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HeartMind e-News: Teach, Learn, Lead

A monthly publication dedicated to trauma-informed, compassionate school practices that help educators, students, and families move toward a sense of wholeness and well-being


Anxiety, Racism, and Young Children

Christine Mason, CEI Executive Director, and Jillayne Flanders, CEI Deputy Director

In previous articles in our series on Anxiety and Dysregulation, we focused on techniques geared toward providing a general understanding of anxiety and how teachers and counselors can collaborate to help students. (See HeartMind eNews, December 2022 - March 2023). In this issue, we focus on anxiety in young children. 

What does anxiety look like in young children and how can teachers respond? While older children may voice their thoughts about their anxiety, young children who are anxious are more likely to act out, to show their anger or their pain, or to withdraw. In the classic example of separation anxiety, a preschool child who is anxious as a parent drops them off at a childcare setting cries and rushes to cling to the parent. In other cases, a child may display psychosomatic reactions including stomach aches or may cry easily, whine, tantrum, or lash out at others, seemingly without provocation. 

While some degree of anxiety in a variety of situations is normal, some children seem to be engulfed in a world of fear and anxiety. If you see this, here are some steps to take: 

  • See whether you can calm a child. With preschoolers, it may be holding the child in your lap during story time, speaking in calming voice, and providing words of reassurance. 
  • Think about partnering with parents, checking to see if the parent has observed the anxiety and if they have found an effective way to handle it. 
  • Consider whether the child may need “a protective, nurturing” adult to increase their sense of security. If so, review possible options for becoming or connecting them with a protective, nurturing adult. As a teacher, you may be able to provide prompts or scaffolding to help a child. 
  • You can also contribute towards a sense of security by adding some consistency to your classroom—routines are vital. Double check your daily schedule to see where the consistency lies. For example, with preschoolers, do you have centers, story time, snack time, songs or music each day? If not, can you modify your schedule to add in this consistency? 

Mindfulness and Yoga 

In addition to being a calm, nurturing presence and developing a sense of security, teachers can also use mindfulness, breath, and yoga/movement tools to help children relax and feel a greater sense of ease. Simple techniques such as stretching breaks, leading children in animal movements, and practice with deep breathing can also add to a feeling of well-being. For breathwork, children could lie down with a stuffed animal on their bellies. The teacher then asks them to take a deep breath into their bellies and to watch their bellies and their stuffed toy rise on the inhale. 

Animal movements that will help children laugh and move their bodies in ways that create a sense of fun and joy might include walking like a bear, flapping their arms like a bird, pretending to be elephants, giraffes, snakes, or frogs. These movements help children’s bodies and minds get unstuck, removing obstacles to the flow of positive energy. Such movement can help decrease cortisol, a hormone that is produced when we are afraid or stressed. Such movement also moves attention from the amygdala in the brain, providing more opportunity for higher level thinking. 

Mindfulness can also involve sensory perceptions, increasing mindful awareness of the five senses—with opportunities to play with what we see, hear, taste, feel, and smell. Incorporating STEM or STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) into preschool classrooms can promote a sense of curiosity and also facilitate children’s development of their powers of observation and understanding of the world around them. For children who are anxious, finding what appeals to the child can be helpful. Once you have identified their preferred activities and experiences, you can incorporate more opportunities for those experiences into your daily routine, which will help increase their sense of comfort. 

When using yoga and mindfulness with students Pre-K though K, Mason et al. (2022) suggest that teachers provide simple clear instructions, demonstrate activities, smile and laugh, and show their enthusiasm. The authors also provide examples for how to encourage children to have fun with breath (buzzing bees, a lion’s roar) and recommend the use of movement (such as playing follow the leader) and music (children lying on the floor for a relaxation time). 

Racism, Young Children, and Children’s Books 

When you surround infants and toddlers with pictures, paintings, artwork, and books that reflect all the possibilities of skin color and family combinations, you run the risk of creating a very happy place. We encourage all childcare providers to partner with their community libraries and local schools to exchange books and art, to have copies for families to borrow and share, and to suggest books as donations to programs whenever possible.  

The variety and number of books appropriate for our little listeners have exploded over the past decade, and we would like to suggest a few that should definitely be in your collection: 

Whoever You Are, Mem Fox, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 

A board book, where every day, all over the world, children are laughing and crying, playing and learning, eating and sleeping. They may not look the same, speak the same language, and their lives might be very different, but inside, they are just like you.

You and Me, Rebecca Kai Dotlich, The Creative Company 

Big brother does his best to distract his grandmother from her attention to his new baby brother. Who hasn’t felt this way? Another wonderful board book. 

The Making of Butterflies, Zora Neale Hurston and Ibram X. Kendi, Amistad Books for Young Readers, Harper Collins  

A folktale of how every colorful butterfly came to be, written in relatable dialect that evokes the rich, but one often lost oral traditions of our country. Also a board book. 

Be Boy Buzz, bell hooks and Chris Raschka, Hyperion Books for Children 

Overflowing with character and a young child’s drawings, the book is a celebration of a young Black boy, in his voice, from his perspective.  

All the Colors We Are, The Story of How We Get Our Skin Color, Katie Kissinger, Red Leaf Press 

In English and Spanish, with beautiful photographs of children and adults, this book can be paraphrased for toddlers, and shared through all elementary grades. The science lends itself to art projects for all ages, with color mixing the easiest place to start! 

Alfie, The Turtle that Disappeared, Tyra Heder, Abrams Books for Young Readers 

Nia received a pet turtle for her sixth birthday and did her best to teach Alfie to do all the things she liked. But he was very quiet, and one day disappeared. Told from Allie’s point of view, young children with pets in their homes will find a connection to being small and exploring.

Anxiety and Racism: What a Principal Can Do 

As the principal of an Early Childhood public school serving children ages 3-7, it was a priority for every adult in our building to be proactive in welcoming our new children and their families whenever they joined our community. It was also important to have changing displays of children's art and work in our meeting areas—the cafeteria, library, offices, and hallways. Being the school leader gave me some additional responsibility to ensure that all cultures and varieties of family structures were also represented in not only our common areas, but in every classroom, too. We were fortunate to have an active parent support organization, who selected special programs and activities for our students, and we operated with representatives from the faculty and staff, again ensuring that the children saw themselves reflected in the arts, STEM demonstrations, and most importantly, the books displayed through our building.  

During my tenure as principal, we introduced a series of musical plays focused on fairness. Identifying an action or reaction that is fair or unfair isn’t all that challenging for young children, and with that key word in play (rather than social justice) a team of parents, our art and music teachers, and one first grade teacher, wrote the stories of Rosa Parks, Jackie Robinson, and Harriet Tubman, put new words to familiar tunes, and produced remarkable productions specifically for our first graders to perform, and for our preschoolers and kindergarteners to enjoy. These plays became a permanent part of our integrated curriculum over 10 years, and excerpts were even shared over the airwaves by a local radio station. 

However, one of the most important parts of my day was the daily interactions I had with parents bringing their children to the building or coming for family events after school. To be able to have direct conversations about their child’s experiences in school, and to hear ideas for books, play activities, and social gatherings, kept me aware of new concerns or our successes. Open, honest communication is truly the heart of a responsive school community that reflects what is valued and supported. Families of our youngest learners are very connected to their child’s learning and social growth, and are very much part of our team. 


Mason, C., Donald, J., Kaur, K, Rivers Murphy, M., & Brown, V. (2022). Cultivating happiness, resilience, and well-being through meditation, mindfulness, and movement. Corwin Press.