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How Can Schools Help Kids With Anxiety?

I met Brianna Sedillo when she pitched my radio station a personal perspective on anxiety, a topic that comes up over and over as teachers and parents try to support young people.

“Everything kind of started with the anxiety and depression after the passing of my grandfather,” Brianna said. “He was kinda my safe space. And losing that was really big.”

Brianna missed her grandfather’s supportive presence acutely during her middle school years, which were difficult. Middle school can be a difficult time for anyone, but for Brianna it was particularly hard socially because her family moved several times. She had trouble making new friends and felt each change of school acutely. Despite all that, she was a good student; she made the honor roll all three years in middle school.

But everything got worse when she started at El Cerrito High School, just outside San Francisco. Brianna’s feelings of isolation intensified, and her depression and anxiety kicked into high gear. She knew that she should be doing her homework, participating in class, and trying to be more social, but she couldn’t bring herself to do any of it. By sophomore year, Brianna was barely passing.

“It was just really rough for me,” Brianna said. She couldn’t stop worrying about what people thought of her, which made her so self-conscious she could barely function. “With my anxiety I tend to overthink everything. And I’m always aware of who’s looking at me and who’s talking about me, who’s judging me.”

Brianna remembers an endless cycle of waking up, going to school, taking work she couldn’t bring herself to do, and coming home to hide in her room and sleep. She lost a lot of weight and didn’t even enjoy playing soccer anymore, her favorite activity. She scrutinized her appearance every few minutes, and became so self-conscious she avoided answering questions she knew in class because she didn’t want people to look at her. When she got home, where she felt safe, all the anxiety she’d been bottling up all day came spilling out.

“It’s like something goes off and the anxiety kind of kicks in,” Brianna said. She would go over every tiny detail of the day. “Everything that I did that day. The way I pronounce something, the way I did something, The way I walked.” Then she would start thinking about her mom and how she should be working harder to make her mom proud, and that only made her feel worse.

“And then I start to panic and then it’s like, what am I going to do? Like, I’m going to disappoint my mom. And then I can’t breathe and then I get shaky, and I end up in a ball on the floor just trying to get my breathing back on track,” she said.

Brianna is just one of many young people around the country experiencing anxiety, and often the depression that comes with it. Teachers and parents all over the country are noticing an increase in mental health issues, including anxiety, among students.

There isn’t much research directly surveying adolescents on their anxiety. In 2004, the National Institute of Mental Health estimated that about a third of adolescents (ages 13-18) have been or will be seriously affected by anxiety in their lifetimes. More recently, a study published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, based on parent surveys for the National Survey of Children’s Health, concluded that more than one in twenty U.S. children (ages 6-17) had anxiety or depression in 2011-2012. And a UCLA survey of college freshman conducted each year, found in 2017 that close to 39 percent frequently felt “overwhelmed by all I had to do.” Parents and educators are scrambling to understand why kids seem to be more anxious and how to help them.

One School’s Attempt to Dispel the Isolation That Accompanies Anxiety

Brianna is far from the only student at El Cerrito High suffering from anxiety. In fact, counselors at the James Morehouse Project, the school’s wellness center, began noticing a few years ago that more and more students named anxiety as a chief concern. Most felt completely alone.

“A lot of students [were] coming in saying, ‘people don’t get this. Other students don’t experience this. People don’t know what it’s like,’” said Rachel Krow-Boniske, a social work intern at the James Morehouse Project. “And seeing that from so many different students made me want to be like, ‘Actually, this is really common! And if you all got to talk with each other and connect with each other over the experience, it might feel less alienating.’”

So Krow-Boniske and another intern, Forest Novak, started an anxiety group in the 2018-19 school year. They recommended some students they were seeing individually, and spread the word among teachers, who also recommended students who might benefit from participating.

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The group includes students from all grades and fluctuates in size from eight to ten. It meets once a week so students can discuss their anxiety, gain confidence that they aren’t the only ones struggling, and learn coping strategies. Krow-Boniske and Novak want students to become more aware of the signs of their anxiety, what triggers it, and how they can tell themselves a different story about what’s happening.

The course is broken down into sections. The first several weeks the two counselors facilitate a process of self-discovery for students. They do writing exercises with students to help them think carefully about how their bodies feel when they’re getting anxious, what’s happening around them, and what messages their anxiety tells them about themselves. After they validate that a lot of people are having similar feelings, the curriculum moves on to dig into seven types of coping strategies: grounding, distraction, emotional release, thought challenging, self-love, and accessing the truest parts of oneself to help hold all the other coping mechanisms.

“I’ve been amazed by how much they know about their own anxiety,” Krow-Boniske said. “They seem so aware of what’s happening for them and just haven’t quite had the words or the space to talk about it.”

Part Of a Broad Strategy to Support Students Where They’re At

The anxiety group is just one of many student wellness services offered at the James Morehouse Project, or the JMP as everyone at El Cerrito High calls it. The center is named for a former staff member who had a gift for connecting with students. Jenn Rader, a former history teacher, started the JMP when she realized that her students were struggling with far more than academics in her classroom.

“Those things were taking up so much space that there was really nothing left over to receive what was being offered in the building,” Rader said.

When it opened more than 20 years ago, the James Morehouse Project focused on providing health services and a little bit of counseling to students. Now, it offers an impressive array of services. It has a free, full-service medical clinic where students can get physical exams and an array of reproductive health services. It also has a dental clinic for students with MediCal, California’s Medicaid program.

It offers a youth development program aimed at cultivating students’ leadership and activism. Its staff provide one-on-one counseling services, as well as groups dedicated to almost everything a struggling student would need: support for queer-identified young people of color, an Arabic-speaking girls group, a support group for Muslim students, another support group for students who’ve suffered a catastrophic loss, and social skills groups for students who have a difficult time connecting with other young people.

“I think there’s been kind of a culture shift, a growing awareness and a growing commitment to ensure that children and young people arrive in a building with what they need in order to enter a classroom ready to learn,” Rader said.

More than 1,500 students attend El Cerrito High. Rader says almost a third of them have a meaningful interaction with the JMP each year either through groups or counseling. That’s only possible because the JMP runs a robust clinical social work internship program.

All those extra adults make a big difference in the lives of kids. When Brianna first came to the JMP, she saw an intern counselor who she says changed her life.

“She didn’t tell me what I was supposed to be, who I was supposed to be,” Brianna said. “She sat there and she listened, and she helped me just discover who I was. She helped me get deeper with myself and realizing things I hadn’t realized before. By the end of that, I was a much happier person. It was like a weight was on my shoulders, and piece by piece, she helped me take it off.”

How Parents Can Help Their Kids With Anxiety

Many students I spoke with for this story feel misunderstood by the adults around them. Their anxiety makes it difficult for them to complete assignments or be proactive, and that can look like procrastination. Brianna, for example, felt she was letting her mother down when she couldn’t bring herself to do her homework. Feeling inadequate made the anxiety and depression worse.

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Nina Kaiser is a child psychologist based in San Francisco who has been working with anxious kids for over 15 years. She says the feelings Brianna describes, as well as the misunderstandings that can arise with parents, are common. If parents want to get to the bottom of the problem, the first step is to understand how anxiety works.

“Your brain is constantly scanning your environment, looking for danger,” Kaiser explained. “It’s true for all of us, every single one of us, but when you are experiencing anxiety, it’s like a smoke detector or alarm that goes off more frequently.”

Kaiser likes working with anxious kids because there are effective treatments. One of the most effective ways to treat anxiety is with cognitive behavioral therapy. She helps her patients address both their physical responses to anxiety, as well as their distorted thoughts or “cognitions.” These thoughts often tend towards catastrophizing or ruminating on something that happened in the past, or could happen in the future.

“You’re teaching kids strategies around noticing those thoughts and being able to push back against them, or to shift gears instead of getting stuck in that pattern,” Kaiser said.

But it takes a lot of practice to step back from the panicked feelings and to look at them with a little more objective distance. She describes anxious thoughts to her clients as junk mail or spam. She directs them to look for evidence that supports the negative thoughts, or disproves them. So, if a student is anxious about failing a test, Kaiser will coach them to think about their past performance on tests, their grades overall, and whether this one test even matters that much.

But, she adds, “Those [anxious] thoughts tend to be really powerful and really automatic. They’re coming into your mind really quickly, really loudly, and it’s challenging to step back and notice that there are other ways to think about the situation.”

Kaiser says anxiety can be tricky for parents to handle because they may see it as laziness on the part of their child. But rather than judging them for not doing their homework or not wanting to go out with friends, she recommends they try to approach the situation with curiosity. When parents don’t assume they know what’s happening with their child, they can open up more space for the child to confide what’s really going on.

Kaiser also says that one of the hardest parts about treating anxiety is confronting the things that make a person anxious. Kids aren’t going to want to do that, and a parent’s first instinct is often to protect their child from things that cause them distress. Kaiser reminds her clients and their parents that anxiety is trying to control them and the best way to get out from under that is to push back.

“So if a kid is really spiraling about something, if parents are overly reassuring, they’re also sending a message that there’s something valid about that anxiety,” Kaiser said.

She recommends parents and their kids read reputable sources about anxiety ahead of time, when tensions aren’t high. Then, when a panic attack hits or a student is particularly anxious, it’s easier for parents to gently push them without making their child feel they aren’t emotionally supported. Kaiser knows this is hard for parents to do, but she says having a collaborative relationship established ahead of time will make it easier.

It’s All About Resilience

After Brianna got help with her depression at the James Morehouse Project, she also developed coping strategies for her anxiety. She still gets panic attacks sometimes, but now she knows how to handle them. And she’s headed to community college in the fall, a new phase of life that excites her.

James Morehouse Project director Jenn Rader says it’s no surprise students are anxious in today’s world. Her students are dealing with a lot of trauma from the world around them. Their families are struggling to make ends meet in an economy that is increasingly unequal. They are worried about their futures in an insecure world. Many feel that if they aren’t perfect, they’ve failed. And they’re constantly comparing themselves to others on social media. They are terrified of school shootings, immigration raids, violence in their neighborhoods, and even not getting into a good college.

Nina Kaiser says she’s seeing patients with serious anxiety at younger and younger ages. She’s even started an anxiety group, called Mighty Minds, with elementary school-aged children to help kids build up the resilience they’ll need to face middle and high school stress before they get there.

“Why are we waiting until kids are already struggling? These are really life skills. The ability to calm yourself down, to notice when you’re feeling stressed. I’m practically 40 years old. These are still skills that I’m practicing day by day.”

She hopes with these tools available to them, kids will have skills to fall back on when they run up against adversity.

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Source: How Can Schools Help Kids With Anxiety?

 

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9 Signs You’re Overdue for a Mental Health Day

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As a culture, we tend to toss around the phrase “mental health day,” joking about these kinds of sick days as if they’re somehow less important than those we take to recover from being physically ill. And the worst part? Even with all the joking, few of us actually cash in on the vacation and sick time that’s part of our total compensation from our employers, which means that we’re way backed up on our self-care.

The truth is that mental health days are genuinely important, and if you have the flexibility to take time off from work to tend to this part of your well-being, you absolutely should. Keep scrolling for nine signs that, according to experts, it’s time to take a break for your own good.

1. Your tolerance for other humans has reached an all-time low. Are you shutting down your coworkers more quickly than usual? Reacting emotionally to feedback from your boss? Snapping at your partner or kids even after you’ve gone home? If this sounds familiar, certified life coach and co-founder of the Conscious Coaching Collective Dr. Ariane Machín, PhD advises that you treat yourself to a day off.

2. You have to talk yourself into going to work. “Does it take you several minutes to actually leave your car after you arrive in the morning?” asks mental health therapist and Transcendence Counseling Center LLC owner Jessica Singh. “Often, this type of avoidance is a sign that something is wrong. This could be from a work-life imbalance, anxiety, boredom, or a lack of support at work.” It’s only a lucky few who feel genuinely excited to get to the office every day, but if you’re having to actively psych yourself up to make it happen at all, a mental health day is in order.

3. Your sleep is out of whack. When we experience elevated stress during the day, those annoying stress hormones keep firing well into the night, making it all the more difficult for us to fall asleep. This state, according to hormone and gynecological health expert Dr. Nisha Jackson, PhD, can leave our bodies completely confused, making us feel wired through the night and exhausted during the day. A restful mental health day is a good first step to get back on track.

4. You’re struggling to manage your emotions. You’re crying more frequently than usual. You’re angry and you’re not sure why. You’ve lost total control of your feelings, and your usual emotional coping mechanisms are letting you down. Per wholeness coach Jenn Bovee, these are all cues that it’s time to pump the brakes on your normal routine.

5. You can’t focus. If your mental health is suffering, you may find that it manifests physically and behaviorally, so stay tuned in to how your body and brain are working. “When you are no longer able to focus extended periods of time and attention toward completing your duties, chances are you may need a mental health day or two to reset your brain,” licensed mental health counselor and Grey’s Counseling Services founder Jovica Grey tells us. Even a single day off may be just what you need to come back with the concentration you need to succeed!

6. You’re not enjoying anything you do. It wouldn’t be reasonable to expect that the good times will roll 24/7 — especially during office hours — but when you can’t bring yourself to find joy in anything, that’s a big red flag. “When we start to reach a state of burnout, we usually stop enjoying things — even the things that used to bring us joy,” explains licensed marriage therapist and Wright Wellness Center co-founder Rachel Wright. “Once you’re resenting the work, it’s definitely time to take a mental health day.”

7. You can’t make decisions. “It’s time to take a mental health day when you can’t, for the life of you, make a decision,” says licensed psychotherapist and coach Tess Brigham. “You’ve hit decision fatigue, which happens when we have too many decisions to make. We get decision fatigue not because we have to make too many decisions but because we’re lacking energy and focus.” Stop beating yourself up if you’re struggling to make choices. Instead, consider it a potential cue that you need to give yourself a break (literally).

8. You’re routinely getting sick. Cold and flu season is one thing, but don’t eliminate the possibility that constant illness is actually pointing to something happening below the surface. “We know from research that physical and mental health are strongly linked, so if you’re getting ill a lot, then it’s a sign that you need to take some time to get yourself back into balance,” reveals online fitness coach Emma Green.

9. You can’t remember the last time you took time off. If you’re scratching your head trying to recall the last time you were out of the office, let us be the first to inform you that you’ve got a problem on your hands! You deserve some down time. Mental health and emotional well-being expert Kim Roberts tells us that regular mental health days are critical for maintaining healthy relationships with our minds, so make sure they’re coming up on the calendar at least every few months.

By: Alli Hoff Kosik

Alli Hoff Kosik is a freelance writer who is passionate about reading, running, rainbow sprinkles, her lipstick collection, watching embarrassing reality TV, and drinking pink wine. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and (in her dreams, at least) three golden retriever puppies. Listen to her talk books on The SSR Podcast.

Mental health crisis in teens is being magnified by demise of creative subjects in school

After the recent report by The Children’s Society that a quarter of 14-year-old girls have self-harmed, many campaigners have called for the root causes of the adolescent mental health crisis to be tackled – rather than just firefighting the symptoms.

Resilience lessons, peer mentoring, awareness campaigns and provision of early intervention may be valuable initiatives. But they do little to challenge the main causes of mental health issues – which are likely to be integral characteristics of a neoliberal economy, including austerity, global uncertainty and a highly pressured education system.

The British Psychological Society’s recently published Power Threat Meaning Framework also supports this viewpoint. It sees mental distress less as an individual medical issue, and more as an intelligible response to the social, material and cultural pressures acting on people.

Much of my experience is as a storyteller and community artist, and I coordinate the Things As They Are network for young artists with experience of mental ill health. I have found that young people with mental health conditions often have a keen perception of how the media, economy and society contribute to their problems. These large-scale issues are often beyond the scope of schools to address, but with a change of focus, the educational environment could move beyond firefighting problems to play a more fundamental role.

More time for play

A vital first step would be measures to reverse the shrinkage of what might be called the “youth public sphere”. By this I mean the space and time that is allowed for dialogue, self-expression, playfulness, exploration, development of personal initiative, and just plain chatting, between young people and caring adults.

These opportunities enable young people to understand the world around them and thrive despite adversity. But they have been dangerously eroded by closely specified curricula, performance-focused education systems and the decimation of the youth service.

Less than one in 20 pupils took music GCSE in 2017. Shutterstock

The Pupil Referral Units to which ever increasing numbers of young people are being sent – because they cannot cope within mainstream schools – make an interesting contrast. These units are frequently criticised, but they do allow space for dialogue and responsiveness to young people’s needs and interests.

I have witnessed conversations between young people too anxious to attend school sharing tips on how to get referred to a unit – because “they treat you like a human being there”, unlike in mainstream school.

Space to grow

At the risk of sounding bitter, I could also cite my own frustrating attempt to establish a lunchtime storytelling club with a group of keen, and vulnerable, young people in a local secondary school. The teachers were supportive – we wanted to establish a space where different “tribes” of young people could make friends and collaborate creatively outside the constraints of the curriculum, which allowed little space for creative writing or group work.

Yet with lunch breaks cut to 35 minutes to maximise lesson time and manage behaviour, and further shortened by frequent detentions, it proved impossible to build up a stable group, and teachers lacked the time to support the ideas for performances and projects from pupils.

Schools are cutting time spent on PE lessons because of exam pressure. Shutterstock

It is widely agreed that education systems centred on exams place stress on young people, yet there is less understanding of their more insidious effect. That is, their tendency to reshape every exchange between teachers and pupils into something directed at an assessment goal.

They also squeeze out of the school day anything that does not contribute to this. Arts and sports activities dwindle away from the curriculum, and teachers find themselves less often in the informal, supportive roles of mentor, facilitator, and guide.

Meanwhile, outside schools, austerity has led to open access youth clubs being gradually replaced by targeted provision to improve “outcomes” for school refusers, teenage parents, or young people in care – and even these are being cut in most areas. Mental health and well-being are also effectively being converted into goals which young people must individually achieve through learning strategies.

Beyond league tables

To thrive emotionally, young people need their own time and space, that is not explicitly directed at particular outcomes. This should be an arena in which diverse groups of young people can form their identities and agendas – perhaps with the non-coercive oversight of sympathetic adults. The arts provide some of the key forums for this – I gratefully remember the music teacher that helped me and my friends set up our band in the lunch break.

To try and tackle the challenge young people are facing, the government could start by mandating time and space in schools for exploratory, informal, and pupil directed activity. This could be done by reinstating leisurely lunch breaks and allowing for extracurricular activities within them. Arts and sports lessons also must be restored where they have been reduced within the curriculum.

The education sector should pay attention to solutions to the mental health crisis which arise from young people themselves – I’m thinking of the group of GCSE students whose protest on London’s tube trains proclaimed the human cost of pupil exclusions in a system focused on exam results rather than compassion and support.

As mental health campaigner Natasha Devon points out, self-harm is frequently a way of being heard. Perhaps then, if we help young people find other, more creative outlets, we might find it easier to hear what they’re trying to tell us.

By: Postdoctoral researcher and arts practitioner, York St John University

 

Source: Mental health crisis in teens is being magnified by demise of creative subjects in school

 

 

Anxiety: Why It’s Different From Stress – Peg Rosen

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There’s a math test tomorrow and 14-year-old Katherine should be studying. Instead she’s in bed. “I’m not taking the test! What happens if people see I can’t do it? What if I fail again?” she cries to her mom.

Anxiety is a sense of fear and worry. And it’s easy to understand why Katherine and other children with learning and attention issues are more likely to have anxiety than other children. Many have to work harder to keep up with their classmates. Other kids may bully them. Kids with learning and attention issues may not have the coping skills or maturity to handle these difficulties.

“When anxiety stops your child from functioning or enjoying life, it’s probably time to find help.”

But anxiety can be managed. The key is noticing the signs and providing the tools your child needs to keep worry in check.

Read on to learn how anxiety is different from stress—and what might cause anxiety in kids with learning and attention issues. You’ll also learn when to get help for your child’s anxiety.

Anxiety vs. Stress

Stress and anxiety are closely related but are not the same thing.

  • Stress is a natural and normal response to a challenge. Our heart pumps faster and our palms sweat as we get ready to act.
  • Stress can make us feel nervous, angry, frustrated—even anxious.
  • Stress can have a positive effect. For example it can “pump up” a child to study for a test.
  • Stress can also be overwhelming. Feeling stress every day for a long time can take a toll on your body and mind.
  • Anxiety makes a kid feel worried and afraid. “What if?” is a common phrase for anxious kids.
  • The anxious feeling is often out of proportion to the real or imagined “threat” (for example, a child crying in terror because she’s afraid to enter a birthday party).
  • Anxious children may expect that something bad will happen and not believe they’ll be able to handle it. (That bee’s going to sting me and I’m going to die!)
  • The bad feelings associated with anxiety can come from something specific, like algebra. Or anxiety can be a more general sense of uneasiness that affects much of everyday life.

Common Causes of Anxiety

Just about everyone feels anxiety at some point. But kids with learning and attention issues may have extra reasons for feeling worried and afraid. These include:

  • Anxiety about not being able to keep up: Kindergarten is often when children with learning and attentions issues first show signs of anxiety. They may notice they can’t do what their friends can do. As they go through grade school, their anxiety may get worse if the skill gap widens between them and their classmates. Kids with anxiety issues may just generally be hard on themselves.
  • Anxiety about feeling different: Much of childhood is about fitting in. Children with learning and attention issues may worry that someone will notice if they get extra time on tests. They may fear someone will see them in the resource room. Teenagers may fear the other kids will find out they take medication or see a therapist. Children with social skills issues may want to be part of things but are afraid of being rejected.
  • Anxiety about the future: Teens with learning and attention issues may fear what’s after high school. “If I can’t pass a math test, how will I ever take an SAT?” Or they may worry they won’t be able to live away from home. They may avoid dealing with these issues by not taking tests or refusing to talk about their plans after graduation.

When Anxiety Becomes an Issue

When anxiety stops a child from enjoying life, that child may have an “anxiety disorder.” The most common forms of anxiety disorders include:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder: Your child may seem “anxious by nature.” She’s worried about anything and everything. She fears someone will see her counting on her fingers. She won’t go in the backyard because there’s a beehive next door. She may have nightmares or trouble sleeping.
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): People with OCD often follow unusual routines or rituals. They believe that doing this will stop bad things from happening. For example, your child might wash her hands every time she thinks about something she’s afraid of.
  • Panic disorder: Your child is often terrified when there’s no real danger. At these times, she may find her heart beats fast; she has chest pain and difficulty breathing and may feel nausea or even a fear that she’s dying. Your child worries about having another episode and may even change her behavior because she’s so fearful of having another panic attack.
  • Separation anxiety disorder: Fear of separating from a parent is a natural part of childhood. It is considered a disorder if your child can’t get past this stage, continues to cling, and can’t separate easily from you at school or elsewhere.
  • Social anxiety disorder: Your child may be fearful of social situations. If you force her to go on a playdate or to a party, she may cry or throw a tantrum. She may be very shy around strangers and avoid playing with classmates.
  • Phobias: Your child may be extremely afraid of a particular thing, such as bees, the dark, or doctors. Her phobia may prevent her from getting involved in activities and cause her to scream or act out in other ways.

When to Seek Help

When anxiety stops your child from functioning or enjoying life, it’s probably time to find help. Your school psychologist might suggest someone who specializes in helping children with learning and attention issues. The therapist can work with you and your child to manage the anxiety. He may also refer you to a physician if he thinks medication will help.

Children with learning and attention issues have reasons to feel anxious. That doesn’t mean their anxiety can’t be managed. Learn about signs of anxiety and stress so you can identify these feelings in your child. From there you can work with your child and possibly a therapist to keep her worries in check.

 

Key Takeaways

  • Anxiety is a feeling of worry or fear.
  • Children with learning and attention issues often have anxiety about keeping up and fitting in with their peers.
  • When anxiety stops your child from enjoying life, it may be time to get outside help.

 

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