A delightful part of this summer has been helping a small friend of mine get ready for kindergarten by working on phonemic awareness, letter sounds, and beginning reading. Although she is very bright, reading skills do not come easily to her, and she is anxious about school beginning. Her anxiety has begun to spread and if her mother leaves the room, she has trouble focusing until she returns. And she’s begun worrying about her house catching on fire.
Mom could not figure out where this fear was coming from. After some gentle questioning, Kate reluctantly told her: “Smoky the Bear said that only I could prevent forest fires.”
It’s a tough thing to think one has that much power, and it’s hard to sleep when you are constantly watching out for fires. Very little learning takes place when one is that worried. Anxious kids who take on the weight of the world can become more and more controlling, trying desperately to gain power over a world that seems chaotic even to adults. Over the summer we have worked with a new student, an anxious child with school refusal, to help her see that she can come to JRA and be safe. Her parents, therapist, doctor, and JRA staff continue to gently inform her that this isn’t her decision; she will come to school come September 3. She doesn’t have to worry about it; we have it under control.
Because so many of our children suffer from anxiety, we have structured the school to help them feel safe and cared for. I often hear teachers cheerfully tell a child, “Oh, you don’t have to worry about that. That’s an adult decision.” The use of titles and last names for teachers sets apart those with authority. We state expectations constantly, and our point sheets give kids almost instant feedback as to how they are doing so they don’t have to wonder and worry. We ferret out academic causes for anxiety; this year 12 of our 30 students will have a one-on-one Augustine trained reading tutor. We shore up weak math skills and teach all subjects in a way that meets the students where they are. We coach them on making friends and sharing space. And we’re constantly watching for what they are doing right.
It’s no coincidence that as a punishment, Zeus assigned Atlas to carry the world on his shoulders. No child should have to experience this weight, and we do all in our power to relieve our kids of this heavy burden.