Anxiety disorders are some of the most common disorders to affect children (McLoone, Hudson, & Rapee, 2006). There are a number of different types of anxiety that children can typically present with, including Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Social Phobia, Separation Anxiety Disorder, and a few others. In addition, there is a high degree of comorbidity with anxiety, meaning the diagnosis of other disorders, such as ADHD in conjunction with an anxiety disorder (McLoone, Hudson, & Rapee, 2006, p. 224). This has important implications for schools and teachers, because having a student with some type of anxiety disorder is common (10 percent to 21 percent of all children) although they are often undiagnosed (McLoone et al., 2006, p. 221). Until a child receives formal treatment, typically cognitive-behavioral therapy (McLoone et al., 2006), classrooms teachers are left to use their own resourcefulness and basic classroom accommodations to support anxious children.
I took time to learn more about childhood anxiety disorders this past week and then paused to reflect on the ill-structured problems teachers and students might experience when these disorders are present in today's classrooms. An ill-structured problem occurs when a variety of variables comes into play uniquely with a problem, meaning that each variable needs to be examined and considered in context before the problem can be solved; even upon reaching a solution, the problem will likely manifest in new ways in other contexts (e.g., with a different child) and require a different solution (Spiro, Coulson, Feltovich, and Anderson, 2004).
Some examples of ill-structured problems in a classroom with an anxious child might be trying to meet the needs of all children at the same time and dealing with the competing wants of young first-graders who need to stand up and move around (maybe through an active, responsive classroom greeting such as "hit the floor") and a child who feels overwhelmed and extremely worried about being the center of attention. A similar situation could arise for a child who has separation anxiety and has a difficult transition into the classroom each morning. Unfortunately, if a teacher is trying to warmly welcome each child as he or she enters the room and help the children start their morning work and possibly deal with the behavioral or emotional issues of other children, it would be difficult to also support a child who is crying in the classroom each day after separating from her or his parents. Therefore, the teacher is left with an ill-structured problem that needs to be addressed.
Mindfulness training has been shown to be an effective approach to helping students with anxiety disorders.
Luckily, I think technology can be a great tool to help assist teachers with these tricky ill-structured problems. One app in particular that came to mind for me was Stop, Breathe & Think, a free mindfulness app that was designed for students. Mindfulness training has been shown to be an effective approach to helping students with anxiety disorders (Semple, Lee, Rosa, & Miller, 2010). Although there are a limited number of studies of mindfulness with young children and in a school setting, existing research clearly shows benefits for adults (Semple, Reid, & Miller, 2005). Research also suggests that when materials are adapted to be developmentally appropriate for young children (shortening meditations, adapting the language that is used), clinical levels of anxiety show a significant decrease (Semple et al., 2010).
Over time, it [Stop, Breathe & Think] could become a go-to resource that the child could use whenever he or she wants support in dealing with anxiety.
The Stop, Breathe & Think app is great because it prompts students to do a self-assessment each time they use it to explore and name how they are feeling in three distinct categories: mentally, physically, and emotionally. This can help students identify their feelings without judging them and come to better know and accept their thoughts and feelings (Semple et al., 2010). With younger students, the app could be used as a support tool for one-on-one meetings or conversations between a teacher and an anxious child. Over time, it could become a go-to resource that the child could use whenever he or she wants support in dealing with anxiety -- for example, before speaking in front of the class, when leaving for a field trip, or after participating in a high-stress group activity that might drain an anxious child. Older children (middle to high school) could probably begin using the app independently from the outset and could be encouraged to download it to their own device. Check out the screencast below for a more in-depth review of the app.
McLoone, J., Hudson, J. L., & Rapee, R. M.. (2006). Treating Anxiety Disorders in a School Setting. Education and Treatment of Children, 29(2), 219–242. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/42899883
Semple, R. J., Lee, J., Rosa, D., & Miller, L. F. (2010). A randomized trial of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for children: Promoting mindful attention to enhance social-emotional resiliency in children. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 19(2), 218-229. doi:http://dx.doi.org.proxy2.cl.msu.edu/10.1007/s10826-009-9301-y
Semple, R. J., Reid, E. F. G., & Miller, L. (2005). Treating anxiety with mindfulness: An open trial of mindfulness training for anxious children. Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy, 19(4), 379-392. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.msu.edu.proxy2.cl.msu.edu/login?url=http://search.proques...
Spiro, R.J., Coulson, R.L., Feltovich, P.J., & Anderson, D.K. (2004). Cognitive flexibility theory: Advanced knowledge acquisition in ill-structured domains. In R.B. Ruddell, N.J. Unrau (Eds). Theoretical Models and Processes of Reading (5th Ed., pp. 640-659). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.