A Lesson Learned
During one of my first years of teaching, my students taught me a valuable lesson.
One that I’ve since seen validated in numerous studies of how anxiety negatively affects the brain and learning.
I was trying unsuccessfully to teach a reading lesson. It was a great lesson, I thought; with puppets, music…it was multisensory, but not over the top. They were engaged, but not retaining the concept.
Sighing, I asked what I could do to make it easier to understand.
My student’s answers were not what I expected.
One of my little ones raised his hand and said, “I want to learn, but I keep thinkin’ about how I don’t like walkin’ home alone after school. The traffic is so loud and it scares me.”
Another child added, “I’m wondering if today is WIC day (government-funded supplemental nutrition program) because we don’t have much food at home.”
And finally, “Mrs. Gioia, it’s hard to remember stuff when it’s almost lunch. Nobody likes me. I don’t wanna walk around the playground alone.”
Wow. Those were some substantial worries. I could see why my phonics lesson, as engaging as it was, was not their main concern.
I had read about Worry Boxes (or Worry Jars) and wondered if they might be a solution.
Giving our Worries to the Wolves
The next day I brought in a small shoebox. I covered it with pictures of wolves to match the wolf theme of my classroom (The Wolf Pack Classroom.) I told my students that we were going to give our worries to the wolves.
While we were in my resource room, the wolves could do the worrying for us. Our brains would then be relaxed and free to learn.
I set the box in our relaxation station, with pieces of paper, pencils and crayons.
- write or draw their worries on a piece of paper,
- open the box and give their worries to the wolves,
- then focus on learning.
While I didn’t exactly do a qualitative research study of the efficacy of the Worry Box, I knew it was a success.
Students would come into my classroom, write or draw their worries, then settle down to learning.
The children were much more attentive than they had been before the Worry Box arrived. There was less attention-seeking behavior and definitely more time on task.
I checked the box each day, talked to children about their worries, and when necessary, made a referral to our school counselor.
From that year on, my classroom always had a Worry Box.
Why Does a Worry Box/Worry Jar Work?
A cognitive behavioral therapy technique, Worry Boxes/Jars contain worries for the child. The container keeps the worries, so the child can let them go. Like journaling, which is an effective therapy technique, writing or drawing the worry gets it out of the child’s mind and into a “vessel” where it is contained.
According to Joanna Gioia, MSSA, LISW-S, Director of Mental Health Programs at Ohio Guidestone, “The ability for a child to identify the source of anxiety, figuratively detach from it, and develop a mental or physical representation to assist them in containing it, can be amazingly powerful!”
She continues, “Worry boxes are a wonderful avenue for this!”
Worry Boxes/Jars give the worry a boundary. The worries are still there. They’ve been acknowledged and expressed by words or pictures, but they’re filling a space other than the child’s mind.
Teece Nowell, MS, LCPC,BCPC, a mental health practitioner specializing in children and their families in Maryland says, “Worry boxes are a great tool in so many ways! First of all, it takes the internal stress of anxiety and makes it tangible and thus releasable, by putting it on paper and storing in a safe place rather than the child having to manage it all alone.”
“Then when the parent and child take time to connect and share the worry it helps the child connect with the parent and feel safe so they don’t need to worry.”
“You see, if a child feels “connected” often they don’t need to worry. It is the feeling of isolation that causes anxiety so the key is connection,”
“If the parent and child have a special time of day to read from the worry box it is a double win; connection and discussion of the worry!”
It’s really a brilliant strategy! And a fun artistic activity to boot,” Teece concludes.
How Do You Make a Worry Box/Jar?
Let the child choose the container.
In my classroom, we always used the box with wolves, but one year we also had a Mason jar covered with rainbow-colored tissue paper that one of my student’s made in art class.
Children can write or draw their worries on pieces of paper. I like using paper so the students can Write and Rip their worries (one of the strategies I recommend in my downloadable Guide for Parents).
I have also used smooth stones instead of the slips of paper.
(My classroom relaxation station had a small bowl of smooth pebbles for children to hold when anxious. The year of our tissue-papered Worry Jar, some children used a Sharpie to write their worries on the smooth stones and put them in the jar. Stones like these are inexpensive and available at any garden or discount store.)
What kind of container makes a good Worry Box/Jar?
- Clear or colored Mason jar
- Glass or plastic jar with labels removed (recycle J)
- Shoe box
- Finished or unfinished wood box with lid (found at craft stores or online)
How can you decorate the Worry Box/Jar?
Any way your child or students would like. In my classroom, we used the wolves and the tissue-papered Mason jar. Some children like to label the container with “Worry Box” (or Jar) in bold letters.
Here are some more creative and fun ideas:
- A clear or colored jar with ribbons
- A plastic index card holder with Superhero stickers (to fight the worries)
- A box covered with balloon wrapping paper to let the worries soar away
- A tiny ballerina jewelry box with worries written on multicolored plastic gemstones
- A treasure chest with worries written on plastic gemstones and pirate gold coins. (Available at Amazon, Oriental Trading Company or any party store.)
- Black magician’s hat with magic wand to make the worries disappear
Where do you store the Worry Box/Jar?
The Worry Box in my classroom sat on a small table in the relaxation station. It was next to a big stuffed wolf who, the children were certain, scared the worries into staying in the box where they belonged.
One year a student wanted to keep the worries outside of our classroom. They made him that anxious.
Our custodian’s office, in the boiler room, was next door to my classroom. Mr. Allen valiantly kept our class worries on a big steel shelf, next to his toolbox, flashlight and safety goggles.
At home, let your child pick the place to store the worries, preferably not in her bedroom. Some children like mom or dad to keep the worries in their room.
One of my students made a worry box at home and kept his worries in the detached garage.
He explained, “Mrs. G., my worries are way out back in the garage, behind our house. They’re so far away, I just forget about them.”
Now that statement shows the strategy is a worth a try!
When do you discuss the worries?
Some therapists recommend setting aside a specific time to worry, but never at bedtime.
But many children get a rush of fears and worries right as they get into bed, so putting them down on paper at bedtime, and getting them out of the room, might be a good idea.
You can briefly talk about the worry as you tuck your child in and then move on to another soothing activity. Acknowledging the worry, and connecting, as Teece says, is vital.
Discussing worries after school might calm some children and aid their transition into their home routine.
Putting aside their worries from the day, and those they are facing tomorrow, friendship concerns, upcoming tests, a field trip…help them relax and focus on homework, activities, or just having fun.
As always, you know your child best. Some children do best with a timer set, and when it goes off, worry time is over. Others need a more open-ended worry time. Experts say worry time gets shorter and shorter as children feel their worries are validated.
The Worry Box in my classroom helped my students worry less and enabled them to learn more. I used it year after year and then had one for my own children.
Do you have a creative Worry Box/Jar idea or a success story? We would love to hear!