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Behavior Analyst Jessica Minahan Speaks to Faculty on the Impact of Anxiety and Trauma in the Classroom

By Lindsey Kundel, Director of Communications and Marketing

Taipei American School welcomed Jessica Minahan to speak to faculty this week on the importance of considering both anxiety and trauma when preparing lessons for students, regardless of their location, age, socio-economic status or other considerations. If faculty take both student anxiety and trauma into account, the entire classroom learning environment will benefit.

Minahan is a consultant with practical strategies for supporting clinicians and teachers to help them better understand and help children with anxiety and other mental health issues or challenging behaviors. She is a special educator, author, and board-certified behavior analyst currently serving as the director of behavioral sciences at the Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents group practice in Newton, Massachusetts, and as a consultant to schools and districts around the world. She has over seventeen years of experience supporting students exhibiting challenging behavior in the classroom. She is the author of The Behavior Code: A Practical Guide to Understanding and Teaching the Most Challenging Students, with Nancy Rappaport (Harvard Education Press, 2012) and author of The Behavior Code Companion: Strategies, Tools, and Interventions for Supporting Students with Anxiety-Related or Oppositional Behaviors (Harvard Education Press, 2014).

Teachers met in small groups to watch Jessica's webinar on Zoom to better enable participation and discussion of implications for grade level and department-specific conversations. At several points in the conversation, Jessica treated the webinar as if she were in the room with all faculty, encouraging small group and paired discussions between teachers across campus.

Jessica began the discussion with a macro-level overview of many different mental health challenges present across the globe in classrooms today. These include anxiety, ADHD, Autism, learning differences, Depression, and Bipolar Disorder. Jessica says that both Anxiety and ADHD have symptoms that commonly overlap but require very different treatment strategies, so she began the discussion by stressing the importance of an accurate diagnosis that considers the child's behavior both inside and outside of the classroom.

According to Jessica, one important reminder to all of us is that an individual's challenging behavior in a situation is a poor way of communicating a hidden feeling and a hidden request. Whether a student has their head down or is whining, she recommends that teachers and parents remember that all behavior is a form of communication. Anxiety is shown through behavior, not directly discussed in words.

Another important takeaway had to do with specific skills that may be underdeveloped in our students struggling with anxiety. According to Jessica, when anxiety goes up, these particular skills will often go down. "These particular skills are constantly going up and down like an elevator," said Jessica. These include self-regulation, thought-stopping, social skills, executive functioning, and flexible thinking. However, she says that these skills will often quickly rise as the student learns how to regulate his or her anxiety.

When any person is stressed or anxious, Jessica says that we often suffer from what she calls "thought stopping," but this can also be described as negative thinking or "thinking on the downside." Most of us find it challenging to think on the bright side when stressed, and this is a slippery slope because negative thoughts can spiral and lead to increased levels of anxiety.

A particularly challenging area of anxiety is that there is a "distortion in perception" Jessica described that many anxious people feel that limits one's ability to see themselves and others clearly. She says this is compounded by mask-wearing in the pandemic because it also limits one's ability to read facial expressions that could have provided some helpful clues before the pandemic. "We know that 80% of communication happens nonverbally," said Minahan. "But when we're happy we give more nonverbal cues than when we are unhappy. When and if you are wearing a face mask with kids, try your best to make nonverbal feedback into verbal feedback to assist your students. It's really helpful to your kids who worry and skew on the negative side."

Jessica also discussed how and why incentives that work with neuro-typical students don't work with students who have experienced trauma or anxiety. "Incentives don't teach skills," said Minahan. "We need to teach kids how to reach goals and incentives," because incentives in and of themselves often just add to a child's anxiety and stress levels if we don't scaffold or teach them how to achieve the behavior that we want for them.

She says that her toolkit for educators can be summed up by the acronym "FAIR," which stands for:

  • F - Functional Hypothesis & Antecedent Analysis

  • A - Accommodations

  • I - Interaction Strategies

  • R - Responses

Although this could seem routine to some educators, she encouraged TAS faculty to dig deep into the small teacher-led behaviors that contribute to larger items within each of these areas. For example, what does the "interaction strategy" of "building a close relationship with a student" actually look like on a daily basis for teachers? She says that these strategies should be broken down into small sub-strategies for teachers such as "listening attentively to the student without interrupting" and "greeting at the door and asking about a shared interest." The more specific the better.

One surprising takeaway from the webinar was the suggestion that teachers should try to avoid publicly praising students with anxiety. She says that this is a leading source of discomfort and stress for students, something which may seem slightly counterintuitive to some teachers.

"Neurobiologically kids can't learn unless they feel safe and cared for," said Jessica. Teachers and parents need to work together to make sure that kids feel this baseline in order to be "primed" to learn. She encourages teachers and parents to tell their students to prioritize "fun and joy" first and foremost and embed it into students' days. If and when students feel more joy, they will be in a better psychological state to learn.

Jessica says that her larger goal has been to help clinicians, teachers, and parents identify and understand the variables that cause students with anxiety, trauma, and other mental health challenges to act inappropriately. 

"I’ve worked continuously with students who exhibited an infinite variety of behavior challenges in both urban and suburban public schools," said Minahan. "I show how commonplace school factors, as well as the student’s underdeveloped skills, contribute to his or her challenging behavior. I provide professionals with time-tested interventions that will lead their students to more appropriate, constructive behavior in and out of school. I give parents the tools to continue the work at home."

Ultimately, she believes that by working together, school communities can help every child achieve a positive and productive life.

Jessica's first book, The Behavior Code: a Practical Guide to Understanding and Teaching the Most Challenging Students, has been described as a "godsend" by William Pollack, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. It is a must-read by all teachers, counselors, administrators and parents.



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