student and teacher working with letter tiles

Social and Emotional Issues

What Can I Do When My Child Refuses to Go to School?

Blog Type:  Social and Emotional Issues Date Posted:  Friday, December 3, 2021

By Dr. Helene Dionne

young girl afraid to get on schoolbus

Every year, school counselors hear from parents at their wit’s end as their child blatantly refuses to go to school. Other parents report their child is so sick in the morning, with stomach pain, headache, nausea, and/or panic attacks, that they cannot imagine insisting the student gets on the bus or in the car. Many of these kids create a great deal of turmoil in the home and angst for their parents as they melt down, cry, have angry outbursts, and generally beg not to be forced to attend school. 

What is going on? Very often, these behaviors are manifestations of anxiety. A rise in anxiety among students has been noticed for many years. Professionals in schools are now reporting a further increase in anxiety following the year of remote and hybrid learning due to COVID-19. So, how can a parent support a child in this situation? Here are some ideas that usually apply to students of all ages.

Take a deep breath and try to understand what may be happening

Explore the reasons behind your student's distress. Understanding what triggers the behaviors and where the feelings come from will give you a start. Problem solving with your child provides an opportunity for growth and presents the model of an adult who values reaching out for help when it is indicated. The following are some examples:  

Whenever possible, engage school personnel to help your student feel more at ease. For instance, a school counselor can welcome a younger child at the door for a short period of time, making the transition to class smoother. 

Ask a counselor to help your child develop new cognitive and behavioral strategies when facing stressful situations. Inquire about organizing group meetings to facilitate peer relationships.

Become your child’s advocate and work with the school administration to ensure that bullying issues or exclusion by friends/cliques are addressed in a constructive manner. 

Your child may experience significant performance anxiety, and that fear may be well founded. Learning disabilities may interfere with a student’s capacity to learn and reach their potential. You may decide to initiate a formal application for testing and access to an Individualized Educational Program (IEP) so that your child can receive appropriate school services to address those issues. 

Inquire about support available for homework and the development of organizational skills if your child is easily overwhelmed with homework and unable to stay on top of the workload. Difficulties with organization, possibly due to executive function problems, may contribute to these struggles.    

What if these attempts remain unsuccessful?

Oftentimes, the reason for the child’s distress remains vague or persists despite numerous interventions. Physical complaints continue, the scenes at home escalate, and the child’s school attendance worsens. Even though the cause remains amorphous, anxiety can be addressed and overcome. School refusal is a form of avoidance, and avoidance is a coping strategy that provides immediate relief to anxious students. Unfortunately, this relief is short lived, and contributes to making the problem bigger. Indeed, the more one avoids a task, the more difficult it becomes to accomplish that task. 

Dr. Aureen Pinto Wagner (2005) illustrates the anxiety experienced by a child who faces a dreaded situation as having to climb a “worry hill.” The student’s anxiety increases as the moment to be in school gets closer. At some point, the anxiety becomes so overwhelming that the student refuses to go, which allows a sudden escape and a drop from that worry hill. The next day, the student discovers that the hill has only become taller or steeper. If the student had been able to make it the previous day, even arriving late to school, the worry hill would typically be less tall the second or third morning. That process is called “habituation”: the more an individual practices, the easier the task becomes.

anxiety escape graphic
Source: Worried No More: Help and Hope for Anxious Children, by Dr. Aureen Pinto Wagner

 

Following nearly two years of a disrupted school schedule due to COVID-19, many anxious children have lost the habit of tackling the worry hill. School, with its social and academic challenges, has become especially difficult for some. In order to be helpful, it is important for parents to maintain a stance that combines warm support with the clear expectation that the student has to attend school. Here are some concrete suggestions and recommendations:

Clarity and Consistency

Give a clear and consistent message that missing school is not allowed. Of course, this is easier said than done. It is painful to watch your child experience intense distress as you insist that they go to school. In cases where there are two parents or guardians, they may disagree on the strategies to accomplish that goal, and conflicts arise. A therapist or a school counselor can offer suggestions for a plan that both of you can agree on and are able to follow.

Collaboration

Invite your child to collaborate in the development of a plan for the morning routine, including a departure time. 

Strategies for anxiety

Help the child develop proactive calming strategies to face the morning stress.

A school counselor or therapist may be helpful in that process, but a supportive and understanding parent can make a difference, too. Together, you could learn breathing exercises similar to the ones athletes use prior to a competition or musicians before performances. Identify distraction techniques to be used on the way to school (music, conversations, video games…). You can provide a reminder of those strategies in times of crisis.

Change it up!

Consider having the parent typically less involved in the morning routine take over for a period of time. Sometimes, novelty facilitates the adoption of new behaviors.

Consequences

Implement a range of negative and positive consequences. Your child could choose something to earn with a number of successful school attendance days in a row. The reward does not have to be a present; it can be a meaningful experience with someone, for instance, or a pass from having to do chores. Over time, earning a reward needs to become increasingly more difficult. On the opposite side, limit entertaining activities  when your child stays home: no tv, computer games, chatting with friends online, or surfing the web during school hours. Could the child go to a parent’s workplace and do school work there? The more boring it is, the better. 

Is it an illness?

Be prepared for the student’s anxiety to express itself through physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach pain, nausea, shakiness, and sometimes full panic attacks. The pain experienced by the child is usually real, and should not be minimized. It also creates a dilemma, as you need to decide whether there is a legitimate reason to stay home. The rule of thumb is typically that the child has to go to school if there is no fever. Remember, if not connected to an illness, the symptoms tend to disappear once the student is actually in class and gets going with the day. This is because these symptoms are connected to the “anticipatory anxiety” (the fear of facing a dreaded situation) that gets stronger as the time to go to school approaches. It is often helpful to explain to the child that these symptoms will most likely and often disappear once they go to school.

Pattern

Be aware of a pattern often observed in children who struggle with school attendance. Sunday nights and Monday mornings tend to be more difficult, and the anxiety eases as the week goes on. This is especially true following long weekends or vacations. Awareness of that pattern can also help a child be less discouraged when anxiety raises its ugly head again—and be prepared for it. 

Less is More

Avoid getting into arguments with your child as best you can. You may have a couple of sentences that you repeat in response to challenges. For instance, you could reiterate “I know this is really hard, but we need to follow the plan,” or “It is terrible that you are feeling so much pain, but you have no fever, so you have to go to school.” Or “Hopefully, the pain will go away as the day goes on, as it does sometimes.” Stay away from words such as “always,” “never,”... or any incendiary expressions that lead to more conflicts. In many situations, silence or a simple “I know this is hard” may be your best option.

A final note 

In some cases, an evaluation by the pediatrician may be indicated and anti-anxiety medications considered, although such cases tend to be the exception.

As you begin to implement these strategies, be prepared for the mornings to become worse before they get better. Your child will likely be terrified not to be able to resort to avoidance and will push back as much as possible. It is during those times that it is especially important for parents to stick to the plan and provide the structure the child needs. Know that other parents have faced similar struggles, they managed to make it through, and have been able to experience pride as they watched their kid overcome adversity. In the process, they and their child learned coping skills worth mastering for the other obstacles that life will present. 

Reference:

Wagner, 2005. Worried No More: Help and Hope for Anxious Children

More resources about anxiety:

Huebner, 2005. What to Do When You Worry Too Much: A Kid's Guide to Overcoming Anxiety (What-to-Do Guides for Kids)

Recommended Website About Anxiety:

http://www.lynnlyonsnh.com/

Apps for Breathing/Mindfulness/Relaxation

https://www.calm.com/

https://www.stopbreathethink.com/

https://www.headspace.com/

About the Author:

helene dionne headshotDr. Helene Dionne has been the director of counseling services at Landmark School since 2003, after working for 25 years in the mental health world, in hospitals, outpatient clinics, and private practice.

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Parenting During a Pandemic

Blog Type:  Social and Emotional Issues Date Posted:  Thursday, December 17, 2020

By Elizabeth Englander, PhD

family cooking together

As if you didn’t have enough to worry about.

Parents today have more than enough on their plates. We’re coping both with keeping our families safe during an unprecedented (and frankly scary) epidemic, as well as dealing with a recession during which many have lost income, sometimes jobs, and perhaps even their homes. We can’t get a break by going to the movies, shopping, or out with friends. We’re trying to work at a kitchen table that’s often populated by our children (going to school online), our pets (barking in the background), and our spouses, who are trying to do their own work.  

And the pandemic has introduced new worries, as well. It has mandated social isolation, both for adults and for children. Experts are aware that the pandemic’s social isolation may affect kids emotionally, at least in the short term. It's worrisome to consider how kids may have lost some of their social skills, and we know it's challenging for kids to keep up their friendships when they can only see their friends online. That introduces another big issue as well: how to handle screen time and social media use during this pandemic. What kind of rules about screen time should we enforce? Screens are the only way our kids can connect with each other, so perhaps we should permit more screen time. But we all know that too much screen time is not healthy for children, developmentally, cognitively or socially. Finally, there's the sheer fatigue of trying to parent through a pandemic. It's hard to keep up your own spirits while you're monitoring your child's.

Mitigation Strategies

But all is not lost. We’re going to have to revise our parenting game, but there are steps we can all take to minimize the damage done to our kids during this pandemic. 

First, keep in mind that during normal times, your children have different opportunities to practice social skills (like school), but during COVID times, those opportunities are reduced. The result is that family interaction becomes more important. So to keep social skills sharp, have family meals that ban all phones and screens to practice conversational skills. Prepare topics in advance, like positive news stories. Try to find non-screen activities, such as cooking or yardwork, that also lend themselves to casual talks.  

Second, you can also revisit your family’s screen-watching rules. This can be complicated, because kids often have to do school and other activities online, and especially as winter looms, they may have fewer non-screen resources. It also can be true that when you're living cheek and jowl with your kids, setting up new and restrictive rules that cause fights and conflict that can, in turn, cause everyone's mental health and emotional well-being to plummet. Consider setting daily schedules that allow kids to use screens while you’re working, and mandate daily non-screen activities, like cooking together, family meals, walks and play outside, and seeing friends in a socially-distance way.  

Teach Responsibility and Independence

Importantly, I think it’s also past time for us as adults to encourage kids to be partners in looking after their own physical and mental health, rather than trying to simply impose rules on them that they don't understand or don't agree with. Take one example. Adults are often aware that there’s a relationship between the overuse of screens and social media and anxiety or depression in children. Kids, in contrast, may realize they have negative feelings, but may not understand that screens can contribute to these emotions. So taking time to describe negative feelings, to point out how screen use can contribute to them, and to encourage healthy habits, might be a better strategy than simply having arguments about social media or gaming. 

These kinds of strategies can pay off in the long run, after the pandemic is in the rear-view mirror. Because understanding the importance of limiting screens reasonably and using them in a positive way can help kids begin to establish a lifetime of good habits. 

Learn more strategies to encourage kids to use screens in a healthy way in the new children's book, The Insanely Awesome Pandemic Playbook: A Humorous Guide to Mental Health. Katharine Covino and I wrote this book expressly for this pandemic to help parents teach their kids coping skills in a funny and engaging book that kids will want to read.  

Dr. Elizabeth Englander

Dr. Elizabeth Englander is the founder and Executive Director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State University, which delivers programs, resources, and research to more than 400 schools every year nationwide. As a researcher and a professor of psychology for 25 years, she is a nationally recognized expert in the area of bullying and cyberbullying, childhood causes of aggression and abuse, and children’s use of technology. She is the author of Understanding Violence, a standard academic text in the field of child development and violent criminal behavior, and of Bullying and Cyberbullying: A Guide for Educators, published by Harvard Education Press, and The Insanely Awesome Pandemic Playbook: A Humorous Guide to Mental Health.

 

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Openness to Learn Cultivates a Sense of Optimism

Blog Type:  Social and Emotional Issues Date Posted:  Wednesday, October 21, 2020

A Black High School Student’s Experience on a Predominantly White Campus

By Aliyah Knudsen

When I was a freshman, I went to St Mary’s High School in Lynn, Mass. It’s a brick building that looks like a prison, but not in a bad way. A lot of the students are children of immigrants: first-generation Americans who are just trying to live up to the expectations of their parents, who moved to Massachusetts to give them better lives. Most of my classmates came from low-income houses and they struggled in school. When I talked to my friends, I said things like “sup ‘cuz” and “is mad brick outside.” As a Black student, my year at St. Mary’s was the first time that I was surrounded by more students who looked like me than didn’t. I didn’t stick out. No one paid more attention to me just because of the color of my skin. I was just another one of the Black kids. 

Fast-forward one year and I was a sophomore, starting once again at a new school: Landmark High School. I came to Landmark to figure out strategies to help me learn better. I had always struggled with paying attention in school and understanding the content I was being taught. Starting my year at a new school was tough, but it was made even harder by the fact that I felt like I had to consciously change a lot of things about myself. I had to dress differently and speak differently. I went from feeling like I blended in to feeling like eyes were on me at all times. At Landmark, everyone knows who I am whether I’ve talked to them before or not. Teachers constantly tell me to “keep my head down.” When they say that, they’re telling me to mind my business, do my work, and stay out of trouble. Sometimes I wonder if they say that to white students too. Or do they just also realize that I’m more likely to get in trouble for something because I stand out? 

Racial Climate Creates Expectations

I’ve always known I was different from most of the other students at Landmark, but I never felt that different until this year. Something that’s changed this year is that students expect me to constantly have something to say about every race-related issue on campus. Whenever another student says something that they shouldn’t, people always come up to me and say “Did you hear this person said that?” or “Can you believe it?” Not only that, people walk on eggshells around me, like they’re afraid that they’re going to slip up and call me a racial slur. I've learned the difference between students who are simply uneducated about race-related issues in America and students who don’t care about becoming educated. I would like to make it clear: I envy those who have the privilege to not care. I would love to not have to have another conversation about why saying “Black Lives Matter” is not a political statement but instead is a human-rights movement. 

Why Black Lives Matter

When people tell me they don’t understand why “only” Black lives matter, I tell them to think about this: if there’s one building on fire in a neighborhood, the fire department will help the house on fire. They’re not going to spend time spraying their hoses at the houses that aren’t on fire because those houses don’t need their help. This is what I think about when I hear people say “all lives matter.” No one is saying that they don’t, but they’re saying that there’s a community on fire and they need everyone’s help to put the fire out.

Willingness to Foster a Sense of Support and Belonging

Being a member of a minority race in a primarily white school has taught me many things. It’s taught me that I need to be more aware of my actions because I can’t get away with the same things as other students can. It’s taught me that eyes are always going to be on me because I am a minority. It’s taught me that people are going to expect me to be the person who calls people out for making racially charged statements. It’s taught me that a lot of people are going to expect me to educate them instead of taking the time to educate themselves. But it’s also taught me that there are people who are willing to learn. It’s taught me that there are people who are willing to do the work and try to make our campus a place where all students and faculty feel comfortable and supported. 

I’m thankful to go to a school that is willing to have open and honest conversations with their students, and I look forward to seeing what else Landmark has in store for us.

aliyah knudsen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aliyah James Knudsen is a senior at Landmark High School. In her spare time, she enjoys skateboarding, going to the beach, and traveling. She plans to pursue a career as an emergency medical technician.

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Tags:  black lives matter Landmark School racial justice

Holden Caulfield and Me

Blog Type:  Social and Emotional Issues Date Posted:  Thursday, October 10, 2013

Submitted by Rachel Urbonas, Landmark School Senior, writing to the late J.D. Salinger after having read The Catcher in the Rye

Dear Mr. Salinger,

When I was first assigned your novel, The Catcher in the Rye, I was expecting another bland piece of literature said to be a ‘classic must read’ that I would have to force myself to interpret. However, I had no idea that this book (written before I was born) could paint such an accurate picture of my life. I felt an immediate connection towards Holden Caulfield, a mirror image of myself. Holden, struggling to feel like he belongs in the world, connected with me on a deep level. I was diagnosed with dyslexia at a young age, which made me feel like I was different – an outcast. I no longer felt like an equal to my friends and classmates. In my eyes, I was a lesser person and I didn't belong.

Holden tells his history teacher, he's trapped on “the other side” of life – a world which he feels he does not belong in. When I was younger, I struggled in school, I struggled with friendships and acceptance: always searching for a social group where I wouldn't be called stupid or retarded. The burden of needing to belong was always in the back of my mind. Years after being diagnosed, I was told I would be transferring into a new school for dyslexic children. I was terrified. I lost countless nights of sleep stressing over how I would not make friends and that I was still going to be an outcast. My whole life was about to change.

Similarly to Holden's character, I hated change. It was as if everything I knew was being ripped away from my grasp and I could do nothing except watch. For self protection, I isolated myself from others – a similar tactic Holden used. Going into a new school as an eighth-grader was difficult. Everyone had known each other for years and I was just entering their world, alone. I spent countless days crying and beating myself up for things I couldn't change. I was mad at myself for being this way. I hid, staying clear of new people, pitying my own impairment.

I needed to grow up, to realize that feeling sorry for myself wasn't going to change anything. Holden faced the same fears. Holden envisions his superficiality of adulthood, believing that the world is filled with “phonies” or “shallow” people. Before I changed schools, I put myself into the same mindset just because I was angry. I thought it was other people's fault for being the way I was; therefore, giving me an excuse to isolate myself. Holden held on to his childish thoughts about sex and relationships as I held on to my childish thoughts that everyone should feel bad for me and let me slide through life just because of my dyslexia. I soon came to realize that my insecurities about my disability were what set me apart from others. All the self doubt and criticism pushed me to prove myself wrong. I found passion in writing. Even sending this letter to you contradicts something people said I could never do: write.

No one knows the outcome of Holden's decision at the end of the book; to stay and face his problems or run away. I was facing a similar dilemma; to let my disability defeat me or attack it head on. Now I see that my dyslexia is what makes me unique. I no longer think that I have to “belong” in a group or be categorized by my abilities and weaknesses. I no longer isolate myself from situations in which I feel uncomfortable, but attack them head on, ready for any curve ball thrown my way. I am able to say that I have experienced difficulties first-hand that most kids can never fathom. I now understand that being different is what makes people special. I will take this lesson with me, holding off judgments and keeping an open mind.

Thank you Mr. Salinger for helping me see that.

Sincerely, Rachel Urbonas

 

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An Oasis of Dignity

Blog Type:  Social and Emotional Issues Date Posted:  Thursday, June 27, 2013

Submitted by Donna Hicks, Ph.D.

It was pouring down rain on Friday June 7 — graduation day for the class of 2013 at Landmark High School in Beverly, MA.  This was no ordinary graduation, and the rain did not put a damper on the joy that infused everyone in attendance.

It was victory day for 82 students who struggled with learning challenges early in their lives. As many of them reported, they were headed down a slippery slope in public school, where they felt overwhelmed and depressed. They did not respond to traditional teaching methods that were geared toward the average learner. Given their unique ways of processing information, they needed instruction that was designed for their particular learning style. Their parents found Landmark school—a life-saving educational institution that has graduated thousands of such students for more than 40 years. I call it an oasis of dignity.

I was asked to deliver the commencement speech. It seemed clear that these young people would understand what it meant to have their dignity violated. So many of them suffered from feeling marginalized and shamed simply because they had a different way of learning. Landmark School, with its remarkable faculty and administration, turned that around for them. They were transformed into accomplished graduates, all of them attending college in the fall.

My message to them was simple. I told them that they needed to remember three lessons. These would apply to the next phases of their education, and to all people from all walks of life.

1. You have inborn value and worth. The minute you doubt it, you're heading for trouble. People out there might want to make you feel unworthy; the world can be a cruel place. We humans can do very hurtful things to one another.

Many of us make the mistake in feeling that if someone mistreats us, that there is something wrong with us. It's certainly embarrassing and hurtful when our dignity is harmed but it doesn't mean there is anything personally wrong. It means that something wrong happened to us. Whenever you start to doubt your worthiness, say to yourself, "I'm invaluable, priceless, and irreplaceable.”  That will get you back on track.

2. No one can take your dignity away from you. It is always in your hands. Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison and stated, “Any man or institution that tries to rob me of my dignity will lose.” It can be wounded and trampled on, and it needs to be cared for, but you are the only one in charge of your dignity.

When your self-worth is intact, you can get through just about anything. It's the key to resilience. We may need time to heal from the wounds, but it is always there. You may betray your dignity (by losing sight of it) it but it will never betray you.

3. By honoring dignity in yourself and others, you become an outstanding citizen of the world. Success certainly requires technical training and education. However, what is going to set you apart from all the other people competing for jobs and opportunities is your character.

Knowing how to treat people well, how to recognize their dignity, and how to live your life in an honoring way, will not only bring you success, but it will make you the kind of human being that people want to be around. It will make you a leader. Give back some of the dignity that Landmark created for you.  Go out in the world and treat others the way you were treated here. Not only do we make others feel good when we recognize their worth, but we look good, too. When we honor others’ dignity, we strengthen our own.

Learn more about Donna Hicks and her book, Dignity

 

Donna Hicks is the author of Dignity and an associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University. Dr. Hicks delivered Landmark's 2013 commencement address.

 

 

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Tags:  accomplished graduates character commencement address dignity Donna Hicks graduation day Landmark School learning style Nelson Mandela oasis of dignity outstanding citizen Weatherhead Center for International Affairs

Discovering Dignity

Blog Type:  Social and Emotional Issues Date Posted:  Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Submitted by Donna Hicks, Ph.D.

After working in the field of international conflict resolution for nearly 20 years, I decided to take some time off in order to write about what I felt was a missing link in our understanding of conflict.

No matter where I was in the world convening dialogues for warring parties, I observed a similar dynamic taking place during the discussions. While the participants were talking about ways to resolve some of the political issues that divided them, there was always another issue present at the table that wasn’t being discussed. It was the elephant in the room that no one had the courage to bring up. Yet, this “unaddressed issue” was making it impossible for the parties to come to an agreement. What was going on? 

It was about their dignity. What they really needed to be discussing was how painful it was to be treated as if they didn’t matter; to be treated in a way that devalued their humanity; not being recognized as human beings, worthy of dignity. This was the missing link that explained why these conflicts were so difficult to resolve. People yearn to be treated with dignity and when they are not, all kinds of conflicts arise.

Although my insights about dignity evolved while working on failed international relationships, what soon became obvious was that it plays a role in all relationships. One negotiator from Colombia once told me that he was grateful to me for uncovering the dignity issues in a political conflict I was there to mediate but said he was most grateful because (in his words): “I think you saved my marriage.”

As an educator, I quickly understood the importance of establishing dignity-honoring relationships in teaching environments. My experience has shown that the quality of students’ learning is enhanced when they feel seen, heard, recognized and treated fairly.  Human beings thrive in a culture of dignity. Learn more about Ms. Hicks book Dignity. Hear more from Ms. Hicks at a TEDEx event. 

donna hicks headshot

Donna Hicks is the author of Dignity and an associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University. Dr. Hicks delivered Landmark's 2013 commencement address.

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Tags:  Colombia conflict resolution dignity dignity-honoring relationships Donna Hicks humanity international relations warring parties Weatherhead Center for International Affairs

Anxiety: What Is It Really?

Blog Type:  Social and Emotional Issues Date Posted:  Thursday, May 9, 2013

Submitted by: Jane B. Ross

Anxiety is a feeling of fear.  Anxiety is a common response to ambiguity; when we don’t know what’s happening or we don’t know how to respond.  Anxiety is nature’s way of helping us deal with difficult situations. This can be beneficial as it can invigorate us for an exam and it can prevent us from doing dangerous things.  Anxiety can assist us to maintain focus in a critical situation.  But when anxiety becomes excessive it can be debilitating. There is intense dread.

Some examples of anxiety in children and adolescents are separation anxiety, social anxiety and generalized anxiety. Students experiencing social anxiety become overwhelmed or extremely self conscious in social situations. This anxiety may be disabling. They have a chronic fear that others are judging them and they may struggle to make and keep friends.

Students with separation anxiety become easily distressed when separating from their parents. They may worry about being lost or kidnapped or that something might happen to their parents. These students may fear going to school or camp and may avoid play dates and sleepovers.

Students with generalized anxiety also experience excessive worry.  They cannot reduce or eliminate their anxiety even if they realize it is out of proportion or irrational. These students are riddled with self-doubt. They are often paralyzed by thoughts that they will be unable to meet others’ expectations. These students require constant approval and reassurance from teachers and parents.

Students with anxiety exhibit many symptoms including: stomach ailments, sleep disturbances, difficulty concentrating, startling easily and sweating or trembling around others. Given this, these students avoid many situations, allowing the anxiety to interfere with friendships, family, and with school.

Students experiencing anxiety struggle with vulnerability. Their thoughts include, “since I had anxiety once, it will happen again.”  Typically an escalation in the irrationality of their thoughts occurs; “my anxiety is likely to increase and then I’ll be crazy and lose control”. Students may have ideas of helplessness; “I cannot cope because of this anxiety, so I’ll soon be completely helpless.” Inherent in these beliefs are; “I’m helpless, I’m flawed, and I’m incompetent.”

Most anxieties in youth are normal and temporary. As their emotions are developing, it can be challenging to differentiate between what is a normal fear verses what is atypical. There are opportunities for parents, teachers, and others to guide students in mild distress.  Helping students to identify their feelings is a first step. Introducing students to stress reducing techniques is beneficial as mind and body practices reduce stress while promoting health. Meditation, yoga, and deep breathing are used to increase calmness and relaxation as well as to enhance well-being and are all examples of interventions that can be initiated and practiced at home, at school, and even in the car.

However, if you continue to be concerned about a student, it is important to have the student evaluated by a professional. This evaluation will include an assessment to determine the kinds and severity of symptoms and the extent of interference with peer relationships, familial relationships, and with school functioning.

jane ross headshot

Jane B. Ross is a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker. 

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Tags:  anxiety generalized anxiety separation anxiety social anxiety

Thoughts on Mindfulness Meditation

Blog Type:  Social and Emotional Issues Date Posted:  Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Submitted by Robert James Campbell, Ed.D., CPHIMS, CPEHR

I am always taken aback when a student or colleague asks if I can teach them how to meditate their stress away using mindfulness meditation practices.  Immediately, I recall something my mentor once told me when I was involved in a relationship with a very difficult person.  He told me:  “Robert, when that person punches you, kicks you, spits on you, kisses you, calls you a dirty name, and runs you over with their car, and it does not bother you, then you are alright. Until then you are not.”  Of course, Father Dave was speaking allegorically, and the import of his words is only heightened by a story told by Dzonger Jamyang Khyentse, a Tibetan Monk.  

Khyentse asks us to consider the cinematographer who goes to the theater to watch a film.  Because of his knowledge, the cinematographer can tell which part of the film has been generated by a computer, where a line has been dubbed, or where the leading actor has been replaced by a stunt man.  Ultimately, this does not ruin the film for the cinematographer, who leaves the theater having enjoyed the picture.  The allegory of both stories and what lies at the heart of mindfulness practice is the question:  can we enjoy life no matter what is happening to us at that moment?

By learning to pay careful attention to our breath, we learn to pay attention to other things in our lives, like the impermanence of our feelings:  one minute you have a stomach ache and the next you are jonesing for a Big Mac.  Or that thought that everything is going to “hell” in a hand basket.  It is just a thought!  Besides, not even US Air has non-stops to “hell.”  Mindfulness practice teaches you to take whatever is happening in your life and use it to learn more about yourself.  The best time for me to practice mindfulness is early in the morning when I wake up.  Generally, at that time, I have a million thoughts running through my head.  To calm my mind, I will sit in a chair, take three deep breaths, and then begin my meditation by breathing in and then breathing out.  That counts as one cycle.  I then try to complete twenty one cycles.  If my mind wanders, I just bring it back to the breath and start over.  This simple practice will help calm your mind at the start of a new day. To discover more about mindful practice, check out Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book: Full Catastrophe Living.

Robert James Campbell, Ed.D., CPHIMS, CPEHR, is an assistant professor of Health Services and Information Management at East Carolina University.

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Tags:  Dzonger Jamyang Khyentse Jon Kabat-Zinn meditation mindfulness

Life After Landmark

Blog Type:  Social and Emotional Issues Date Posted:  Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Submitted by Stephanie Johnston

All parents worry, but parents of children who learn differently worry a lot more.  From the time our son started school we worried.  There were vague worries: why isn’t he able to learn, respond promptly, organize himself, etc…There were specific worries: will he ever be able to tie a shoe? Read? Take independent responsibility for himself and his life?

Those of us who are able to get our child into the right academic setting are like survivors of a shipwreck clinging to the edge of a raft with our children safely in the middle. We watch from the sidelines as they gain academic and life skills in a uniquely supportive environment. We are sheltered from the storm for a short time, but always looming on our horizon is the bigger, impersonal world. The older your child becomes, the less accommodating the world at large becomes. The boy must become a man.

Leading up to the big transition from 8th to 9th grade, we worried ourselves sick that our son needed more time in his supportive school to build a foundation. What would happen if we pulled him out too soon? Yet, in the larger context, we knew he would have to make that transition – ready or not – and we timed it so he could enter high school with all of the other incoming freshmen; for better or worse he would be one of them.

When the first day of high school arrived my fervent prayer was that he would “cope and pass”. Our son is a man of few words, but I can tell a lot by his body language. He was waiting with a group of students at pick-up time; he sauntered over to the car loose, jaunty, relaxed… and hungry. The first day was great. Now, halfway through his freshmen year, he is an honor student at a preparatory high school. Some things are harder for him than others. His learning differences are still there but he owns them with an easy confidence. He is fine.

After all these years of intense, urgent, appropriate worry “all of a sudden” it’s coming together for him. When he was at Landmark we parents all worried together. Every child is so different that no two journeys will be the same. Many parents of older children offered me encouragement, telling me our son would be fine, but I was too worried and the future was too murky for me to relax. Now we can see the four years of intense support and instruction that he received at Landmark laid a wonderful foundation for success. Were it not for that, he wouldn’t be where he is now. So with tremendous relief and gratitude, I can say yes, there is life after Landmark and it’s good.

Stephanie Johnston is a parent of a former Landmark School student.

stephanie johnston headshot

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Tags:  academic skills Landmark School learn differently learning differences life skills preparatory school Stephanie Johnston supportive environment transition to high school

31 Days of Kindness

Blog Type:  Social and Emotional Issues Date Posted:  Friday, January 31, 2014

By Brandi-Lin Ebersole

School is a place we learn facts, methods, and grow our skills. When a teacher sits down to write a lesson she thinks, “how am I going to get them to understand my subject matter?”, “What tools can I use to do this?” and “How am I going to draw them in?”. One typical morning in one of my reading classes, I was quickly writing my lesson agenda on the board, when I overheard students talking about last night’s varsity soccer game. One of my  students had scored a goal and others were praising him. I listened in and let them discuss a little longer.

I then turned around and explained to them why I allowed them to continue to talk, instead of rushing to my lesson. I began sharing a story of a young man named Adam who was seventeen years old just like some of them. He had his life taken from him after winning a soccer championship, all because he was trying to help someone. I explained how my friend Lara, Adam’s sister, annually takes the month of October to honor him by performing 31 days of kindness. For 31 days, Lara offers a different act of kindness each day and blogs about it;  changing her horrifying memory into something redemptive. As I was finishing the story, one of the students chimed in and asked if they too could participate in the  31 days of kindness. I instantly responded, “Yes!”

So for the entire month of October, every class began with a story ranging from buying friends coffee, “just because” to babysitting children to give adults a break. It created a mood in our classroom that was a space for my students to learn a lesson that I did not plan for. It was a lesson that involved the subject of Kindness. They all commented on how good it made them feel and how they were excited to share their daily stories. During the month, my students realized their lives too could be taken in a blink of an eye and in turn wanted to thank Lara for such a great idea. So in honor of Adam, their 31st act of Kindness, was to create a video thanking her and explaining how this challenge had changed them.

Ms. Ebersole's class: Aidan O, James P, Hugh M, and Kyle T

Videography by Ebersole Photography

Brandi-Lin Ebersole is a member of Landmark High School's faculty.

brandi-lin ebersole headshot

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Tags:  acts of kindness Landmark School

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