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Virginia Journal of Education


First Person: Narratives from the Classroom


A Mouse (and Stress) in the House


By Amy Issadore Bloom

The mouse scurried along the wall of the classroom. There was no mistaking it under those bright florescent lights—it was definitely not a shadow or a dust ball. 

When Peter saw it, he screamed and jumped up onto a chair. His reaction, for a “tough” kid, was so unexpected that it got almost as much attention as our unwelcome visitor.
 
I talked a little about Peter in a previous column. He’d been suspended several times, in all the varying degrees Fairfax County Public Schools offers. He skipped class. He was caught in possession of marijuana. 

But there he was, scared of a mouse.

I’m glad he reacted more dramatically than I did. We were all rather unsettled by the mouse. Like our homes, we expect a certain level of cleanliness and safety in school, and when this is disrupted, it causes some anxiety.

Most of the time, we do our best to cope with an uncomfortable or stressful situation. (Isn’t that what the first few years of teaching are, anyway?) Other times, we just avoid it all together. A better teacher might have managed to maintain order, stay in classroom, even continue the lesson.

I let the situation take over, however, giving the little critter the run of the room while we fled across the hall to the library. It was hopeless to try to keep this group of seventh-graders on task after the mouse showed up. They would have spent the entire rest of the class saying, “ew, ew, ew” or re-enacting Peter’s performance.

In this case, it wasn’t a big deal to solve the problem by avoiding it. The students were due for some much-needed free reading time anyway. The greater challenge is when we don’t have control over unexpected “distractions” or more serious emergencies.

I remember when a tornado passed through Falls Church. I’m not sure why we weren’t better informed about the possibility of a natural disaster touching down so close to the elementary school. Maybe it’s because it was pre-smartphone, and we were somewhat isolated in the classroom from the outside world.

Despite having had other emergency natural disaster drills - ordering kids to sit in a crouched position in neat little rows in the hall - it was kind of a mess when the real thing came.

The assistant principal, herself prone to some manic emotions, came shrilly onto the loudspeaker yelling, “TORNADO ALERT! TORNADO ALERT!”

We ultimately ended up in the gym. Kids were crying, not understanding what was happening. Parents weren’t allowed to come in and pick up their children until some sort of all-clear was given, which seemed to lead to more panic from the kids. They told us: My mom will worry if I’m late. I’ll get in trouble. My sister will be waiting at the bus stop. What about my house? What if...what if...

Children often react unpredictably to stress. The students who seem so silly, or very calm during the regular school day, might be the ones who completely fall apart. (Not unlike Peter and that mouse).

Some of the kids just seemed to be having fun, enjoying the extra time with friends. I wondered what it was about their upbringing or their predisposed genetic makeup that made them so unfazed, like they knew everything was just fine. (It really was.)

While we can’t change the way people are wired, we can certainly help give them tools to handle stress, both in everyday life and when unexpected challenges come along. In addition to helping students learn to express feelings appropriately, accept failure, make decisions and prioritize, we can also teach them the importance of managing stress.

Help overcome the negative rap these millennials are getting for being ill-prepared to deal with “real” life. (You can even tell administrators you’re looking to increase SOL scores by reducing anxiety.)

 Here are some ideas:

• Talk about it. Discuss the physical and emotional changes that happen when we are anxious.

• Use visual schedules or stories to help kids understand what to expect.

• Give students access to fidgets or stress balls. Let them monitor when they need it - before a big exam, during an oral presentation, for an emergency drill, or maybe every day.

• Consider letting your students chew gum. The horror, I know! But pediatric occupational therapists recommend it as a calming and attention regulation tool.

• Practice mindful breathing. There are many strategies for this. The best advice I’ve been given is to just take a moment to feel where your breath is. I notice mine stuck in my chest at times of stress, and it reminds me to do something better with it.

As we get into a new school year, let’s take a collective deep breath and remember our role in helping to create a generation that can handle stress.

Bloom (bloomindc@gmail.com), a former member of the Fairfax Education Association, is now a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. She blogs at www.bloomindc.com.

 

 


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