Friday, June 22, 2018

Anxiety Taming in the Classroom.

Gifted children and anxiety often seem to go together like bread and butter. It is natural for all children to have some worries and fears as they are growing up, but for children who already have a heightened awareness of what is going on in the world around them and what the future might hold, the worries can be magnified out of all proportion.

Issues such as acceptance, perfectionistic tendencies and not being able to live up to perceived and/or real expectations can cause anxiety as the child strives for independence and a sense of self. Teachers are not qualified to treat the anxiety of a gifted child if it is causing concern, but if we are able to understand the worry and fear and then empathise rather than trivialise it, then we can avoid increasing the problem at school.

My focus is on helping gifted kids to cope with anxiety as distinct from fear or phobia. Fear is felt when faced with immediate danger' That's where the danger IS. There is a direct cause for the emotion being felt and fear is the reaction to being afraid of being harmed. A phobia is much stronger than simply being afraid of being harmed. It is an intense unreasonable reaction to something that interferes with everyday life.  Anxiety can be defined as the worry that is felt when thinking about what might happen. Thoughts, feelings and behaviours are all combined in such a way as to make the brain's survival response centre (the amygdala) react instinctively by increasing heart rate, tightening muscles ready for flight and causing rapid breathing. it ranges from general uneasiness to panic. the reaction of others can make all the difference because everyone perceives things differently.

Many able students can be intensely worried about things that their imaginations conjure up, but dismissing them out of hand is not helpful because it will make them not prepared to tell you about them.

Talk to students about how worries can impact on performance and discuss how these might be alleviated so that you help them to gain confidence in their own ability to cope. Practise active listening and don't try to 'fix it' by appearing to have all the answers, but give information if it is asked for. Encourage students to check their ... what if? thinking as a way to identify wht can be controlled and what can't. Positive thinking leads to positive outcomes.

Some gifted students are reluctant to take part in activities in which they are afraid of failure. Failures are inevitable in our lives but they are not final. If you don't fail then you don't learn. It is how we react to the anxiety that will make the difference.

Focus on the process rather than the outcome and provide regular, constructive feedback for the student to review so that anxiety is overcome by taking smaller steps and builds into success when the task is completed. Encourage calculated risk taking. Talk about situations where you have taken risks yourself and how you dealt with them.

I'm not as smart as they think I am. What if I can't do it? 
Tomorrow I have to present my work to the class. What if they laugh at me?
Each student is more talented in some areas than others. Don't trivialise the issue by brushing it off  with comments such as ... you will be fine., don't worry about it. Such comments do nothing to alleviate the anxiety because children like to succeed and their worries are real to them.Modelling can be a positive motivator for summoning up courage. Talk about how you felt on your first day in front of a class of students and how you dealt with the butterflies in your interaction with the students. Give encouragement and praise for attempting to comply rather than judgment or interpretation when the student tries to resolve the anxiety with action.

What if I never find anyone who thinks like me?
Is there something wrong with me?

Encourage students to read books with kids solving issues that they can relate to in their own quests for understanding about life. The following three books by Stephanie Tolan as personal favourites of mine. She writes about issues affecting gifted young people.
Surviving the Applewhites. Published by Harper Collins (2002). Jake has been expelled from a number of schools and finds himself with a highly talented, creative family where the children are home schooled and fans of 'The Sound of Music.'
Listen! Published by Harper Collins (2006). Charley has to deal with the emotional pain of losing her mother at aged 12 and the physical pain she is left with following an accident.
Welcome to the Ark.  Published by Morrow. New Yok. (1996) In a world of increasing violence, four people brought together in a residential treatment centre have the potential to change the world. Issues of allientaion, fear of what the future might hold, and heightened sensitivities strike a chord with middle school gifted students.

For the mathematically minded student, here is an old book that also has a place on my bookshelf.
Math Curse by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith, published by Viking, New York.  (1995)
Mrs Fibonacci, the math teacher, is convinced that nearly everything can be thought of as a math problem. There are little math jokes amongst a world of math predicaments.

And two sophisticated picture books that I highly recommend are :
Little Mouse's Big book of Fears. by Emily Gravett (2007) Published by MacMillan, London
Life from the point of view of a mouse is cleverly written and illustrated and allows for lots of discussion opportunities.
The Rabbit problem also by Emily Gravett and a lot of rabbits (2009) MacMillan, London.
A pop up book in the style of a Fibonacci explosion of rabits.  I love the ideas introduced via a monthly calendar.

Many gifted students feel deeply about social justice issues. They worry about things such as global warming, poverty, war and the plight of refugees. They feel helplessness in the face of such huge problems.

Look for ways for students to make a difference with their actions through social action. Discuss how it is possible to make a difference by starting with something small and supporting student efforts. Encourage your students to see this kind of worrying as a motivator for action based on real needs and help them to find ways to accomplish this, If a child expresses concern over something such as the plight of refugees and the response is ...'you are too young to worry about things like that'... then it reinforces the child's feeling of helplessness and can lead to a more serious outcome. There is ample support for the notion that groups of gifted students working together on projects can really make a difference. (The Future Problem Solving Programme is a great example.) Teachers can help by facilitating for students to identify community needs and find ways to develop actions as extensions of classroom experiences recognising a need that they are able to fill as a group or as individuals, thus providing opportunities to take a leadership role and make a differece.
Here are some projects worth reading about:
There are ideas here for the whole class.
Stories about 8 kids who made a difference
Finding solutions to hunger
a student takes her case to the United Nations
Students who have used social media to make a difference.

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