Meeting Anxiety with Grace

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In late July, The Lutheran Schools Partnership hosted Dr. Kim Marxhausen for a virtual learning event for teachers. Dr. Marxhausen holds a Ph.D. in educational psychology, and is a Lutheran educator of over 30 years. As our schools anticipated a year when we need more than ever to know how to recognize and help those dealing with anxiety, Dr. Marxhausen shared her expertise in the psychology of the brain, and how we can minister to those experiencing anxiety in our classrooms.

This year more than ever, students, teachers, and parents are expected to return to school with chronic anxiety. As Dr. Marxhausen explained to us, chronic anxiety is a lower-level anxiety experienced over a long time. The last several months of fear, change, loss of routines, and other stress has led to chronic anxiety. Returning to schools settings which we were told a few months ago were unsafe also contributes to expected chronic anxiety.

If we are expecting to deal with anxiety, how can we recognize it in our students or our own children? In young children, it may present as clingness, which in older students might look like neediness. Children who were previously quite independent may appear less sure of themselves. Out of a desire to have control when they feel helpless, students may become defiant or disruptive. Strong emotions may be close to the surface, and displayed as crying or outbursts of anger. All of this is due to a reduction in our ability to self-regulate, or control our emotions. While none of these behaviors is unexpected in our classrooms, they are all challenging. Knowing that we may be dealing with these more than ever requires an enhanced awareness of our best strategies to help students.

One of our best tools for dealing with anxiety is good communication. Teachers can develop methods to help students communicate their emotions. If they are younger, it might be teaching students the words for their emotions. For older students, it may be a signal that they can use to share when they are feeling anxious, stressed or highly emotional. When we first know how students are feeling, we know better how to teach them. Are they ready to learn, or do they need support to get ready?

According to Dr. Marxhausen, one of the best ways to meet anxiety is with grace. Just as Christ meets us with grace and mercy, we do the same with our students. When challenging behaviors arise due to anxiety, we focus on our love for the student being the reason why we correct behavior. We must clearly communicate that while we do not love this behavior, we do love the student, and that Jesus’ love for them is also constant and unconditional. As 1 John 3:1 tells us, “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!”

These first steps of recognizing and communicating anxiety are a key for our teachers this year- and are helpful for parents, as well. In addition to her work with teachers, Dr. Marxhausen offers support for the challenging job of parenting, as well. You can find her parenting blog at www.faithparent.marxhausen.net. I encourage you to check it out!