Jessica Minahan, M.Ed. provided approach for recognizing/ reducing anxiety
As a Literacy Institute speaker on February 15, Minahan provided parents and colleagues from the greater Philadelphia area with a practical approach for recognizing and reducing anxiety.
On February 16, she expanded her presentation as she trained the Woodlynde faculty on the impact of anxiety on learning, behavior, and social interaction and highlighted strategies and accommodations that teachers began using with their Woodlynde students the next school day.
“Generation Anxiety.” This is the term Jessica Minahan quotes to help us recognize the pervasive and serious impact of anxiety on the current generation of children and adolescents. A board-certified behavior analyst, special educator, and consultant to schools internationally, Minahan is the author of The Behavior Code and The Behavior Code Companion.
Here are some of Minahan’s key points that resonated with teachers and parents:
As anxiety increases, working memory diminishes. Working memory allows us to regulate behavior, thoughts, and emotions. Parents and teachers work more effectively with anxious students when they understand that the stress of the moment can hijack students’ executive functions preventing them from using the strategy we taught them and they agreed to.
Behaviors that result from anxiety are a form of communication and usually have a function and occur in patterns. By increasing the predictability of positive attention that is specific, fact-based, and private, we reduce the need for negative attention. For example, quietly letting a student know that she completed the first sentence and then giving her a sticky note that says, “I’ll be back to check in at 11:15,” provides predictability and positive reinforcement that is tangible and more concrete than, “I’ll help you in 5 minutes” and more private than “Everyone look at Pat’s amazing sentence.”
Kids want to behave, but their underdeveloped skills are roadblocks. One of the most common underdeveloped skill is “negative thought stopping” that involves all-or-nothing thinking and catastrophic thinking. Providing the student with a break (take a walk, get a drink of water) may backfire because the student has more time to fuel the negative thinking. Instead provide a cognitive break (finding Waldo for a few minutes in a Where’s Waldo book, counting all the green objects in the hall, working on a Sudoku puzzle, retelling the first five lines in a favorite Guardians of the Galaxy movie—basically any easy activity that disrupts the flow of the negative thinking by replacing it with a short-term “cognitive sponge” activity. Observe the impact of each type of break to determine which ones allow the student to return to the group calmer and ready to re-engage.
Transitions are a breeding ground for non-compliant behavior linked to anxiety. By scaffolding the transition from a preferred activity to a non-preferred activity, we can provide an intermediate step that helps the student make the shift. For example, if the transition is from recess to writing a paragraph, add a crossword puzzle or word game in between so the student is coming into the class from recess and working at a table, but not having to cope immediately with a task they would rather avoid. Similarly, at home a younger child may want to play in the bathtub and not go to bed. If you begin with dinner and save dessert for after the bathtub, you are more likely to transition the child to bedtime.
Focus your attention on the initiation step for any activity that the child perceives as difficult. Rather than say, “You try it yourself and I’ll help if you need it,” Start them on the process and have them pause in midsentence or mid-math-problem so they feel more confident when they return to it later. At school, you may have to catch the student earlier in the day to get them started on a sentence or math problem, then pause in mid-activity to let them know this is what they will be finishing later in your class.
If you need to give a direction that is likely to be unpopular, use a neutral tone (rather than “Writing an essay is my favorite activity!”), avoid yes/no statements, and provide choices (Do you want to use a dry-erase board or graph paper to do your math?). Give them personal space. We usually get close to the child when making a demand and this exacerbates the anxiety. When you or the child is stressed, stay three arms-length away even if this means delivering a stealth sticky note that says, “Stop drumming. Use your squishy ball.” and quickly move away from their personal space.
Help students gain independence in modifying negative thoughts by having them rate how “bad” or “difficult” an activity was before and after. After a while, show them the pattern of the before ratings at 5 (on a scale of 1 -5) and the after ratings usually moving from a 4 to a 2. This can also help with predicting how long an activity will take compared with how long it took while providing fact-based feedback that interferes with negative thinking.
Seeing the impact a Literacy Institute speaker had on the entire Woodlynde faculty is both gratifying and energizing. Several Upper School content-area teachers are brainstorming techniques for cognitive breaks that disrupt negative thinking. Lower School teachers have developed transition activities to make waiting more actively engaging. Middle School teachers took the lead on positive attention and adding choices to make demands less “demanding.” As Minahan reminded us, if you want to be a more effective teacher or parent, you need the knowledge and the toolbox for reducing anxiety.
Woodlynde School is a private, co-ed college prep day school located in suburban Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, that serves intelligent, talented students with learning differences in Grades K - 12. Woodlynde provides a comprehensive, evidence-based Kindergarten, elementary, middle and high school program in a challenging yet nurturing environment for students with average to above average cognitive abilities (IQ) who have language-or math-based learning differences (such as Dyslexia, Dysgraphia or Dyscalculia), Executive Function Disorder, Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), or Auditory Processing Disorder. Even for those students without a diagnosed learning disability (LD), Woodlynde offers expert and caring teachers in small classroom settings that support academic success. Woodlynde School also offers a post-graduate (PG) program in partnership with Rosemont College as well as a regional Summer Camp for students who learn differently.