Day 110 (of 184) Anxiety 107 (a blunt approach to anxiety)
I have been asked a few times to explain how I handle anxious learners – a growing number ‘are appearing’ in our school (or just being better identified – depending on who you ask…) so here is my ‘list for success’ – odds are you’ll find somethings you will hate (I don’t like everything). It’s not about you, it’s about the learner. I have been using these strategies for years – a long time with my students, and recently with my own son. Not everybody ‘gets it’ …….. yet.
The anxious learner needs to be at school. Every day. Even when ‘sick’ – unless you actually see the vomit hit the floor. Seriously. Very common: “I threw up” “Let me see it” “I already cleaned it up – I did a great job – you’d never knew I was sick – but I did. Let me go home!” – be aware this is very tough and very exhausting – for everyone. Sometimes there needs to be a blend of environments – this can be challenging but the key is to establish a schedule and stick with it until ‘success’ is achieved at which time the goals of the schedule need to adjust – a moving target with a built in feedback loop.
Being at school does not always mean being in the classroom. Step 1: Be in school. Being in the classroom comes later. It might be step 2 or step 22. This is not something that has a set time: some can be ‘pushed’ to get into the classroom quickly – many need time: time to walk/pace; time to find a ‘safe zone’; time to find a ‘safe person’ (it might not be you – it’s nothing personal).
Being in the classroom does not mean doing work. Sometimes parallel play/learning is key to develop the relationships that are needed to then ‘get work’ out of the student. But when dealing with anxiety, written output becomes a low priority.
You will need to push. Eventually. When you have some deposits (okay, a LOT of deposits) in the ‘positive relationships’ department, then you can play ‘good cop bad cop’. “Mr. L says you have to be in the classroom for safety! Grrr.” -when they know that there is support for them they will respond positively – but it takes time (think in months)
There is a fine balancing act between providing support and enabling the anxiety. It’s very different for each person.
Anxious kids are smart. Usually super smart. Often gifted smart. They will manipulate – but not always – and despite their ‘smartness’ , they don’t always know when they are manipulating situations and when they are in states of panic. That’s the way anxiety works – it is a monster that is brutal to identify and deal with.
Anxiety can be overwhelming. You may think you’re anxious at times. You’re not compared to those in dire states. Here’s a link to a movie scene that had my son (and a few others) go ‘thats how I feel’: http://www.sor.sd83.bc.ca/man%20of%20steel%20anxiety%20clip.mov
General Anxiety has ‘unclear triggers’ where the ‘starting’ point can be very difficult to identify – overall it usually occurring around grade 4 (earlier if there is a family connection to the anxiety monster) – but also comes up during ‘clear triggers’ (death, divorce, major surgery) – it gets worse if it is ‘ignored’ or put off as ‘something that will be outgrown’. No it won’t.
Anxiety needs to be countered using Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) – often requiring a counsellor who uses this approach (programs such as BC’s Friends For Life have great success as well – if you have access to it, use it for whole-classes of grade 4/5 students).
Sometimes medicine is needed (that being said, CBT has ‘equivalent’ results to medication) But, if anxious kids don’t/can’t sleep: use melatonin or something (with doctors support/knowledge). Sometimes before CBT can even take place, an anxious learner needs ‘the edge taken off’ before CBT can be effective – that may require extra medications – work closely with a paediatrician or YOUTH psychologist/psychiatrist. Watch for/anticipate appetite issues and other side effects. Be very aware of ‘sadness/depression’ and that there may be some periods of this – if on medicine, don’t ‘just stop’ the medicine until you’ve talked with the prescribing doctor. Don’t be afraid to ask for 2nd (or 3rd) opinions. Find someone you trust – then trust the process, if they say ‘take the medicine for 8 weeks’ take it for 8 weeks.
If you’re using medicine, week 6 sucks. This is the time families usually ‘quit’. As a teacher I always was frustrated with the parents when they ‘stopped because it still wasn’t working and the side effects are bad’. As a parent at week 6 I was frustrated because the medicine wasn’t working and the side effects were bad. AHA moment: week 6 sucks. Week 8 is MUCH better – or at least improvement occurs – and then you get frustrated with others who ‘got focused right away’
Expect ‘self-soothing’ strategies to annoy you: video games, book reading, pacing, and other ‘alone’ activities. It’s not about you. Find strategies that will work. Then work on introducing other activities – especially slow breathing. Strategies will evolve over time – as confidence (and trust in strategies) increases, isolating into ‘devices’ does decrease (on its own if you let it)
When anxiety kicks in and the child is greatly frustrating you – you HAVE to be that much calmer and relaxed. Even if you’re tired. Even if you’re sick of it. Stay calm. Always.
Transitions (and new things) suck. Going to a new restaurant is a cool experience. Or not. Anticipate and predict as much as possible. Going ‘new’ – expect a tough experience – I was proud of my mom when she took my son out for lunch to a fast food place. It wasn’t in his schema. His brain stopped working. They just left, went to a more familiar restaurant and things went better.
Outside family members will be critical. Until you live with anxiety, you won’t appreciate it. “Suck it up”, “Whats wrong with them” “Why are they so rude” and “You’re using medicine… really? Isn’t there something better/different” are common. This is not a ‘weekend fix’ – it takes months and years and really doesn’t ‘go away’, it just takes that much time to find strategies to ‘self-regulate’.
It’s a marathon not a sprint. I try to work with anxious learners ASAP (and I do focus my attention on the grade 4 crowd) and work on a variety of interventions – with the intention that they will be doing well……in grade 10. Maybe sooner, but…..
Communication is key. Especially between the adults. Back and forth books. Emails. Assessments. No secrets.
Anxiety is very different in each person – don’t ignore it & don’t think there is ‘one’ plan.
Check out anxietybc.com & selfregulation.ca
Don’t try to ‘fix’ it on your own. Make use of an extended professional learning network. Feel free to tweet @technolandy or email firstname.lastname@example.org