Teaching In A Period of Anxiety and Threat

How would growing up in an age of the minority-elected President influence our children? If you’re a parent, you might be thinking about this question too often. If you’re a child in a public school, a person of color, a recent immigrant, an LGBT, a Muslim or a Jewish person, a female, a person who believes in civil rights, a free press, or a democrat—the list of who might be threatened is almost endless. How do you teach?


Just a few years ago, teachers started noticing a clear increase in anxiety in the children they taught. Now, it’s even worse. Even back before Mr. T. was sworn in or elected, a negative effect was noticed in school children by the SPLC and NEA. Teachers recently have talked about how his election has led to children acting out more, being more argumentative, angry, anxious and less willing to listen to others, as if they were bringing into the classroom the emotions and arguments from home or the media. There’s been an increase in bullying, use of verbal slurs, harassment. So, what do you do?


What children will primarily learn from today’s political situation is more dependent on the understanding, creativity, and empathy shown by your response as a teacher, by all of our responses, than by the situation itself. Your response educates the child in what is possible, in what it means to be a human being. A person becomes a bully, not a clown or a desperate person, not only by his or her actions but by controlling how you perceive them. Your response is your freedom. Schools can begin with programs against bullying and increasing the understanding and practice of empathy; teach social-emotional skills.


In November of 2015, I wrote a blog about facing terror. In a way, what I said then is relevant now. “How do you talk with your children, or if you are a teacher, with your students, about… any acts of terror and violence, [or the new administration] or whenever something dreadful happens and you feel frightened or pissed off?  You might feel numb, scared, mute. You might want to cry out for revenge, or cry out to stop the killing. All understandable. All emotion is understandable. But what do you do with it? And how do you teach your children or students about it?”


“This is a complex question and I think answering it needs to be part of the discussion in families and in the curriculum. There are at least two directions this can take. One is teaching children how to face emergencies. The other dimension is helping students learn about the situation and learn about the attacks, what led to them and what might be done to prevent further violence.”


“First, I suggest starting by feeling and hearing what is going on in yourself. You have to be honest and willing to face uncomfortable feelings and look deeply into your own ways of thinking. To get out of the way of a thrown object you have to first see it. Then you need to hear from students. What do you feel? What responses to the violence have you heard or seen? [Or what do you feel about the administration?] By listening, you say to yourself and your students, ‘you are strong enough to face this and I care enough to listen.’ You teach empathy and emotional awareness.”


Ask students: How can you feel more comfortable and less anxious here, in the classroom? Work together with students to make explicit what you and the students need in order to create a supportive, caring atmosphere—that is within your power. Ask the children open-ended questions followed with more explicit ones. For example, What does caring look like to you? Is being kind important to you? What is kindness? What do you feel when someone is kind to you? What about being heard? What about feeling the discussion is relevant to your life?


If you can, lead the students in imaginative inquiry practices using questions based on student responses. For example, if they pick out kindness as one characteristic of a supportive classroom, go with it. Start with a short mindfulness practice. Say to them: Sit back in your chairs with your backs relatively straight and either close your eyes partly or fully, or let them rest on a blank surface in front of you. Can you feel your breath? Feel yourself take a gentle breath in. Then feel it go out. Do that again; focus on your breathing in—and then breathing out. No hurry. Put your attention on the area around your mouth and notice how your mouth feels as you breathe in. Then notice what happens as you breathe out. Do the same with your shoulders. Notice how your shoulders respond, expand as you breathe in. Notice how your shoulders let go, relax as you breathe out.


Now let come to mind the word kindness. Did you ever see someone being kind? Or meet someone you considered kind? What did he or she do that was kind? Just notice it in your mind and body. Who was the person who was kind? Who was she or he kind to? What makes an action kind? What words come to mind along with kindness?


What do you imagine the person felt when he or she was treated with kindness? Just imagine that feeling. What do you think the person felt who was kind? Just sit for a moment with the feeling of kindness, or being kind.


Once you share what you and the students think about kindness or caring, and what is necessary to create the supportive community children say they need, pledge to each other that you will do all you can to act accordingly. Also, if possible, add to the curriculum other social-emotional forms of learning to help children be more aware of how their actions affect others, affect their own emotions and the atmosphere in the classroom and their own sense of empowerment.


The next lesson is on facing adversity. How do you face what is difficult? We often turn away from what is uncomfortable and treat it as abnormal, or wrong. If you respond to feelings of discomfort, stress, being challenged as if no normal life would be touched by them, you greet such sensations with fear and anxiety. G. K. Chesterton said, “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered.” A challenge is just normal life. Only if you know that discomfort can be helpful and is not abnormal can you allow yourself to be aware of it. If you notice the sensations of fear and anxiety before they get too strong, and recognize them for what they are, you can act in ways that utilize their energy without them dominating you. You learn from them and let them go. You can’t always control what arises in your life, or mind, but you can determine your response.


The more aware you are of your own mental and emotional processes, the more freedom you have in your actions and the more readily you learn. How do you teach this? Start as you did with the mindfulness practice you used with kindness. Then ask students to: notice any sensations that arise. Do it as you would if you were on the shore of a stream and were seeing and hearing the sounds of the water, noticing any stones in the bed of the stream. Notice where the sensations are, how they begin and end. They are like the water flowing and bends in the course of the stream. Then go to other places in the body. Notice also any thoughts. They are like whirlpools in the water. Just keep your attention on noticing what arises and dissipates, and, after you notice something, return your awareness to the breath. If your mind drifts away and you notice it, or you lose focus on the breath and realize it, the realization means you are now found. Right now, you are aware. Take joy in that, emphasize that.


This is just the beginning. I would also recommend intense physical exercise and the study of martial arts, for example, to develop inner discipline, gratitude, patience, and confidence. Physical strength and conditioning can aid mental clarity and focus. I would study history and social justice movements and go deeply into the question of “Who are we humans?” I’d discuss “What does it mean to be a citizen in a democracy?” I’d add media literacy to the curriculum so students learn to spot bias, and possibly even how to detect lies as part of the study of emotion. And compassion: we need to dig deeply into what compassion is, for ourselves and for others. But these topics are for another day.


What are you doing, if you’re a teacher, to help your students? If you’re a parent, to help your children? If you’re in a relationship, to help your partner? If you’re feeling anxious yourself—what are you doing to help you face adversity with as clear a mind as you can bring to the task?

Achieving Goals

I have something planned for early tonight. I feel both anxiety and excitement whenever I think about it. I feel threatened in a way, feel a queasiness in my stomach, a tension in my shoulders and thighs. Why? Is the tension from the mere fact of setting a goal or planning an activity? What am I afraid of? And how do you set and meet goals without anxiety?


What happens when you create a goal, or create any planned activity? Goal setting is important to all of us no matter how difficult or tedious it might feel at times. It’s important to students, in getting work completed on time. It’s important to teachers who, during the school year, are so busy their lives seem to consist mostly of planning activities and goals or living the planned activity. It’s important to parents, managers, workers of all jobs and professions.


To learn how to create goals, you have to understand why you do it, why this particular goal, and why any goal. It’s not just about meeting expectations and getting work done. Goals structure life. We can’t live without them. They are intentions. They get us to do something. They concretize our emotions and values. They create opportunities to grow, learn, enjoy. So, to create goals you need to be aware of and understand your own experience now. You have to understand your own intentions, needs, drives, primarily the drive to live fully and meaningfully. What, if anything, is getting in the way of living fully now?


When I feel threatened, I usually want to fight, run away, or play dead. But there’s another possibility. I feel threatened partly because getting someplace on time, or succeeding at any task or assignment, means doing all the necessary steps to getting there. Even to be somewhere at 5:00 pm, I must figure out when I must leave, how far away is the place I am going, etc.. Once a time is set, I need to put psychic energy into remembering to get there. And how do I do that? If I’m going somewhere to have fun, I don’t want the moments I am getting ready to have fun be moments of anxiety and fear. To learn something that will make my life better should not mean making my life before that time worse.


But, you might say, sometimes you need to sacrifice in order to achieve. You need to be able to do what is difficult or do what you would rather not. You need to work a lousy job in order to pay for college so you can get a better job. Yes, that’s true, to a point. The point is how do you live that “lousy” job or anything difficult? Once you set an intention or goal, do you then resent and feel angry about all that you must do to get there? Do you resist your own intention? You mustn’t lose the feel of the original drive, which is to fully live the moments of your life.  As the novelist G. K. Chesterton said, “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly understood.” A difficulty can become an opportunity. Once you uncover your intention, then mine each moment you live to the depths for what it can teach you, give you, and especially what you can give to it.


So, if you conceive of goal setting as something you do for the future, as if the future were separate from now, then you can never get there. You undermine your efforts. The goal in the future is an idea wrapped in hopes and memories. It’s an abstraction.  It’s easy to fear not meeting your expectations or not being the person you imagined you’d be, because these are ideas. You can never, no matter how hard you try nor how glorious or perfect your idea might be, transform yourself into an idea. An idea does not breathe; a living being breathes. But right now can be glorious.


So, to learn how to meet goals, you learn how to live each moment. If you think having a goal is planning for the future, you miss the heart of it and separate from it. If you treat each moment as your goal, then you’ve already achieved it.



To mindfully set and meet goals, try the following:

  1. Sit with your body straight but not rigid. Take a moment to close your eyes partially or fully and notice your breath. Notice what is happening in and around you. With your inbreath, notice any feelings, thoughts, sensations, or images. With your exhalation, let go of the images and return to awareness of the breath.
  2. Is there a goal, a need or drive that you have? What goal stirs your heart, awakens your soul, or puts food on the table? Just allow any thoughts or images to come to mind of any goal you want to achieve.
  3. What is it about this goal that motivates you? Do you want this for your own good? To help others? Just ask yourself, and listen for an answer. Feel the energy within it, the passion. Visualize achieving this goal. Hear, feel, or picture it. Notice yourself, where you are, what you’re doing, as you achieve the goal.
  4. Test it. Notice any thoughts, feelings, emotions which arise in response to the thought or image of this achieved goal. What might the consequences be of pursuing and achieving this goal? How does it affect the people you know? The world? Does the goal feel right? If so, continue. If not? Let go of the goal and turn your attention to noticing your breath, or listening to the sounds around you.
  5. Let come to mind the steps you need to take to achieve the goal. Just listen, feel the answers arise. What do you need to do now? Do it in your mind so you can do it in reality. Imagine acting fully, with determination, to achieve what you set out to achieve. What actions will you take when you leave this chair?
  6. As you breathe in, turn your attention to the room. As you breathe out, open your eyes and look around you. Then begin.


*The photo: the goal of a stone patio halfway achieved.

Motivate Without Anxiety

How do you motivate students to do well without creating anxiety over performance? Many teachers I know report increasing anxiety in their students. I wrote about this briefly in an earlier blog, about the link between the 3Cs (commitment, control and challenge) and decreasing stress, and I will discuss this in more detail soon. But first, what is anxiety?


To understand what a student feels, place yourself in their position. Bring up in your mind a time you felt anxious, especially about learning, or not understanding something, or taking a test. What does anxiety feel like? Where do you feel it? Notice, for example, how your heart feels. Notice your belly, shoulders, hands, and your body temperature. Do you feel warm or cold? How fast or slow does your mind work? What images come to mind? What thoughts? And, what conclusions do you draw from these observations?


Many students report their hands clench; they sweat. Their heart and thoughts race. It is the flight-fight-freeze response. They replay scenarios of the future over and over again. They hear condemnation from others. They imagine that a situation is arising or will arise they can’t handle. Maybe they feel no control. Maybe they feel they are just not capable enough. They feel their understanding of self fading away. They think other people have an image of them that is bad or unlikable and feel weighed down by this seemingly imposed image. They feel like turning away but can’t.


Anxiety is about feeling disconnected and not in control. It is losing the sense of the present by looking to the future and fearing judgment. And it’s not just about school. All students, but especially those prone to anxiety, need support, maybe even need a refuge. Since they have a fragile sense of being present, they need lessons in more than academic skills.


Students, and all of us, need to feel control, commitment, and challenge. These 3Cs turn the energy that might go into stress into engagement. “Control” can have many meanings. For school, control means having some choice in what is studied and in how understanding is assessed, so the class feels meaningful and connected to their lives. Students can voice their own questions and concerns and see them addressed. They, of course, also need to learn the basic skills of reading, writing and thinking critically.


They need to learn how to monitor their feelings and thoughts moment-by-moment, as is done with mindfulness. This gives them the power to choose—do I listen to this idea, or act on that one? It provides the insight to know how and when to question facts to uncover bias, question thoughts to reveal distortions. It’s empowering to learn what a thought is, that thoughts tell stories but not always true or healthy ones. Thoughts are not necessarily revelations from an oracle, and don’t have to be believed. We can step back and let them go. This inner knowing helps students assess their work in a meaningful way and, thus, not be dependent on external sources of judgment, like what the teacher thinks of them.


Besides studying mind with mindfulness, study the basic working of the brain with neuroscience. For example, students in my classes were always engaged when we discussed neuroplasticity, or the fact that they, their brain, can change and strengthen throughout life. It is very empowering to learn that your brain is not set by the time you’re 15. Combining mindfulness and neuroscience allows students to study their mind and behavior and treat life itself as a vast school teaching them how to think and act most clearly, ethically and effectively.


Commitment is acting on what is chosen. It involves students getting immersed and engaged in what they do. They allow themselves to be present, aware of their thinking, acting and feeling. Challenge comes from feeling the task is important, that it tests and develops their ability, but is not so challenging that they can’t succeed. It involves trusting that the teacher will support, coach, assist when needed. A well-planned challenge leads the student to feel trust in their capabilities.


Which mindfulness practices work best when students are anxious? Since mindfulness educates attention, begin with learning to notice the first signs of anxiety, as we discussed earlier, and to let go of the thoughts generating that anxious response. However, anxiety can make it more difficult to just sit and notice what occurs in the body and mind. Here are a few alternative practices:

  1. Teach focus. Counting breaths or visualizing a natural scene, like a flower, mountain, tree, or gently moving stream, can calm and clear the mind.
  2. Practice empathy and compassion. The empathy for others can transfer to themselves. And empathy or care for another person or being can free them from incessant worry.
  3. Progressive relaxation and visualization. They learn how to relax the body, starting with the toes and working their way up. After relaxing the body, the teacher can have students visualize a scene in a novel or an historical incident, for example, or have them imagine how to face a difficult problem.


G. K. Chesterton said, “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered.” I love the quote, and so do my students, although in my mind I often substitute ‘understood’ for ‘considered.’ The quote helps me change how I look at all the unanticipated and possibly stressful events that arise each day. What story will I tell  myself about an event or challenge? Will I be a hero or heroine, fighter of injustice and bringer of light to the world? Or a villain? What I tell myself is of crucial importance. In many ways, it’s my choice, my story. So I need to do it with awareness.  And teachers, what better motivator can you find than allowing students the chance to hero their own stories?


For an updated source on thought distortions go to a site by Sam Thomas Davis.