"I close my eyes and sleep but my ears are always open." Those words sum up the idea of hyper vigilance in so many ways. It was said by a little girl, trying to explain her anxiety to her mom. Hyper vigilance is a by product of anxiety, especially anxiety caused by trauma. It's the idea that one has to be aware of his surroundings at all time, as a way to protect against something bad happening. It's actually not even just about something bad happening; it's about something unforeseen happening, something that makes you feel out of control.
In our family, I used to just think one of my kids was very perceptive. I used to think this child was sensitive to things and noticed more than most. But as I've learned more about trauma, I've come to see it is not that. It is my child's mind working to protect themselves either from a calamity or just from the unknown. It means my child hears everything. (For my child, I think that is especially true at night, when they hear every sound and easily wake when they hear those sounds.) But this kiddo also overhears just about every comment said in our house. (While somehow managing to completely tune out the directions about putting away the toys.) In new situations, it means an intense curiosity that manifests itself as investigating the environment. It's constantly picking items up to see what they are, endless questions about what is inside of closed drawers or why there is a box hanging on the wall at the doctor's office. It's darting eyes that move quickly to survey a room or jumping up from the waiting room chair, repeatedly, in order to walk the room and observe what's there.
It is one reason why anxiety creates issues with focusing and concentration. A brain that is consumed by staying safe interrupts itself repeatedly, be it a question asked aloud or thoughts that linger in the mind. A brain that is dealing with thinking about maintaining safety and the status quo cannot let go of the minutia so the smallest details be it an annoying tag in a shirt or a lawn mower outside of a window cause a shift in focus. It has to be, in some ways, exhausting. I think a lot of times, my kiddo is somewhat used to all the "noise" anxiety creates. It's just a part of life and my kiddo doesn't know any other way.
Thankfully, most of the anxiety is well enough hidden that we are not facing concerns at school regarding attention or behavior. That said, my current gig is mostly being a stay-at-home mom but my pre-kid life involved working full time as an elementary teacher. From time to time, I find myself subbing in a variety of classrooms and it's easy to wonder about the kids sitting in front of me. So many typical tough behaviors could be symptomatic of anxiety and hyper vigilance. Incessant chatter, asking redundant questions, appearing to be spaced out, constant fidgeting and movement, being easily distracted-all of those could be ways in which anxiety and trauma are affecting a child at school.
Unfortunately, many of the methods teachers use to manage behavior in a classroom can actually increase anxiety. Clip up charts, color coded behavior charts, calling out a student in by dressing them down, and behavior charts that focus on performance and rewards are just a few examples of things that can actually increase anxiety for kids. Because those things shine a spotlight sometimes in a very public way on the child, that creates more anxiety and the potential for increased behaviors. No one wants their peers to know they have failed and even in situations where the failure is not public, for many kids, it is still a source of shame or guilt that creates a cycle of anxiety, failure, shame or guilt, increased focus on performance, followed by increased anxiety. One of my children was certain that the reason their math class had not earned ice cream for good test scores was because of their poor performance on the tests. My child assumed that no one else was struggling and week after week, made it about themselves and their failures. This child did not have the perspective to see that it was not their test scores alone that were preventing the class from reaching the goal. This child finally told me that months after the school year ended. (Even as a teacher, I was shocked to hear my child's internalization of the test scores.) Certain management techniques can also be highly performance or outcome based which assumes that a child is in a place of logical thought, where they are able to think through what will happen when they do action "a"." The issue for an anxious child is that when the brain is on overdrive, they are not thinking logically. Their brain is flying by the seat of its pants, flying high and fast with no regard to losing a recess or earning a sticker.
Anxiety is not a license to behave poorly. It is simply one piece in considering why a child is acting the way they are. If we as teachers and parents know the why, then we are better able to individualize our response to that child. I would never pretend that teaching a class full of little people is easy. (It's not. I would dare say that in terms of a job being mentally challenging, teaching small children is right up there.) Nor would I purport that I have all the answers. (In terms of finding a magic bullet, parenting and teaching are the same in that no strategies work for all kids, at all times, and there is a lot of distance sometimes between what is ideal and what is reality.)
But I do think there are a lot of little things that teachers (and parents) can do to help ease anxiety and refocus hyper vigilance. Ironically, a friend shared this article (Taking a Different Approach to Behavioral Problems in School: Trauma Informed Classrooms) with me today. I had actually written the first part of this post last night but seeing this article encouraged me to share a bit more on the educational setting part of it since so many of my friends are teachers or work with kids. The article is a bit soft in terms of providing a lot of tangible ideas so I thought I'd throw out some of the things I use be it at home or at school.
For distracted kids, it's little things like moving closer and providing a gentle touch, asking a child to look at you and repeat what you said, asking that child to hold your hand and squeeze your fingers, making that child the "helper" in the moment, or giving a child the freedom to fidget be it by standing beside the desk or with a stress ball. For a child who is quick to talk, it might be giving them a stress ball to squeeze 10 times before they respond, working hard to not accept any answers in your classroom until you've mentally counted 10 seconds off which sets up a pattern of predictability that a child can trust in terms of discussion, or intentionally positioning "that kid" next to you so you can gently touch their arm or leg to remind them to wait. For kids who putting forth a lot of negative talk or backtalk, it's asking them to stop, think, and reword what they just said. (And if they don't know what to say, it's teaching them that.) For kids who are on the edge of having a melt down, it's paying attention to the the signs of having a bad day or a bad moment and then heading it off with a break of some sort. (I once made an arrangement with our PE teacher regarding one of my kids where I would send that child to the gym with a note saying that this kiddo just needed a break from the classroom and to send him back to me. It gave an overextended 6 year old a 3 minute reprieve from the demands of the classroom in a way that didn't call attention to him.) It could be reducing the amount of work that is in front of the child, encouraging them to do 5 problems instead of the 20 on the worksheet, knowing you will come back and do the other 15 when the child is feeling better. It could be switching gears completely and telling a child, you'll work on it later. It could be simple asking them if they need a drink and letting them go get one, even though you just took a drink break ten minutes ago. At home, it's often completely switching gears and getting out of the moment. It seems like those are the times we watch tv or read a book or cook together. It is also prevention, knowing that anxiety feeds off of the unknown. You can eliminate some of the unknown by posting daily schedules, starting lessons or tasks like grocery shopping with what is going to happen and how you want them to behave, being aware of needs connected to hunger including recognizing that the sudden bad attitude may actually be a growling tummy, and creating flexible routines that are not restrictive and controlling but that are more like the bough of a pine tree, stiff and strong yet able to bend as the wind blows. For all kids, it's shoring up their belief that they are safe and loved, focusing on relationship. In a classroom, it's greeting them each morning and asking them questions about their lives. It's noticing their new shoes or their new haircut. It's remembering the names of their sibling or their dog. At home, it's spending more time with that child, cuddling more, rocking even when they don't fit in the rocking chair, and telling them positive statements about who they are and their strengths. It's letting them sleep near you, holding their hand while you sit at church, and making their favorite meals.
The reality is most teachers and parents probably know hundreds of more tricks that will work if they just think about it. Key components include reducing the unknown, slowing down the brain so it responds instead of reacts, increasing felt safety through reassurance, relationship and connection, and focusing on if there is an unmet need. What strategies are on your list?