Lynn Lyons on Anxiety, and Social Emotional Learning at GUS

Next Monday, November 27, we are excited to welcome Lynn Lyons to Glen Urquhart. Lyons is a social worker and psychotherapist from New Hampshire with 28 years of experience. She specializes in solution-based therapy for dealing with anxiety. On her website, Lyons calls herself a “How” therapist.  Most individuals, in her experience, truly want to change but often focus on the “why” rather than the “how.”  Lyons believes that the “what” of worry is not as important as the “how.” What you are worried about is not that important. Treatment must address how you worry. She talks about helping patients to change their reaction to their anxiety.

Lyons works with children and families to:

  • Expect worry to show up. With our brains developed as they are (prefrontal cortex), we will worry. Notice: When does it show up? What does the worry say? How does it boss you around?

  • Externalize the worry. Create the worry part, name it even, and talk back to it!

  • Experiment with the worry. Take action; learn about how anxiety operates and build the confidence to fight it.

Lyons has written many books, including two I own, Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents and Playing with Anxiety: Casey’s Guide for Teens and Kids (both cowritten with Reid Wilson). Two years ago, I was fortunate to attend a great conference with Elliott Buck (grade 2), Danielle Harrington (grade five), and Betsy Miller (our former part time school nurse), sponsored by the Association of Independent Schools of New England and titled “Health and Wellness Symposium.” Our first keynote of the day was given by Lyons. Her message was one of strength and action.  Anxiety, also known as worry, is the #1 reason kids go into counseling. She states that 1 out of 8 children will develop some form of anxiety disorder. Anxiety makes its demands clear, and when we accommodate these demands, the worry wins! Our job is to help our students and children develop internal reassurance, the ability to learn to live with the “maybes” and the “mights.” In her practice and research, Lyons has found that anxiety plus reassurance might equal a short term decrease, but a long term increase. Accommodation of anxiety is anything done in service of avoidance, without any teaching or skill building.  Some examples she gave are: “adjusting family and school routines regularly, creating a school accommodation with no weaning, and allowing unacceptable behavior and referring to it as anxiety.” Lyons explained that kids do things because they work.

I was fascinated by her talk because we certainly see more and more anxiety and worry in kids today. As our adult world grows more unpredictable and uncertain, naturally, this is felt and experienced by our children. Most children learn to cope with a range of emotions and worries, but many need some additional help at one point or another. Their anxiety can take many forms. Perhaps children feel separation anxiety when starting school. We might see performance anxiety when students are asked to speak and engage orally in class.  Worry can cause avoidance, attentional or concentration struggles, behavior concerns, tiredness, stomach aches or headaches, and often more frequent requests to visit the nurse. As the worry rears its head, we might see students wanting everything to be perfect. A student might be so dissatisfied with her/his work that they tear it up or need to redo it multiple times.  Students might be reluctant to ask for help or might seek ongoing and repeated reassurance from teachers and parents.

At GUS, social and emotional development is at the core of everything we do.  We know, from both experience and research, that when students feel safe and cared for, they can begin to take risks and push themselves in all aspects of our curriculum and academics. Our lower school day begins and ends with a class meeting. This meeting gives students time to greet one another, build relationships with peers and teachers, share experiences from home, plan and review the day together, and share common goals and expectations.  Teachers use this time to review the daily schedule and build predictable routines. In all classrooms, the daily schedule is displayed for students to refer to throughout the day. We know that this predictability is very important for all students. These meeting times, in addition to the Open Circle lessons, also serve as an opportunity to explore classroom issues that might arise. Teachers might craft specific lessons to target areas requiring support, and students might bring up their own concerns. The class quickly learns that every voice is important and everyone matters.  

All GUS lower school homeroom teachers participate in the Open Circle Teacher Training Program. The training consists of three 7-hour training days at the Stone Center at Wellesley College.  In addition, Open Circle sends a staff member to GUS to observe, offer support, and run a sample lesson. “Through interactive and experiential professional development, participants learn about: SEL (social emotional learning) theory and research findings; teaching skills for self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationships and problem-solving; group development theory; dialogue facilitation; mindfulness and reflection practice; cultural responsiveness in SEL instruction; the role of adults as models; integrating SEL into academics and throughout the school day; and leveraging children’s literature to teach and reinforce SEL.”

The Open Circle curriculum supports our school philosophy by increasing problem-solving, cooperation, and empathy and reducing physical and social aggression. The lessons are interactive, incorporating small and large group discussions, role playing, mindfulness, and children’s literature.  The curriculum, specific to each grade, includes topics such as managing ourselves by being calm, listening to others, using positive self talk, recognizing and naming our own feelings, building relationships by including others, cooperating, speaking up, and giving and receiving compliments.

We want our students and children, and even ourselves as adults, to be able to say:

“I’m willing to feel uncomfortable.”

“I’m willing to not know how things will turn out.”

“I don’t know what is going to happen, but I’m going to figure it out!”

We want students to learn by doing, failing, and succeeding.  As we continue to work in partnership to help our children handle the uncertainty of life, we are building in them the ability to tolerate discomfort, take risks, be more flexible, and problem-solve. Imagine what they will then accomplish!

Trust and go forward.

Sarah Kotwicki