This is what anxiety looks like

Can you see it?

Take a minute to look over the picture above. Notice the details around the table. Do you see any patterns? Are the items grouped in a certain way? How is the space used? What feelings does this picture convey?

When one of my students chose to spend his 30 minutes with me carefully selecting animals, trees, vehicles, and scenery items, and even more carefully setting them up just so, I had an inkling that it might be difficult for him to clean up his work at the end of our time. So, I snapped this picture.

After painstakingly pawing through my bins of miniatures and standing them up in their rightful place, he told me what each part was, and he also had this to say: “This is my world. The world stinks and I wish it was like the one I made.”

Pretty incredible insight for a 1st grader if you ask me!

To me, this picture of his “world” is the epitome of trying to tame anxiety – of feeling like certain things are out of your control, and that when things are out of your control, it can feel pretty scary. To tame it, he created a “world” in which everything has it’s place and purpose; it’s black and white with no shades of gray.

Over my years as a school counselor, I’ve learned that anxiety can look like lots of things. It can look like the kid frozen in her seat, unmoving and non-responsive to your request. It can look like the kid bolting from the classroom. It can look like work avoidance. It can look like extreme silliness. It can look like hiding in the tiniest places imaginable. It can look like tears, or screams, or hitting. It can look like trying to be perfect. It can look like fingernails that are bitten down so low, they’re almost bloody. It can look like intense anger, an immature tantrum, or complete refusal. In some cases, it can look like pulling hair out until there are bald spots, yanking up glued down carpet, or digging at the wall so hard that it leaves holes in the drywall.

I have found that staying curious when a student is showing us behavior is our best option. It’s easy to dismiss a behavior as “just behavior,” and completely miss the anxiety underneath. But dealing with the outward behavior while not acknowledging and addressing the actual issue is a bit like pushing a car uphill instead of finding gas for the tank – you can make it (the kid or the car) do what you want for a while, but it won’t last and you will kill yourself in the process.

So, what do we do?

Here are a few strategies I have found useful when working with students exhibiting anxiety:

How do you help address anxiety with your students?

But first, let me thank you for telling me

Sometimes I wonder if my students truly feel listened to, if their voices truly feel heard. In the bustling hallways, noisy lunchrooms, and busy classrooms, it can be challenging to listen to each student who wants my undivided attention. Because let’s face it, as school counselors, our attention is usually divided 100 different ways!

As necessary as multitasking is to our job, listening to our students (our customers, basically) is even more necessary. It’s the thing that sets us apart from teachers who have 20+ kids grappling for their attention, or parents who are juggling multiple children and their own work demands. It’s the thing that makes our position in our school so special.

ListenEach and every child deserves to be listened to. I firmly believe it is a basic human need to feel like your voice is heard, like you matter to someone who’s giving you the gift of their time and attention. The quote on the right sums it up perfectly.

There are days when I don’t feel like the best listener, but then come the days when I’ll get my validation. I can recall a meeting with a handful of 4th graders, in which one 4th grade girl was struggling to tell me something very personal that the rest of the kids around my table already knew. Well, one of the boys looks at her and says, “Come on, you can tell Ms. Marston anything! She listens.” As if that wasn’t awesome enough, he adds, “You can talk about anything with her and she won’t tell anybody.” My insides grew warm, my lips smiled, and I thought, Wow, I must be doing something right!

I try to make a point to thank my students for telling me things, even if it’s not what I hoped to hear (and I tell parents to do this too). Even if a student is reporting something to me that I know is going to create a lot of work – talking with other students involved, talking to my principal, calling parents, documenting, etc. – or my mind is already reeling with how to help or what to do, I remind myself to stop and thank the student.

Why? Because my students could have talked to any other adult in the building, but they chose me. And that’s HUGE. They are trusting me with their story, their problem, their feelings. In return, they deserve to be validated with my time and attention to show they matter and that I value them and what they have to say. And even if I don’t have the perfect solution to their problems or perfect words to lighten their load, I can let them know that I’m very glad they told me.

Don’t get me wrong, there are times when I want to run away or hide under my desk because I just don’t feel like I have it in me to listen to another problem or another Lego story. When I get like this, I know I need to take a break because I don’t want to be a semi-listener. My students deserve more than that. And if I only half listen to a student, even once, they may not come to me again. I know that if I don’t make time to hear about the little stuff, my students may not come to me with the big stuff, and that’s a big problem!

Here are some things I say and do to validate my students and let them feel heard:

1 “I’m really glad you told me.”

2 “Thank you for telling me.”

3 “How do you feel after sharing that with me?”

4 “I really want to hear about that. I am busy right now, can I check in with you later?”

5 “How can I help you with this?”

6 When a student is reporting an incident that will require some investigating, I sometimes jot down notes while they tell me, not only to remember the details, but to let my students know I am taking their concerns seriously.

7 Paraphrase what they’ve said. This lets them know I am listening and it helps me make sure I got the correct information.

8 Do not interrupt. This can be tricky, especially when it takes some students foreverrrr to finish a story. But they are doing their best and they are saying all of it (every little detail) for a reason, so listen up. No one likes to be interrupted.

9 Model the kind of listener I’d like them to be. That means eye contact, open body language, undivided attention.

10 If a meeting with a student is interrupted (phone call, knock on the door), apologize: “I’m sorry about that. You were saying…”

To aid in my students feeling important and heard by me, I plan to create something like this for my office wall next year:

I found this on PinteMessage to studentsrest and I love the simplicity of it!

As much as possible, I want my students to feel safe and important when they’re in my room. While many students are fortunate enough to feel this way at home, some are not. These students need a safe place and someone to listen more than ever.

As I finish out my summer, my ears are resting up for when school is full of sunburned little faces with summer stories to tell!

I can’t wait! 🙂

 

 

A short post about self-esteem

HAppy kids

This will be a short post.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the issues I work on with students at my school. As I went through a mental list of particular students I meet with regularly, it suddenly clicked – for the majority of them, whatever issues we’re addressing stem from an unhealthy self-esteem.

The reasons I meet with students vary, of course, from conflicts with peers, friendship issues, family concerns, anger management, emotional awareness and expression, etc. But, for many of my students, the REAL reason, the deep down reason, is because they don’t have great self-esteem, and thus, are not actively solving their own problems because they don’t feel capable, or are acting out because they don’t feel cared about or loved.

This lead to me to thinking about the root causes of their low self-esteem. For some of my students, I know it has something to do with abandonment issues or negative talk at home. But, I felt like I needed to offer something to parents about this issue and why it’s so important.

So, I decided to create my February School Counselor Newsletter around the issue of self-esteem, what it is, why it matters, and how parents can help their own children develop healthy beliefs about themselves.

If you’d like to take a look at it, click here.

Happy vacation! 🙂

The Worry Box

I am always looking for counseling techniques to use individually and in small groups. There are so many ideas! I lean toward techniques and strategies that are easily accessible, effective, and FREE! This post is dedicated to a strategy that I discovered on a fellow school counselor’s blog (Scrapbook of a School Counselor). As soon […]