Anxiety is the leading mental health diagnosis amongst youth. Now, combine that with a pandemic and starting a school year filled with complex uncertainty, changes and concerns. How can educators effectively help students deal with anxiety amidst all that is transpiring? Educators from across the region came together recently, via zoom, to start to find these answers with anxiety expert, Kimberly Morrow, LCSW and founder of anxietytraining.com.
Anxiety can look like a number of things within the school setting. We may see refusal, inattention or restlessness, disruptive behaviors, frequent trips to the nurse/bathroom, attendance issues or resistance to socialize. The resistance to socialize, might include not turning on their camera during a remote lesson.
Morrow used a Chinese finger cuff to demonstrate the paradox of anxiety. Simply stated, the more that we resist the discomfort of anxiety, the more it persists. Traditionally, in good faith and trying to help, we, as educators, often do the exact opposite of what will help when trying to support a student struggling with anxiety. We might allow them to eat lunch in the classroom when they express discomfort about going to the cafeteria, we might avoid asking them to engage in class discussion due to social anxiety or we may make other, similar accommodations. Unfortunately, these actions will only reinforce the cycle within the brain that responds to danger. Notice the cycle in the diagram below.
One key perspective that Morrow ensured that the group of educators understood from the beginning was that the goal is not for the student to be symptom free, but to be effective in managing their symptoms. How can educators play a role in all of this?
1. Education about the brain and the function of the amygdala can be very powerful. The book “Hey, Warrior” by Karen Young, is a wonderful book for teaching children about the function of the amygdala and the feelings of worry and anxiety.
2. Do NOT reassure an anxious child by saying things like, “it will all be ok,” or “you don’t have anything to worry about,” or “you always do well on your tests.”
3. Help students to tolerate uncomfortable feelings. “I know you are feeling really worried right now, I wonder if a ‘mindful minute’ would help?” “What has helped you to stay in class when you have felt this way in the past? I am willing to help you find some solutions.”
4. Let them know you are on their team. Be a cheerleader for them as they tolerate anxious feelings.
5. Validate the child’s feelings and help them to identify what the feeling is.
If you are interested in learning more, please reach out to Community Schools (Katie Mendell) or visit register.caboces.org for upcoming opportunities. Morrow will return to work with the region, via zoom, again on October 30th, for the session, “Living Well as a Teacher.”
By: Katie Mendell, CA BOCES Community Schools