Strategies to help anxious and defiant students

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Anxiety can be a massive roadblock for all types of learners. The moment anxiety hits and the body is flooded with cortisol, students’ brains shut down: many will experience self-defeating thoughts, lose their ability to be empathetic, and have poor self-regulation skills, according to behavioral analyst and special educator Jessica Minihan. How can teachers help an anxious student, especially if that student has shut down or become defiant? KQED’s MindShift provided some strategies.

Here are a few tips (view the complete list here):

TIP 2: Often in an attempt to form a positive relationship with a student teachers will publicly praise positive behavior. That can backfire, especially with anxious kids who don’t want any extra attention from peers. Private or non-verbal praise is often better. Minahan recommends pulling students aside at the beginning of the year to ask how teachers can best tell them they’re proud. “It’s a gift to your February self if you can figure out a system now, otherwise you’ll get stuck on the negative attention scale,” Minahan said.

Tip 2.1: She also recommends fact-based praise as opposed to general praise. Vague praise is easy to dismiss.

Tip 7: One high school geometry teacher started playing two minute YouTube videos about geometry as students came into class. It got students from the hallway into the classroom without thinking negatively and her class started to run more smoothly. She didn’t have the same interruptions she used to, which made the lost two minutes seem worth it.

Tip 8: Minahan also likes some of the biofeedback tools that are now available, like the EmWave. A wound up student puts a sensor on his finger and calming down becomes a game. He might start out with a picture of a black and white forest, but as he calms down (and the sensor monitors his heart rate) the colors start to pop in. It can take as little as two to five minutes to completely calm a kid down when they can see the feedback so clearly.

“I like it because it’s so concrete,” Minahan said. A student with high functioning autism might not even know what a teacher means by “calm down,” but with the biofeedback device she can see what it means.

Tip 10: [Help] the student build a toolbox that can be used independently. Strategies might include, asking a teacher to help her start when she feels frozen, or asking to preview the homework. For perfectionist students, difficulty starting can stem from a fear of messing up. Give those students dry erase boards, where the mess ups can be easily erased. It helps when teachers treat the difficulty starting as a small problem and say something like, “Looks like you’re not initiating. What strategy are you going to use?”

Tip 12: Teach kids how to do a body check. With younger students a teacher can describe the signs of agitation as they are happening so the student starts to recognize them. With older students, ask them where in their body they feel anxious, for example, “in your belly?” “Give them the data every day,” Minahan said. “This is your body on the way up.” After the groundwork has been laid, a teacher can just say “body check, please” to let a student know it’s time to check in with themselves and start using a strategy.

But what can you do when a kid is already exploding? Minahan says, not much because the child will have a very hard time reacting in a reasonable way once he or she is riled up.

Tip 13: What educators can do is anticipate those moments and rehearse self-calming strategies when the child is calm.

In one case, Minahan knew an elementary student she was working with was going to have a traumatic change in her life. The child’s mom was giving her up to foster care and the date had been set. To prepare for what would undoubtedly be a moment when the student couldn’t control herself, Minahan had her practice self-calming in the social worker’s office, where she would probably go on the day. Twice a day for five minutes she rehearsed a self-calming routine when she was already calm so her working memory was available and she was learning the strategies.

When the day came and the child did freak out, Minahan quickly got her into the office with very little touching or verbal interaction which might further set her off. Once there, the girl got into her routine, and started singing to herself as a cognitive distraction. “The rehearsal allowed for automaticity and did not require cognition or working memory in that moment,” Minahan said.

Tip 16: If a teacher gets off on the wrong foot with a student early in the year, try randomly being kind to the child, rather than only giving positive attention based on his or her behavior. This kind of noncontingent reinforcement helps the child to see the teacher likes him for who he is, not because he does math well or reads perfectly, Minahan said.

Tip 17: In areas where the difficult student is competent, give her a leadership role. Maybe let her take a younger child to the nurse or start an activity club. This helps change the child’s perception of herself and also her relationship to the teacher.

Tip 20: Reward practice or strategy use, not performance. “When I shift the reinforcement to skills, I’ve noticed the skills go up and that’s what makes the difference for the kids who have mental health difficulties,” Minahan said. Ultimately, educators are teaching kids the skills and strategies that they can then use throughout their life when they’re anxious, so rewarding practice makes sense.

Read the full article here.