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Anxiety in Kids and Student Wellness

On the third day of school this year, while walking a nervous and tearful JK boy into school, I did everything I could to help him feel safe, loved and supported. At the door of his classroom, the boy looked up at me, wiped his last tear away, and said: “Thank you, Gallinger.” Although he had forgotten the “Mr.” part of my name, this moment made my day. It was one of many moments these past few weeks that remind me why I am so fortunate to work in education.

Separation anxiety is a common form of anxiety that we see at Bialik – often at the beginning of school. Although it is most prevalent among our Kindergarten students, these feelings of separation anxiety (or other types of anxiety) can be felt by students of all ages as they make the transition from summer fun back to daily learning. The difficulties of saying goodbye to a parent often fade as our students feel increasingly comfortable and confident in their new classes, however daily school life can still bring out a variety of worries during the year. Students may experience anxiety, discomfort, or nervousness surrounding homework, formal assessment, recess, washrooms, social situations, friendship, or personal fears.

Recognizing the prevalence of these anxieties, our Bialik staff began the school year with a focus on better understanding and supporting the mental health and wellness of all our students. As Head of School Benjy Cohen mentioned in his blog post published on September 6, “we invested significantly in an amazing Professional Development (PD) Day with Lynn Lyons, an internationally acclaimed psychotherapist, author, and speaker, who helps educators, children, and families manage anxiety disorders.” Although I had previously heard Lynn Lyons speak at two conferences, I could not have imagined or been more pleased, with her presentation to Bialik staff and our teachers’ level of interest and engagement.

Lynn Lyons treats anxiety using a skills-based approach that focuses on our relationship with worry. She encourages children and parents to focus more on understanding the process of their worry, rather than the content of their worry. From the physiological effects to the way worries may impact decision making and autonomy, Lyons teaches the message that anxiety is a normal part of growing and learning.

Lynn Lyons at Bialik - Anxiety in Kids and Student Wellness

Adopting these understandings at Bialik, we are working, school-wide, to make a critical shift in our students’ relationship with anxiety and worry. Lynn refers to anxiety as a “cult leader” that demands both comfort and certainty at all times. When we listen to the “cult leader” and allow children to avoid unpleasant and uncomfortable situations, this temporarily alleviates the symptoms of anxiety. It does not, however, treat the anxiety itself or equip children with the skills required to persevere, demonstrate grit, overcome challenges, and be successful in all aspects of life.

Using Lynn’s skills-based model, our goal is to put children in charge of how they respond to worry, rather than worry being in charge of them. This learning process involves lots of love and encouragement from supportive adults, but it also means allowing students to take risks, try things that may bring nervous feelings, and ultimately make mistakes. At Bialik, we will encourage our students to bravely step into fearful situations and adopt a courageous mindset when they engage in activities or situations that feel uncomfortable or uncertain. This approach promotes flexibility, the development of self-esteem and self-advocacy, and teaches students to self-soothe and problem-solve. In the coming weeks, we will share a variety of resources, strategies and vocabulary that our parents can explore at home to support the messages children will be receiving at school.

As the pace of school life ramps up, we are more confident than ever that our educational team is equipped with the requisite skills and understanding to positively impact student mental health and wellness. Our new understandings, gained in collaboration with Lynn Lyons, will undoubtedly have a positive impact on student life, happiness, and students’ success.

We encourage you to talk to your children about how they can try new things and make mistakes in order to learn. We’d love to hear about how your children respond to this at home and help them have even more growth this year.

I look forward to you joining us on this exciting journey. I wish all families Shana Tova and all the best for an exciting year complete with the achievement of personal goals and milestones.

Jake Gallinger
Principal, Viewmount Branch