Day 15 (of 185) Empathy for Anxiety at @tedxwestvancouvered
After a bout with my own anxiousness, I did what I do best: deviate from an intended plan. My actual talk will be aired & shared soon – and I’m looking forward to it because I’m not 💯% how close to my intention I stayed, but here is the long draft of kinda what I intended to say:
You wouldn’t say to a throat cancer survivor – I know how you feel…I had a sore throat once. Yet that’s what we do to people – especially students- working with mental wellness issues like generalized anxiety.
Sound harsh? It is. Untreated and unsupported, mental wellness can be a death sentence as it leads to suicide…..but we’re not talking about that. Because we hope: maybe it’s not that bad. It’s definitely easier to think about self-regulation when your calm. I know that me being sad isn’t depression and the butterflies in my stomach if late for school will go away and this helped me as an educator.
I took pride in believing I was able to see both sides of the social emotional iceberg. I saw what was visible and knew there was more below the surface that I needed to better understand because that is where anxiety likes to hide. For years I’ve been asked to share what it is that I do….what do I know about working with anxiety….
But really, what I have learned I don’t have the right amount of empathy.
Here’s What I forgot: icebergs flip. And sometimes while dealing with that ‘hidden part” I hadn’t paid enough attention to the fact that while the iceberg had flipped and revealed something new…there was still part hidden from sight. Because anxiety hides and distracts really well. And my students and recently my son, continue to help me know better.
Took son for a walk. Dog barked. His Anxiety struck. I took advantage of the situation because this is the boy that when He designed an ideal school in minecraft for admission into a project based learning program he put a therapy dog into it…..so it wasn’t about the dog.
I decided to do some modelling and asked what he was thinking – by saying when a dog startles me I wonder if it’s going to attack, stay where it is or if I need to run – you know: fight freeze flee ……
He looked at me and said “no dad. More than that”
So I asked, like a dozen thoughts?
He said I still didn’t get it.
So I pushed: what, like a thousand?
Yeah – he paused – that’s more like it.
And we created an image that represented what he saw in his mind – not just when the dog barked but almost at every decision. It was equally possible for a best case scenario and worst case scenario aka face ripped off when it came to the labradoodle puppy on the other side of the fence – because as he said: you never know
But what I now know is the thoughts keep coming….and which one is real?
Not long after we were talking about his school work and we had another aha moment – based on the videos we were watching from thinkers like Sir Ken and Will Richardson, he realized that “they get it”. He was continuing to help me understand.
In the traditional classroom, a question is asked (or many of them posed on a worksheet) and he can think of multiple answers for each one, but the answer to “why can’t you just give an answer” was that he could never sort which “one” the teacher would want. He saw that sometimes it didn’t matter what the answer was – why you have your answer can be by far more important.
Anxiety strikes when the brain is overloaded trying to sort out the “one” response….but when there is no one best response…..it’s a great way to use distractions as a tool.
So many times I’ve thought I “got it” – heck I was one of the first classrooms to pilot the Friends for life program in the province…..And even though I should know better, I’ll get distracted by the forest of distracting behaviours and forget about staying focused on the key issue (the learner as an individual tree). Mental wellness conditions work hard to distract but we need to stay focused on the root cause!
But where to start? These are the first of my rules: Get them in the school. Every single day. I don’t care about the classroom. Whether it’s grade 3 or 10. Get them in. Then work on the classroom. And even then forget the ‘same work as everyone else’. Have them form a relationship knowing they will frustrate you beyond belief. Knowing they might even try to get suspended. Knowing that they may even become your favourites (not that we have any favourites)…and what works for them will benefit all other learners.
This isn’t easy. There will be the challenges. I’ve often heard mental wellness issues described as a square peg being fit into a round hole. And questions asked about “what is better for the rest of the class/students” – honestly those kids will be fine whether you are there or not. But that one…or four others that hold it together while in school…..for now…..or don’t….they need more….so let’s stay focused on the needs of those individual students….they want and need you to do whatever is necessary to clear paths to reach those unique trees and help them understand they belong in our learning forests.