The many impacts of the pandemic and school closures include the potential to create increased stress and anxiety for ourselves and our children. In this podcast, you’ll find out how to best spot indications of learners’ stress and ways to reduce and respond.
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Steve: 00:33 Supporting learners who are stressed or anxious during this school closure. I recently had the opportunity to read an article in educational leadership by Jessica Minahan. The article was focused on reducing anxiety and stress while schools are close and I thought it would be great if Jessica could could join us here. So I’d like to welcome Jessica to the podcast. Jessica Minahan is a behavior analyst and special educator. She consults with educators and parents on how to support students exhibiting challenging behaviors. I’m including the link to her website as well as a link to the article that she wrote into the lead in on this podcast. So welcome Jessica.
Jessica: 01:30 Thank you for having me.
Steve: 01:32 You bet. You bet. It’s obvious to all of us that this is a time of increased stress and anxiety for adults and families and students. And I’m wondering if you might begin by describing some indicators that parents might pick up that would come from that increased stress or anxiety.
Jessica: 01:55 Sure. Behavior is a form of communication. And a lot of times teenagers, young children, express their feelings through behavior without not so much their words. And a really good piece of advice is that behavior is often communicating a hidden feeling and a hidden request or a need. And so if you don’t get so overwhelmed by the behavior but respond to the hidden feeling and the hidden request, I think your response will be right on track. Some of the ways, specifically right now, the center for disease control and prevention in the United States is recommending we look for some behavior signs, excessive crying or irritation in younger children, returning to behaviors they have outgrown. So regression is very normal right now. So if your child starts sucking their thumb or talking in a baby talk voice or even bed wedding, those things are a normal reaction to stress.
Jessica: 03:00 And what we would just want to translate that as the child being nervous. Excessive worry or sadness, unhealthy eating and
sleeping habits, acting out defiant moments can also be a sign of stress. Unfortunately, a lot of these are off-putting and so, irritability is one of the number one signs of anxiety and depression and unfortunately it doesn’t necessarily lead to a nurturing response in others because it’s an off-putting behavior. Same with acting out behaviors and things like even in our teenagers use of alcohol or tobacco or something like that. And so our reactions may not match it. So we remember we want to translate that into, I’m nervous is what they’re really saying. Couple others would be difficulty with attention and concentration. You might be noticing, especially when they’re doing online school and any sort of somatic complaints like headaches or body pain is another sign. All of those we want to just keep our eye out for and remember, translate them, think of yourself as a translator that they’re saying, I’m nervous, I need a nurturing sort of response.
Steve: 04:12 As I’m listening to you make those descriptions, it’s kind of like the behavior response that the child needs from me the parent, is the one that at that moment I’m not likely to unconsciously step to.
Jessica: 04:27 That’s right. We have to think of ourselves as translator and don’t get overwhelmed by the behavior. Maybe count to three and say, okay, what is the child really communicating? And you want to look under the behavior at that feeling and that need. In fact, if you ever get a complaint, it’s very helpful to translate it in the hidden feeling, the hidden request. I used to do that with emails if I got a cranky email and then respond to my translations so you’re not over fixated. Generally we want to look at behavior that way.
Steve: 04:57 In the article you kind of gave four guidelines for responding. Validating feelings, staying calm, being truthful and reframing
negative comments. I’m wondering if I kind of labeled those one at a time. If you could give a clarifying explanation on each one. So the first one was validate feelings.
Jessica: 05:21 Yes. Because the behavior is communicating that hidden feeling and that hidden request or need, the number one first response out of your mouth instead of, hey, knock that off, something like that. If the first reaction out of your mouth is to validate the person’s feelings, it’s the most deescalating reflex to have. So if a kid says, you know what, “Grandma’s going to die. She’s in a nursing home facility.” You want to say, “I’m so sorry you’re worried about grandma.” Or “don’t go to the grocery store. You’re going to get sick and be in the hospital.” “I hear that you’re worried I’m going to get sick. I’m sorry that you’re worried about that.” That’s just the first response. It actually gets someone down a couple notches with anxiety because it’s a been heard, it’s been transferred. And that’s the first reflex actually any human in the world, if the first reflex from you is to validate someone’s feelings, if anyone’s having any type of challenging behavior, it’s the most deescalating reflex.
Steve: 06:30 That’s good advice for all the time.
Jessica: 06:32 Yes. I actually broke up a bar fight a couple of years ago. I deescalated someone on an airplane. It’s like universally helpful.
Steve: 06:40 Next one you mentioned was stay calm.
Jessica: 06:43 Yes. So the rule of them kids will – a lot of us, think we’re shielding enough from our kids, we’re reducing news, but they hear more than we think. You know, they hear us talking to each other as adults. They hear us on the phone. They’re even watching our face and our tone of voice. So the most calming tone of voice and reassuring tone of voice is to mimic the innotation and volume you would use when you’re reading a bedtime story to a toddler. That’s sort of the most calming kind of voice that you could use if you’re going to explain or answer a scary question from a kid. That, I would kind of try to default to that because you’re also communicating through your behavior, I’m not worried. So you’re essentially saying you are safe.
Steve: 07:37 Okay. And the next one you mentioned was be truthful.
Jessica: 07:41 Yes. So you want to be careful. You don’t want to over promise too much. So you don’t want to say things like, “oh, we’ll see grandma’s soon” or “you’ll be back to school any minute” or something like that because we’re not sure about all that. So you would want to say things like, “I can’t wait until we see grandma again” or you know, “it’s going to be great when we’re back in school.”
Steve: 08:09 And the last one you labeled was reframe negative comments.
Jessica: 08:16 Yea so, when you get a comment, an anxious comment, often, it’s too big and too inaccurate. So catastrophic thinking is one of the most common inaccurate thinkings that comes with anxiety. So when anxiety goes up, accuracy in our thinking goes down, and one of the most common ways is catastrophic thinking. And that’s just too big, too inaccurate to say, we’re all gonna die, you know, and we’re all gonna get sick. If you get a big, big scary comment from a kid or a teenager, what you want to do is respond in a way that gets them smaller and more accurate. So things like I will get sick. And we also in the reframe, always want to remind kids of what they have control over. So for example, when you’re anxious, a lot of what’s making all of us anxious right now is everything’s so out of control and so hard to predict that a really helpful reframe is to also put back what you’re in control of. So for example, if someone says, “I will get sick,” you could say “you’re going to self isolate, wash your hands, and you’re going to decrease the likelihood of that.” So this is what you have control over is what you’re saying.
Steve: 09:33 Reframing it to an action step that they can take with control.
Jessica: 09:39 With control. Yeah. So you know, something like “I’m stuck at home, but you’re, you’re going to be safe and you’re making sure other people are safe” or “I’m afraid grandma’s going to get sick.” “You’re doing a great job staying away from grandma at washing your hands, keeping yourself safe so that she doesn’t get sick. And so you just keep putting it back on that. Just a couple other things that might help kids feel a little more in control. In general, the more we feel in control during this time can be extremely beneficial. So on top of reminding them what they’re in control of, things like volunteering and I know that we think adults should be doing that but kids can be doing that as well. There’s a few places that you can find opportunities for online volunteer experiences like dosomething.org is a great one.
Jessica: 10:36 There’s also an adopt a grandparent one where you have kids, you know, draw pictures for an elderly neighbor and send it in the mail or you could have them write a letter. There’s environmentally conscious things like the one I like is a five minute playlist where teenagers can make a five minute playlist to help them remember to shower more quickly and they can send that to other people and even uploaded on the website and start feeling like you’re in control. Because, I don’t know, a lot of us have helped a neighbor during this time or, and if you notice about 40 minutes to an hour after you do that particularly and even sometimes the whole day you feel a little better about the whole situation.
Steve: 11:20 My grandkids painted thank you rocks for healthcare workers and a next door neighbor delivered them and the healthcare workers sent a picture of themselves with the rocks back to my grandkids. And I can tell you when they sent it to me, it had the effect on me. So I can really see the power of that.
Jessica: 11:45 Yes, I wouldn’t minimize that for kids to and yourselves.
Steve: 11:50 I’m wondering, closing out here, if you could perhaps just share some general guidelines around wellbeing for a difficult time like this, looking at parent and student and family wellbeing.
Jessica: 12:05 Sure. So what happens during something like this pandemic but in general with anxiety like I said, there’s this inaccurate thinking that we have to worry about. And that catastrophic thinking or all or nothing thinking that’s another most common inaccurate type of thinking where kids will say, I hate math, not, I just don’t like long division. So all of it becomes a problem. And to combat that, if you notice your heart rates going up or if we’re getting stressed or your kids are snapping at you, a distraction is one of the most quickly impactful things because what it means is your thoughts are going out of control. And for those of us who have had the experience where we can’t sleep at night, most adults will read a book or watch TV and that helps us go back to sleep. And you would agree if you stay on the thought, you will stay awake.
Jessica: 12:57 So it’s very helpful. I teach kids that and adults that your brain is like a remote control. You need to change the channel to calm down. And right now, we’re very at risk for thought based disregulation, right? That anxiety. And so distracting your thoughts is very helpful. If you notice your kids are snapping at each other, if you’re snapping at your spouse, I would say put on a quick movie or a TV show. You want to listen to a podcast that’s not related to anything going on. Make sure to change the channel. You have to get off that channel to calm down and get more rational. There’s also some websites that only play good news and I would love to encourage you because news is so scary right now to supplement the scary, realistic news with some good news. And it’s real stories, but it’s only good news.
Jessica: 13:55 So for example, the goodnewsnetwork.org is only plays good news, inspiremore.com only shows wonderful stories. John Krasinski is an actor and he developed a show called, it’s a YouTube channel, “Some Good News,” and he shows only positive stories from the COVID-19 crisis. So those are nice things after you watch the news, before you go to bed, or if you start taking the temperature of people in your home or yourself, where you’re starting to show those behavior signs of anxiety. Let’s distract our thoughts, change that channel, calm back down and get more rational.
Steve: 14:35 Well, I appreciate it. I’m going to steal “change the channel.” That’s a great easy one where you can use it as a suggestion to another person and use it as a suggestion to yourself. I could actually see saying that ou to a family where several members are starting to get stressed and somebody put, you know, it’s time to change the channel. It’s an idea for us to do that.
Jessica: 14:56 Yes. Just take a breather.
Steve: 14:58 Well, Jessica, thank you so much and a reminder to folks that if you check back into the lead in, you’ll find ways that you can connect with Jessica on her website as well as her article. Thank you for having me.
Steve [Outro]: 15:14 Thanks again for listening. You can subscribe to Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud on iTunes and Podbean and please remember to rate and review us on iTunes. I also want to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.