Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Supporting Anxious Children

While collaborating with fellow teachers in different parts of the country, your blogger has noticed a common theme: anxiety in students is becoming a much more salient issue in today’s classrooms. Data supports the notation that anxious tendencies in children is on the rise; a study conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health found that 25.1 percent of kids 13-18 in the United States have been diagnosed with anxiety disorders. 

Many colleagues have shared that they feel ill equipped and under prepared to mitigate these types of social-emotional and behavioral challenges. But behavior and self-regulation aren’t the only concerns teachers or caregivers are faced with when supporting children with mental health issues. Students who are dealing with psycho-social stressors often struggle to focus on their learning and their academic performance often wanes as a result. For example, a study published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology surveyed a group of 1,197 students without a diagnosed reading or math disability. The students who were diagnosed with an anxiety disorder were more likely to be in lower achieving reading and math groups.

We have written before about self-regulation strategies and teaching children mindfulness; some of these ideas and tools may be effective interventions for helping students cope with anxiety and behavioral difficulties. However, another excellent resource is an informative book written by Dr. Nancy Rappaport and Jessica Minahan titled The Behavior Code: A Practical Guide to Understanding and Teaching the Most Challenging Students. The Behavior Code provides strategies to determine causes and patterns of behavior in order to effectively de-escalate challenging situations. The book is also a treasure trove of worksheets and practical resources.

In their book, the authors emphasize that misbehavior is a symptom of an underlying cause and is a form of communication that serves a function and has a pattern to it. They explain that a displayed maladaptive behavior is often the symptom of underdeveloped skills, such as weak executive functioning, poor self-regulation, or immature social skills. The behavior is often the child’s attempt at solving a problem the best way they know how. Children will continue to engage in the problematic behavior due to the function it serves in getting them a desired result. For example, whining may get the teacher’s attention. Often, when teachers systematically evaluate behavior they will discover a pattern to what triggers or causes the behavior and what function it is serving. Knowing the cause, function, and pattern to challenging behavior is the first step towards helping build effective, personalized, interventions in order to support the child

The authors also provide some tangible tips for working with anxious students:
  • It is common for teachers or caregivers to publicly praise positive behavior. However, children with anxiety don’t always want any extra attention from peers, which can make this strategy ineffective. Private or non-verbal praise is often better for students with anxious tendencies.
  • Students with anxiety often enter into negative thinking cycles. Vague or non-specific praise is easy for them to dismiss. The authors suggest using fact-based praise with specific examples of how the student has done. 
  • There are new biofeedback tools that can turn calming down into a game for students. One such tool is EmWave, which gives students a black and white picture that will slowly fill with color as the device monitors the child’s heart rate and the student begins to calm.

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