The disruption of the past two years has proved to be tiresome and discombobulating for both children and the adults who surround them. Even though hope looms brightly on the horizon, with many confirmed events across a jam-packed calendar, educators and health professionals are sounding the alarm bells because of the evidence they have of children with heightened anxiety and various levels of unwellness due to the fallout from this difficult time. Both parents and educators want children to reach their potential as happy individuals. They use the wisdom of experts in the field whose suggested strategies ensure that resilience and overall good health is built into students so they are able to put their anxiety aside and achieve a courageous, happy state of being.
We can’t remove anxiety from our children but we can provide tools to manage anxiety
Dr Justin Coulson is a child psychologist who has addressed our staff members and parent body frequently. He states that parents can’t ease the anxiety of children that arises due to the changes and stresses of this uncertain world, which include students feeling fearful of separating from loved ones, taking tests, and even the impacts of technology. We are certain to fail if the adults in the world always rush in to fix the concern that is current. What he says we can do, is have conversations with children and enlighten or empower them. A good conversation starter is to say, “I can see you’re feeling worried,” or, “you’ve told me you’re upset about this, let’s talk about it.” Two frameworks for unpacking anxious feelings or problems are detailed below, and, after using these frameworks, parents could ask their children what solution they can identify and give them the opportunity to fix it themselves so that the power to heal or move forward positively (the answer) lies within the child.
Anxiety is not new or specific to this generation. It impacts children and makes them worried and frightened and creates misery for them. What we have a better understanding of today is how adults in a child’s world can provide them with a framework to understand their pessimistic or “stinking” thinking, so that they can select a more optimistic approach to life.
Viktor Frankl states that, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.” Two guiding frameworks are provided for use in this space, which are certain to facilitate growth and courage in our young people.
Emotions can hurt us or help us. They hurt us when they control us. A post on a group chat, or a harsh remark, can destroy a friendship or a child’s sense of personal safety for an extended period of time. A disruption to a child’s life can also impact their feelings of safety and security, increase their anxiety, and result in extreme sadness and upset every time they separate from their parents and the secure confines of their home. How children process and respond to emotions can either enhance or impede their overall development. For this reason, it is critical for both schools and families to focus on social and emotional learning (SEL) in order to develop social and emotional competencies in our young population. Social and emotional competencies depend on the individual’s capacity to recognise, understand, and manage emotions. This is known as the child’s emotional intelligence or EI, the “ability to identify feelings and emotions in self and others and use it to guide behaviour”.
Taking a long moment to understand what is wrong
To date, Moriah College Primary School educators have used the RULER approach to develop capacity to understand personal responses to challenge and the manifestation of anxiety or feelings of stress and unwellness. Students are taught to recognise, understand, and label emotions in order to make them less scary. They then learn to describe them more fully and to locate strategies to manage them. This approach has been refined using a strategy called “Take a Meta-Moment”. Adapted from the RULER, the Meta-Moment slows down the child’s response. The child is educated to recognise the shift that has happened in their body, thoughts, and behaviour because of their anxiety or challenged response to a situation and they stop themselves moving forward using breathing or other calming routines. Students are then taught to activate an image of their best self so that their mindset moves into a positive space, following which, they use one of many emotion-regulation strategies such as positive self-talk (tell yourself what the outcome would look like if you choose a negative response versus the great world with your correct response, or count your blessings and see the great things in your own world and evaluate whether anxiety or escalation is needed). The Meta-Moment stretches out a reactive, quick response and slows down time so that the correct decision can take place. The embedded Meta-Moment table explains this process more clearly.
This Meta-Moment approach has a significant outcome in the way students choose to respond to anxiety or anxiety-provoking contexts. When we regulate our emotions with effective strategies, they can help us to focus on important tasks and improve our decision-making about how we will express our emotions and how we will enact our feelings. They improve our relationships and inform how we respond to the ups and downs experienced as we navigate our world.
It is important that students learn the Meta-Moment routine and role play scenarios to lessen anxiety and stress and remove “stinking thinking”. Avoidance of the issue at hand is clearly not a solution, and whilst it might initially provide immediate relief for the child, they would continue to feel that the test, bad interaction with their friend, separation, or camp sleep out is something to be afraid of, and that is how the phobia builds.
Stress and anxiety are not always unhealthy as it alerts us that something is wrong so that we can attend to the matter at hand with efficiency and urgency. If we have not done enough study for an assessment, it encourages us to do more, or if we are about to address an audience, it heightens our focus so that we are deeply engaged with the manner and content of what we are about to communicate. It is important to befriend that which worries you and to lean into it so that you find a way of appreciating or controlling it.
Research has shown that if children are informed on how their brains function relative to their emotions, they will be better empowered to complete an optimistic narrative of self-talk and have some sense of mastery over their emotional state. To this end, students are educated in the Moriah-adapted Grow Your Mind program. It introduces the basics of neuroscience and explores five key parts of the brain, each with an animal to represent it. The students use these animal analogies to learn what is happening in their brain in terms of their emotions, and they discover how to engage their brain to better manage their emotions and responses.
Self-talk with powerful imagery
The five animals that assist students to understand the parts of their brain in order to empower them to think clearly about what is going on inside of them can be seen in the below GROW YOUR MIND framework.
Guard Dog: amygdala – determines whether we will fight, freeze, or flee from a situation. The guard dog will bark very loudly if he thinks there is danger, even if the danger is in the form of separating from a parent, writing a test, or sleeping out.
Wise Owl: prefrontal cortex – this part of the brain helps children to make decisions and allows us to be flexible as a friend. It can problem solve and carry out higher order thinking. So, when everything is going smoothly and our guard dog is small, Wise Owl is able to evaluate things carefully and is capable of making good decisions and helping us to act in a way that does not harm ourselves or others. Wise Owl is very useful to us!
The Elephant: hippocampus – helps us to remember what is learnt so that we are able to recall the Meta-Moment table or Grow Your Mind narrative and the strategies that get us calm such as breathing routines or positive affirmations.
Sifting Sooty: reticular activating system (RAS) – enables us to focus on what is prioritised for that particular moment.
Sensitive Octopus: insular cortex – enables us to explore empathy and to try to consider how others are feeling or locate why something happened.
The above strategies will no doubt serve our young well in the Meta-Moment they learn to take between stimulus and response. This ensures that they can indeed be freed of their overwhelming big feelings, anxiety, or dysregulated anger, and grow into the best version of themselves. This self doesn’t see the glass half empty and is able to access meaningful positive explanations when things go wrong. They unlearn their learned helplessness by replacing catastrophic thinking generalised to the whole world or everyone and understand what has happened and why. This increases their self-esteem which doesn’t come from telling children they are special and doing amazingly well, but rather comes from them keeping a healthy perspective about the causes of events and taking accurate responsibility for their personal role in the event. It is the story we tell ourselves about what happened. ‘Always’ and ‘never’ are replaced with ‘today this happened’ or ‘this time an action occurred’.
It is important that the adult stakeholders in the world of our children took a Meta-Moment to read this approach so that we can empower ourselves and our young people to take a Meta-Moment before they enact their emotional responses such as anger, fear, and anxiety. The road to freedom is simple: children simply need to slow down and understand what happened, regulate feelings, envisage their best self and the strategy to achieve this, and then celebrate success. Let’s quieten our barking dogs and bring wisdom to all corners of our community so that our anxious, stress-prone, post-Covid kids can get happy in their courageous, rational thinking skin.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lynda Fisher is the Head of Primary School at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW.