Infants come into the world genetically wired to embrace bravery, joyful adventure, curiosity, and—perhaps most important of all—resiliency. After all, they have much to learn; the emotional challenges will be significant and failure inevitable. A healthy perspective and capacity to rebalance and move on to the next challenge is an absolute necessity. The growing anxiety epidemic amongst teenagers suggests that something along the way is going wrong.
One in three teens has experienced an anxiety disorder (National Institute for Mental Health)
Software for the Hardware
The brain is incredibly complex, but how it builds itself up and adapts to cope with the world around it is relatively simple. One hundred billion neurons react and connect in response to experiences and the emotions that accompany them. The basic recipe: What you put in is what you get out.
Think of a young child’s brain like a new computer just out of the box. What you have is hardware, but little software to run it. An infant’s brain is a relatively blank slate looking for context to navigate the world, and all they really have is senses and feelings. Each new adventure adds to the wiring or connectivity between neurons. These neural connections represent the programming or emotional attachments that link feelings to behaviours, thoughts, people, or experiences in lasting ways. In the most literal sense, children are a product of their emotional experience.
Feelings: A Matter of Survival
Feelings are a survival coping strategy. They are important because they tell us when experiences add to or detract from our chance of survival. The release of “Feel Good” endorphins encourage behaviors that make us feel safe, worthy, and increase a sense of belonging. In times of stress, these same rewards help us relax or rebalance. Experiences perceived as dangerous trigger stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline to cope with the challenge at hand. However, the stress response is an out of balance state and an unhealthy place to linger.
Anxiety: Stress Frozen in Place
A healthy human brain is fairly efficient at returning to homeostasis, but it often needs help in doing so. Infants are particularly dependent on caregivers to wrap their challenging and stressful learning endeavor in purposeful playful adventure and loving supportive emotional energy. Neglecting these kinds of connections creates a vulnerability if stressors are overwhelming or chronic and rebalancing efforts fall short. The brain of an emotionally stuck child adapts and hardwires to shame, fear, or anger and the anxious stories that accompany those emotions. Their ability to rebalance and learn shuts down as the drive for survival becomes the priority. Imagine Little Susan, for example, who enters the classroom unfairly defined as the anxious angry student and struggles to concentrate. She has little chance of winning the curricular competition.
Stress is NOT the Problem
Low resiliency is problematic at school because stress is an expected part of the learning experience. Uncomfortable feelings are a natural response to stretching, growing, and adventuring into the unknown. Without the prospect of failing, it’s not really learning at all. Processing and valuing uncomfortable feelings associated with challenge is the birthplace of attachments to resiliency. “That was tougher than I thought and didn’t go perfect, but I gave it my all and got better. I’m really proud of myself!” Children entering the classroom without this type of attachment are likely to leave at the end of the day wallowing in the uncomfortable feelings learning is supposed to trigger. The link between learning and anxiety is reinforced.
Nonetheless, a hopeful story remains. Anxiety is not a child’s truth or inescapable destiny. The same neural malleability allowing the corruption in the first place leaves room for healing. The brain wants to rebalance and return to a state of homeostasis. Emotionally rewarding connections and learning experiences offer the help it needs to rewrite the story.
The Battle for Emotional Attention
Sounds easy. Wrap learning in healthy thinking and authentic emotional reward, and things should all work out. But anxiety is a worthy opponent. It feeds on failure and diligently creates believable stories that distance students from healthy connections and rewarding learning opportunities. Teachers quickly discover that the students in greatest need of healthy connections are also the ones to most fiercely deny them. Best intentions, but a boy’s teacher may be asking him to give up the only coping strategy he knows. Expect a fight.
Gaming, smart phones, and superficial online relationships tip the scales further. They demand a great deal of time and don’t require connection skillsets or effort. Can’t solve a social problem? Why bother, when you can comfortably flip to the next online friend? Step through the doors of school and the joys of natural learning slowly erode as curriculum, competitive testing, and extrinsic rewards garner what’s left of their attention.
A formidable challenge but change begins with a key understanding.
Socio-emotional and wellness objectives are not taught; they are the product of actual emotional experiences.
Learning is an emotionally charged experience and attachments always occur. The question is, are teachers planning for healthy ones?
One-Two-Three Attachment Strategies: Setting Daily Intentions
- Everyday Healthy Connection Intentions: Learn, practice, and assess connection skills. Wrap curricular learning in behaviors that trigger “feel good” endorphin payoffs. Factoring equations with a friend is more fun. Peer coaching breeds ownership, purpose, and elevates the desire to set high standards as a team. Learning to communicate in positive ways makes any activity more pleasurable. Feel good connected experiences are exercise for neural networks that support healthy emotions and biochemical balance.
- Present Healthy Thinking Intentions: Set intentions related to living in the moment, positive thinking, mindfulness, and truth. The emotional payoff comes from the sense of control one feels when they can effectively manage the circumstances of the moment.
- Personal Challenge Intentions: Pursue, embrace, and celebrate the uncomfortable feelings of physical, intellectual, or social challenge. A fitness test, a difficult math exam, or an animated presentation at the front of the class provides the uncomfortable emotion. The real challenge is valuing and processing that emotion in healthy ways. Take advantage of everyday connections, communal support, and healthy thinking to rebalance. Overcoming anxious feelings is a thrilling, liberating, and joyful achievement. It takes fear to experience bravery and frustration to practice patience. It may seem counterintuitive, but uncomfortable feelings, sometimes even painful ones, may be the most important and overlooked tool for resiliency and healing.
Feelings Matter, Too: Reflection and Assessment
Assessing each of these strategies is a critical part of the process. If all goes well, the connection between learning and healthy emotions strengthens. If it doesn’t, it is time to practice perspective. Best effort should always feel good. At the end of the day, students will survive the learning challenge and possess evidence that proves the anxious emotions were unnecessary.
Great teachers know happiness and resiliency takes work and practice. Curriculum will always matter, but at the end of the day, how a child feels about the learning experience will be far more influential and lasting than what they have learned. Setting and assessing daily connection intentions helps teachers stay the course on the things they know matter most. Emotions, joyful or uncomfortable, are the real tools of the teaching trade. They will dictate the lasting mark you leave behind. What you put in is what you get out.