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Pushing Back Anxiety – by Cathy Preibisch

It all started with a conversation. I was on the phone with Judith Law, executive director with Anxiety BC.

“How can we get those presenters out to Chilliwack to talk with our staff?” The pre- senters in question were Dr. Kristin Buhr, a registered psychologist, and Stephenie Gold, a clinical counsellor.
I had heard their presentation on anxiety at the BC School Counsellors Conference in the fall of 2014 and desperately wanted them to come to Chilliwack. Judith wanted to know more about our program and our students’ needs. And so the conversation continued.

CHANCE Shxwetetilthet is an alternate school in Chilliwack for grade 7-9 stu- dents, who have been referred to the program for a variety of reasons. We are a small school, with under 50 students, 1 administrator, 1 counsellor, 1 LA teacher, 2 classroom teachers, and 5.5 educational assistants out in the middle of a corn field and across from a sheep farm. But how was anxiety presenting in our students?

Anxiety presents in our students in many ways. Some examples are: not attending school, refusal to ride the bus, difficulty being in a full classroom, afraid to leave their parent each day, anxious about work- ing on academics that they struggle with, and more. As a staff, we needed to know more about anxiety and how we could best help our students cope with their anxieties and be successful in school.

After that initial conversation with Ju- dith, she engaged Dr. Kristin Buhr, a so- cial anxiety expert. Dr. Buhr conducted a general presentation on anxiety to our staff as well as our partner high school, The Education Center. Kristin also point- ed us toward evidence-based resources such as the AnxietyBC website, and their Mindshift app. As our staff enjoyed and greatly benefitted from the presentation, we started to think bigger and into the fu- ture. If our staff was learning more about anxiety, shouldn’t our students learn the same information? What about our parent community?

Following several meaningful meetings, AnxietyBC and CHANCE Shxwetetilthet began a pilot anxiety management pro- gram for the 2015-16 school year. The part- nership included: further skill building and support so teachers could apply their new learning and adapt their instructional ap- proaches and strategies to scaffold learn- ing for students; case specific support for high risk students who present with mul- tiple barriers that impact learning; and intervention including anxiety skills de- velopment provided to all students, (in- cluding a curriculum guide for morning ac- tivities and lessons designed to mentally/ emotionally prepare students for the day’s learning), caregivers (members of the Par- ents Advisory Council and greater com- munity) and community members (health professionals, band members, outreach workers).

Here is how it all played out:

Student Workshops

Throughout the school year, Kristin and Stephenie visited our school six times and held a series of workshops for the stu- dents. The focus of these workshops was understanding anxiety, normalizing it, developing strategies to manage it, and linking to resources. The workshops were fun, informative, and interactive!

Staff Training

Our Alt Ed staff received three workshops during the year on anxiety information and management strategies. Our community partners were invited to these sessions (including our yoga teacher, Aboriginal Mentors, our Drug and Alcohol counsellor, etc).
Together we learned general information on anxiety, how it presents, anxiety problems, and risk and protective factors. The focus was on challenges such as transitions, school refusal, panic attacks and test and performance anxiety. We received intensive training on ways to talk about anxiety that are personallyh relevant and developmentallyh appropriate for our students; and strategies for coping with ‘in the moment’ anxiety and anxiety-management over the long term.

Our Parent Community

Once our PAC heard about the student and staff workshops, they wanted to work with AnxietyBC too! We collaborated with our PAC to host two parent information even- ings to increase understanding of anxiety- related issues and offer opportunities for dialogue among parents and caregivers. At both workshops, parents and caregivers met over a light dinner to hear Dr. Buhr talk about anxiety, anxiety management, and share the learning that was offered to the students and staff. Both times, the parent nights were well attended. At the end of the first evening, a parent admitted to the group she thought she was the only one dealing with a youth with anxiety. Instantly, the whole room broke out into supportive applause!

As a staff, we wanted to do everything possible to create an environment that was comfortable and relaxing for our stu- dents, so we made some physical chan- ges in our school to decrease anxiety. Soft music can be heard playing inside, our hallway now contains plants, the ceiling is lined with soft little white icicle lights (instead of harsh fluorescent lights), the walls have posters on mindful breath- ing, self-regulation, and mindful quotes. Classroom teachers restructured their classrooms to create a “café style” class- room – with comfortable chairs, a var- iety of tables, soft lighting, artwork and plants. Classroom iPads are programmed with the MindShift App for student use. Each table has coloured pencils, markers and colouring sheets available each morning for mindful colouring as the students arrive.

Students and staff gather for the morning circle where each individual shares on a scale of 1-10 how they are doing that day and, if they choose, why. Classroom teach- ers use circle time to teach the morning activities designed by AnxietyBC (that in- clude; Calming Strategies, Mindful Breath- ing, Soothing/Distracting, Self-Reflecting, Wake-Me-Up/Energy Boosters & Stress Reliever activities. These morning activ- ities were designed to: reduce difficult emotional states and excessive anxious arousal and/or stress; increase energy, stimulate the mind, and improve mood; and give students the opportunity to learn and practice coping skills that will be help- ful for life.

It’s been an amazing year of learning for everyone at CHANCE Shxwetetilthet Alter- nate School. And we have seen mixed reac- tions. Some students who were reluctant to share their number at circle time, took several weeks and even months, to feel safe sharing. Some students used mindful breathing to help them self-regulate, while a few others did not want to try the breath- ing techniques. But we feel we have created a school culture where emotional health is an open topic. We have seen students suc- cessfully set goals relating to their anxiety and achieve them. We have students open- ly talking about their anxiety and working with staff to find coping strategies. Our common school language includes words like “self-regulation”, “mindfulness”, “brain breaks”, and “grounding”.

Thanks to Judith Law and her team at AnxietyBC, our staff is more prepared to support our youth living with anxiety, our students understand themselves in a new way, and our parent community is more aware of how to best support their chil- dren. And as for this school year? Well, we look forward to continuing our partnership with AnxietyBC!

Cathy Preibisch is a District Counsellor at CHANCE Shxwetetilthet Alternate School in Chilliwack School District #33.