In this week’s episode of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast, Steve is joined by behavioral analyst and educator, Jessica Minahan to look at how to best support teachers who are helping learners deal with increased stress & anxiety while school is closed.
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Steve [Intro]: 00:25 Hello and welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. For over three decades, I’ve had the opportunity to learn with educators at all levels, both nationally and internationally. I invite you to listen as I explore my thoughts and learning on a variety of topics connected to teaching, learning and leading with some of the best and brightest educators from around the globe. Thanks for listening in.
Steve: 00:53 Supporting teachers who are supporting learners who might be dealing with stress or anxiety during the school closure. I’m happy on this podcast to welcome Jessica Minahan to join us. Jessica is a behavioral analyst and special educator. She consults with educators and parents on supporting students exhibiting challenging behaviors. I had the opportunity to read a article of hers that appeared in educational leadership. The title of her article was “Maintaining Connections, Reducing Anxiety While School Is Closed.” We will have the link to that article as well as the link to Jessica’s website in the lead in to this podcast. So welcome Jessica.
Jessica : 01:50 Thanks for having me.
Steve: 01:51 You bet. Jessica, I know that you’re the author of two books that might be helpful both to parents and to teachers here. You want to take a moment and describe them for us?
Jessica : 02:03 Sure. My books are called “The Behavior Code” and the second one isThe Behavior Code Companion: Strategies, Tools, and Interventions for Supporting Students with Anxiety-Related or Oppositional Behaviors.” And I think it’s very complicated when behavior is fueled by things like anxiety and trauma. Some of our traditional ways of going about helping kids with behavior like incentives can really fall flat, right? Well, get your homework done so you get a good grade. If the kid’s overwhelmed with anxiety or depression, that incentive is not going to help. So what I do in the book because as a teacher myself of kids with social emotional issues and then as a behavior analyst consulting in schools on kids with challenging labor, that can be kind of complicated, what I’ve found is the mental health literature is very theoretical and pedagogical and, and not very practical for a classroom or you know, an in-home moment. So what I’ve done over the years is taken clinically sound research based techniques for kids with anxiety, trauma, depression oppositional defiant disorder and translate it into very practical strategies for a teacher. So it’s a quick but very impactful translation of the research which teachers can find doable.
Steve: 03:27 And Jessica, both of those are available on your website, right?
Jessica : 03:30 Yes.
Steve: 03:31 Okay. I think it might be good to just jump right in. Your article was filled with suggestions for teachers as to the things they should be doing to maintaining connections as well as reducing anxiety during this time. So I think I’d just like to turn you loose and let you jump in and talk about the things that we could and should be doing.
Jessica : 03:59 Sure. In general over distance learning as we all know, it feels more difficult to keep connections with kids and I think there’s tons we can be doing to maintain that. So we’ve heard of things like teacher parades and teachers visiting kids at home, dropping things off, but there are smaller things we can do as well that may be easier to do. And I think in general, when we’re on digital learning, like whatever platform we’re using, Google hangout, Google Classroom, Zoom, when you are messaging the whole group or talking to the whole group, the more you can use the child’s name, it sounds really simple but it makes a really big impact. So if I was calling on a child, I would say, “Jessica, what do you think?” And then I would say, “thank you Jessica” at the end. And when you leave the class, sometimes in our younger kids it’s only 15-20 minutes of connection they have with their classmates.
Jessica : 05:01 They really feel like you saw them, you were there, you made a connection when you use the name. As much as you can, using individual messages. So when you do do a group email, if you can copy and paste to the kids individually and say one little, you know, sentence about them as much as you can. Private messages during Google hangout, very helpful. They want to hear your voice, they want to hear you say their name. Making phone calls makes a huge impact not only on the students but the families. You know, I’ve been seeing on social media teachers saying that the kid had to say, “come on, he’s calling for me, Mom, give me the phone.” You know, that makes a big impact in and kids would not forget that anytime soon. Sending a letter, I know it sounds very time consuming, but if you send a letter with a – include a stamped envelope to respond you want to probably send it to the school and get it somehow.
Jessica : 06:00 That can be very useful because a lot of our kids may or may not be in a situation at home where they have parents who are accessible right now. They might be unemployed and too stressed or grocery store workers are working around the clock. So the letter, what you’ll find is kids will, they can hold, it, can reread it, keep referring back to it on a bad day. It’s a lovely tangible way to say I care about you and I’m still your teacher. I would also encourage you, if you can ever in Google classroom or Zoom or whatever your platform is, create a shared folder space because some of our kids are doing work, are drawing pictures, are doing things throughout the day and they don’t necessarily have caretakers that will validate those efforts. So in traditional school time, we are often the only adult that’s saying, great job, I love how you did this.
Jessica : 06:58 So if you can, you know, allow for some sort of shared folder where kids can share work they’ve been doing through the week,
we can still become that surrogate person, you know, caretaker that acknowledges their efforts and it gives them some positive reinforcement. In general, routines are very comforting, especially during this time. I don’t know if you have the same problem as I do where I often forget what day it is because we don’t have a lot of consistency. If you can create routines like for example, holding office hours is a lovely way to let kids get in touch with you and if it’s the same time every day, it does add some consistency. Like my teacher is consistently available at this time and, and it sounds small, but it actually can be very comforting. There are some things in the article, ways if you’re worried about kids having internet connection or technology access, there are some links in the article for example, Remind is a cell phone based system where you don’t have to use the internet where they can just leave you a voicemail or excuse me, a text without you giving out your phone number.
Jessica : 08:18 Google voice does the same thing. You don’t have to use your own phone number, but it’s a place where people can leave you voicemails, especially people who don’t have internet access and so forth. Talking Points, I love that app, that actually will translate right as you text into the home language of the family so that you can, again, not using your own number but respond and have a communication if you do establish those office hours so that we can head off at the past.ny issues going on. I think check-ins, I would love teachers to think about and you’re consulting with teachers, establishing daily check-ins is really, really useful. We want to also make sure which I’m going to talk about next, that teachers are prepared to respond if a child does say, you know, I”‘m not good today” or you know, “I’m terrified at my grandmother’s going to die,” you get a scary answer, which we’re more likely to right now.
Jessica : 09:13 I want to tell you how to respond to that. A couple of ways teachers are doing that – emojis, everyone loves emojis. So for example, you could have an emoji sort of thermometer with different color hearts, like, you know, green, I’m doing just fine, purple, I’m really just not feeling my best kind of tired, red being, I’m really panicking and I’m worrying, right? And you can just say, “how are you all doing?” And within the chat window or the message window, kids can have the option to privately or publicly respond without having to type too much. And then we want to of course make sure to respond to kids who are panicking, which we’ll talk about. There’s a Google form that I put into the article that’s a free option in Google docs from the Association of Middle Level Education.
Jessica : 10:07 And that’s for older kids, just as a quick, they just quickly fill it out, how are you doing today? I think as administrators and consultants it’s really helpful – a lot of districts really use the village to make sure we’re connecting. So for example, in one of the districts I’ve been consulting to, we established that the non classroom teachers, the special ed teachers, the heightened counselors, even paraprofessionals have a list of families too connect with. So you know, when we divvy it up, people have maybe 20 families and the job is to connect with each of those families once a week. And that can be very powerful because we feel overwhelmed quite often.
Steve: 10:56 Just a second on that – one of the things I’ve been doing is I’m trying to get teachers and administrators looking at what it is they’re learning during this time that they might want to hang on to when we move instruction back into the classroom. But I’ve been getting lots of reports from people that the connections that they’ve made with families has been really powerful. And I’ve had building principals talk about having a hundred people on a coffee check in with the with the principal, you know, as compared to a small number of people who used to show up at the building before or having that communication happening once a week now where it was, you know, once every six or eight weeks in the past that there’s a real power. I think you’re right on when, when you called it a village.
Jessica : 11:53 Yes. it’s so powerful to make sure we’re doing, you know, mental health checks with families, but also, there is a benefit to us for sure. You feel more connected to the people in your community, which is really helpful to kids ultimately.
Steve: 12:11 So Jessica, I’m wondering if there’s some indicators that teachers might be picking up as they’re working with students online that would flag the teacher to an increase in stress or anxiety on that student’s part. What should they be on the lookout for?
Jessica : 12:29 So behavior is just a form of communication and all behavior indicates a hidden feeling and a hidden request or a need. And so when you translate any behavior into the hidden request and hidden feeling, your response is going to be right on. Nurturing, supportive, sometimes I feel like I’m a translator. Like I was with a teacher, you know, a couple of months ago when school was over and I said, I feel like I’m a translator. I speak behavior, you speak English, let me translate this kid for you. Next time he calls you, you know, a flippin’, fat, blah, blah, blah, all you have to do is translate that in your head to, I’m nervous about my math quiz, but you look great, right? That’s all he means. And then our reaction would be just so much more calm and supportive. So we want to remember that, but some of the specific ways that the center for Disease Control and Prevention in the US has been outlining to look for.
Jessica : 13:31 So behavior signs that kids are anxious would be excessive crying or irritation in younger children, clingingness can be another one. Regression and behaviors, so returning to behaviors they’ve outgrown. So if you start seeing kids sucking their thumbs or talking in baby talk, bedwetting those kinds of things, those are actually really normal behavioral responses to stress. Excessive worry or sadness, unhealthy eating habits or sleeping habits, difficulty with attention and concentration. You may be noticing when kids are you know, having trouble attending to class, those kinds of things or disengaging. Sometimes our teenagers haven’t logged in in a couple of days. Those are signs also because of avoidance as is very common in when kids are anxious. We may or may not hear about it, but if we hear that kids are, from a parent or a peer that there’s more alcohol use or tobacco use or drug abuse in our older kids, that’s another sign of anxiety to be looking for.
Jessica : 14:42 Acting out behavior and irritability are very common signs of anxiety. And unfortunately, a lot of these are very off putting. So our instinct isn’t to say, “oh, poor thing is anxious.” But remember we want to translate that. So as a kid, you know, on on a Google Hangout or Zoom platform is doing inappropriate emojis or sending messages, you know, to other kids that are inappropriate or in other ways acting out or saying really flippant answers when they’re called on, you want to remember that this can be a sign of anxiety and to translate it like that.
Steve: 15:23 Some steps, Jessica, that you’d see teachers taking if they observe the things that you just mentioned?
Jessica : 15:32 Yes. So the number one thing I would recommend, remember that behavior is just a poor way of communicating, a hidden feeling and a hidden request is to respond to that hidden feeling. So if you validate the feeling as a first reflex, in fact, when as a consultant, I constantly repeat, when in doubt, validate. So when you’re interfacing with anyone having any kind of challenging behavior, if you validate the feelings. So right now, when we do our check-ins for example, we may get panicked responses like, “well I’m afraid my grandmother’s going to die because she’s in a nursing home.” The first response you can have is, “I’m sorry you’re worried about your grandmother,” right? So you just want to put that out there. Just hearing that the child’s been heard, right? That tangible, you know, validation is automatically going to take the kid down a notch. That’s very comforting.
Jessica : 16:31 Staying calm yourself. We as teachers, you know, if a kid gets irritated or we show some of those behavior signs of anxiety, we can also, you know, change our voice, you know, have a less frustration tolerance and it’s really useful to stay calm because kids are more aware of what’s going on in the world than we give them credit for. They’re listening when their parents are talking, they’re listening when parents are on the phone, teenagers are sneaking to look up things on the internet. So if you stay calm, what it’s communicating is, well this adult is not nervous so I might be safe. And a rule of thumb when you’re talking or giving a lesson or particularly responding to someone who’s you know, irritated, upset, is to use the intonation and rhythm and volume that you would when you’re reading a bedtime story to a toddler.
Jessica : 17:34 So that kind of tone and volume is very helpful, soothing cadence. And they will be watching you, how you’re acting as much as what you’re saying, but you want to also make sure you’re truthful so don’t overpromise. We’d want to avoid things like, “oh, we’ll be together soon” or “you’ll see your grandma really any minute.” We want to be careful of that because of course we don’t know that that’s true. And so I would, you know, be cautious of those statements. It’s better to say, “I can’t wait to work together again” as a as opposed to “I’ll see you soon.” Another technique that’s very helpful in the literature for kids with anxiety is called reframing. So when a kid is worrying, often really what worry means is we’re having inaccurate thinking. And unfortunately when anxiety goes up, accuracy in our thinking goes down automatically.
Jessica : 18:33 And that’s true of every human. And the two most common types of inaccurate thinking – one is catastrophic thinking and the other is all or nothing thinking. So these are kids who say, I hate math, not, I just don’t like long division, right? The whole thing’s horrible. So catastrophic thinking is a little more prevalent right now. And you may be catching yourself doing that as well. So what you want to do when you’re getting a catastrophic statement like this, what it is is it’s too big and it’s too vague. And what how you want to respond is to get them smaller and more accurate. And the other thing to point out is always to make sure we remind them of what they have control over because, and we can do this while we’re reframing. So, for example, kids, anyone with anxiety, part of what’s uncomfortable is the feeling of a loss of control.
Jessica : 19:26 That’s kids with trauma too. And this may be manifesting as trauma in some kids. So reminding them of control is very calming. And so we can do that within the reframe. So for example if a kid says, “I’ll never be able to see my grandmother again.” You can say, “you’ve been in the house for two weeks and it’s so nice that you’re doing that grandmother is less likely to get sick,” right? So this is what you were doing about this big problem and that’s a very helpful reframe. In the article, I have really specific common ones that you’ll see and how to reframe, you know. So things like, you know, “I’ll get sick.” You could say, “well, you’re washing your hands, you’re staying away from other people.” Those are great ways to reduce that. And just kind of keep reminding them there is some of this that’s in our control can be very helpful.
Jessica : 20:26 I love Mr. Rogers. We all love Mr. Rogers and he gives advice to kids on, which I think would be great for teachers to disseminate for kids who are hearing scary news stories, right? So he always said, look for the helpers. So for example, in the US we unfortunately have you know, school shootings occasionally. And so, the advice I always give kids is if you saw that on the news, we don’t really want them to, but if they did, count the helpers you saw in that news cast, right? So here’s one person who did something very bad, but look at all these people who did something helpful and they’re gonna, you know, outnumber that person.
Steve: 21:11 That’s a great reframing. Yeah.
Jessica: 21:13 So you know, there are good news outlets that only play good news. And it’s a lovely thing to, as teachers assign kids, hey, can anyone list five helpers they heard about right now?
Jessica : 21:27 Or for older kids, you could even assign them to watch some of these good news outlets that only play good news and write a report on it. Really focus on the helper. So two or three good news sites that I like. One is goodnewsnetwork.org. Another one is inspiremore.com and there’s another one called Some Good News. It’s a YouTube channel with John Krasinski who’s a famous actor so that might get more buy in. Those are very lovely things to focus on and that’s a helpful reframe. So you want to say, “oh, and did you notice any helpers when you saw the news?” It’s very helpful, It’s a good time to teach media literacy as well. I just want to remind teachers of that and for your teachers to remind them of that, that there’s so much fake news and conspiracy theories of course, you know, put out there.
Jessica : 22:20 So teaching media literacy, there are some cool articles and podcasts to help kids do just that. And I would love you to think about it. For example, Brain’s On, has a really nice podcast for little kids on how to know if it’s fake news or not. There’s some COVID-19 specific podcasts and YouTube channels for older kids on how to disseminate that. So we always want to remind them that it might not be as bad as they’re hearing as well. Lastly, like I mentioned that sense of control. A couple of other ways that you can reframe a kid who’s feeling very overwhelmed into control and what a teacher can do is, for example, there’s primary source journaling is something I would love teachers to consider even for themselves and you as administrators and consultants, this has never happened before and we have no references to look up to help us figure this out.
Jessica : 23:24 So if we could be keeping a journal, even us as adults and I would encourage kids to as well, at some point, that can become
a primary source historical artifact, right? Our most famous child, journalist, Anne Frank. But if you, if you did a little lesson on that, it’s a very helpful thing for kids to feel like, oh, I did do something. I’m writing in this journal. And for adults listening, I would love you to keep a journal and when this is all over, write an article saying what you learned, what you would do differently so that God forbid this happens in 10 years from now, we’re helping people figure it out, right? They’ll have something to look up. I think helping others is a lovely way to regain a sense of control. And that’s for adults too. But for teachers whenever we can recommend that.
Jessica : 24:17 So there are, and even though we’re social distancing and we can’t, you know, go into homeless shelters and that kind of volunteering, there’s tons of volunteer options that can be done online. Dosomething.org is a great website that most of it can be done in a social distance situation. Kids can pick their area of interest like their social you know, justice sort of theme. So for example, for the environment, there’s this really cute one where you make a five minute playlist and this is for teenagers to remember to shower more quickly and they can put it on the website or share it through social media. Here’s a five minute playlist and challenge others to make them. You can write letters of appreciation or artwork for nurses and doctors and grocery workers. There’s also an adopt a grandparent website where the website will hook you up with a local elder where you can either make a phone call to them once a week or draw a picture or write a letter.
Jessica : 25:24 I love the idea which is on dosomething.org where you start a story, send it to an elder, they continue the story, send it back to you. You keep going.
Steve: 25:35 That’s very cool.
Jessica: 25:35 … are so lovely. And I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed, but when we help, we’re all lovely, helpful human service people. So you’re helping your neighbors and stuff. If you ever notice how you feel the two hours after you help a neighbor, you helped that, you did something about this big overwhelming problem and it actually deescalates and calms us. And that sense of control is really calming and I would love us to consider encouraging kids to do that. You could do a whole class project volunteer project where everyone draws pictures and you, you know, disseminate them. Those kinds of things would be really useful right now.
Steve: 26:17 Jessica, you shared lots of great things here that a lot of people listening to this podcast are instructional coaches and administrators in schools supporting teachers. And you’ve offered a ton of things that I can imagine people sharing and grabbing the article and getting the article out to to teachers. I’m wondering, closing us out here, if you might just make a couple of suggestions to when coaches and administrators are seeing the stress and the anxiety on the staffs that they’re working with, what might be a couple of critical things for them to keep in mind in their responses?
Jessica : 27:00 So staff is going through similar – actually the behavior that I listed is could be similar in staff, excessive worrying, being particularly one of them. Then we want to remember that, I think in general, if you’re giving advice to a stressed adult, it would be similar to advice to kids in some ways. One thing we always want to remind people about is that anxiety really affects accurate thinking and that catastrophic thinking is a big issue. So if a teacher overreacts to something like, oh, we’re gonna need a summary of blah, blah, blah. What? I have kids at home. But you know, if you get a big reaction, just so overwhelmed reaction, often that’s because they’re interpreting it in an inaccurate way, you know, their reaction is you just ask them to move a mountain.
Jessica : 28:05 So I think, and I should mention this for students too, that distracting sort of suggestions. I think for staff it’s really helpful to put out there letters for staff, how to take – help for self care. Right now, for example, I teach students all the time, the idea of changing the channel. So the only way we can fall asleep when we’re anxious, when we’re having trouble sleeping as we read a book or we watch TV and that helps us go back to sleep. And if you stay on that thought or thoughts, you’ll stay awake. So we have to get off that thought to go back to sleep. And so I actually teach kids, and this is something that teachers could talk to kids about, that you want to change the channel. You’re stuck on this channel. You have to change the channel to calm down and think more accurately. Especially when you’re getting a response that’s disproportionate. They heard it wrong.
Jessica : 28:50 So you want to get them more accurate, more rational as quickly as possible. So changing the channel is really helpful. Unfortunately in schools we do a lot of frequent movement breaks where we’ll say to kids, you know, go for a walk, get a drink of water, because they look disregulated. Unfortunately, you can ruminate on negative thoughts when you take a walk, when you get a drink of water. Sometimes we say, go sit in the calming chair in the back of the classroom and for elementary kids and actually they sit there and they’re still having that catastrophic thinking or anxious thinking. That’s actually not going to help. So you want to try some change the channel ideas. So things like go back there and change the channel, come back. So things like do a hidden picture sheet. Do a quick Madlibs, [inaudible] sports trivia. So I just want mention that for teachers to recommend to kids. But for them themselves, there are, it’s really important to sort of take your own temperature when you’re feeling irritated or you have this panic response to an email from an administrator about, you know, needing to, whatever, there’s a change in grades or something like, or policy or something that, you know, changing the channel is going to help you get a little more accurate, a little more rational so you can respond to that in a way that’s more realistic to the situation.
Steve: 30:14 Well, Jessica, thank you so much. As I listened, I I was hearing application of what you shared throughout the podcast, fitting adults I’m working with as well as the adults working with kids. And perhaps most importantly, I saw it fitting to to me individually. So thanks for sharing that and remind listeners again that you can find the article and a connection to Jessica’s website on the lead into the podcast. Thanks Jessica.
Jessica : 30:50 Thank you for having me.
Steve [Outro]: 30:52 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.