone time. Providing a balance of these in addition to curriculum whenever possible will be hugely beneficial to all students during the day.

5. Encourage strong social interactions.

Positive peer support will help any student at any age. Create a community classroom by helping students get to know each other and their teacher. Classrooms can all too easily become “result machines” and when we are only focused on the bottom line, we lose engagement and connection in our classrooms.

Don’t forget about worry dolls though—if you are interested you can introduce them to your classroom, even if you can’t travel to Mexico! There are many worry doll alternatives available; one option being the adorable Worry Eaters, stuffed toys with zipper mouths for eating up and taking care of those childhood worries.

Our worry warts can be productive, concerned and wonderful members of our classroom, but guiding worriers through healthy processing and management of worry will benefit them for the rest of their lives.

Have you any experience of anxious students or an overly worried child? Share your experience and tips with us in the comments below… we want to hear from you on this issue!


Feature image courtesy of Flickr, Fabienne D.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.