Tomorrow’s Lesson Plan: Teaching Students How to Master Fear

The reality that existed on the last day we saw our students in March has quickly become a far different reality than what we will be presented with in the fall.   Homes across the world are being infiltrated with uncertainty.  Job loss, anxiety over the health of loved ones, and the management of social tensions have given way to an unpredictable tomorrow.  

This tumultuous time in our history is generating behavioral repercussions across the globe.  Unfortunately, while tensions are running high, moral fortitude is running low.  During a time calling for empathy and compassion, many are resorting to anger while leaving humanity in the bottom drawer.  Distracted with emotional overload, we as a collective are grossly overlooking the lasting implications that will come from a forgotten audience: our children.  

Children are getting a front row seat on how the adults they love are processing the complex feelings that are associated with a virus far more contagious than the one sweeping the world today: fear.    

Fear is a cloaked villain that can fool many into justifying behavior that would otherwise be seen as unacceptable or unwarranted.  It most often stems from loss (actual or perceived).  Many are facing loss of things such as health, stability, safety, control, certainty, and significance.

The responses to this fear hold the unspoken language of modeling that adults have the power to share with children.  Fear is not just a language of internalizers who stop speaking, avoid eye contact, and run away.  Fear is most often at the core of hateful language or acts on others.  Many people think they are acting out to simply prove they are “right”.  What they fail to notice is their actions are due to the fear of what may happen if they are wrong.  

I have worked with many students who, due to the nature of their disability, have said egregious things or physically attempted to hurt themselves or others.  At the core of their intense emotional response was fear.  All the flexing of physical muscle was only a communication of feeling trapped and afraid.  

Understanding responses to fear is difficult for adults, so we must acknowledge the challenge it poses for our children.  Children are too young to understand that the behaviors they are witnessing from adults at home, in the community, on television, or on social media that degrade, devalue, or disrespect others are not righteous acts.  Rather, it is a deceptive demonstration of “strength” that is born from seeds of fear.  Instead of understanding this, kids will be found looking up to trusted adults replicating an idea that was presented to them of what it means to be a member of this society.  

However, while the world feels like it may be spinning out of control, there will be a calm in the middle of this storm because teachers know that everything is taught. Just as we are called to teach math and reading, we also know that we must help kids learn the basics of sharing, taking turns, or the importance of telling the truth.  

We also know that just as kindness and love are held up as virtues in a classroom, some children are coming from models of intolerance and injustice.  We are aware that as we set expectations for using nice words, some kids hear speech littered with degradation and hate.  This paradox is going to be illuminated in our classrooms as we return to school this fall.

While many will want to spend time fretting over scores and begin plans for “catch up” time, I propose that the first item on our lesson plans should be teaching our students how to respond to this torrent of fear.  The fear they are digesting from their homes or communities and the anxiety or discomfort that they are now carrying around within themselves.  

Now more than ever educators have the civil responsibility to give every child access to the skills needed to manage the discomfort that comes from being afraid.  We need to lead the way in demonstrating and teaching our youth to engage in healthy dialogue.  We also must pair community building with explicit instruction in strategies to de-escalate their emotions when they are feeling elevated. 

Ways to help children navigate fear in the classroom: 

Building a Community

  • Create the community of compassion, empathy, and understanding that you wish existed outside of the school doors.  What values will be collectively established and upheld throughout the year?  These values such as respect and kindness should be visually anchored, constantly referenced, and consistently communicated.  They should be interwoven into simple behaviors of interactions and into more obvious opportunities such as group discussions and classwork.
  • Have a shared place in the classroom that signifies community and coming together.  This is typically a carpet space or having students sit in a circle to have targeted discussions or share information.  Rules for engaging within the space must be EXPLICITLY taught.  Do not assume that children know how to actively listen to ideas that are different from theirs or how to respond appropriately when feeling uncomfortable with a topic.  
  • If possible, have “safe places” for students who may be experiencing trauma.  This will include identifying a “go to” staff member that the student(s) feel comfortable talking to.  Establishing safety routines of where and how to go when upset will help eliminate outbursts or shorten the length of time a student may shut down.
  • Examine your own bias and levels of discomfort.  Expose your vulnerability and seek out the learning that will better equip you to respond to your students and their needs.  Accept that your experiences, upbringing, and beliefs systems are always at play.  You must have a handle on what those are so that you can abandon the lens that could be potentially filtering out events and interactions that may be harmful to your students and the community you are attempting to create.  

Teaching Skills: 

  • Shifting Perspectives:  Weaving in perspective into instruction and conversations is a critical concept.  The ability to understand multiple perspectives increases empathy and compassion.  Model restraint in making snap decisions and show kids how you have to consider others’ opinions, feelings, and experiences before responding, reacting or deciding.  
  • Empathy: It is our duty to explicitly teach children what empathy means.  When others are upset or afraid, we must consistently prompt our students to self reflect and explore how they would feel under similar circumstances.  The next step is responding to others with words and actions that are free of judgement and seek to assist those in their time of need.  Empathy is the skill that will take all of our students out of the dark ages.  It will be the light that reminds them that we all have the same goal which is human embetterment.  When we put the needs of the greater good above our own, we are well on our way to being empathic to those around us. 
  • Teach key strategies to all students: It is not just the few who benefit from knowing how to respond to discomfort or fear.  Have some key strategies that all kids are taught so they can use each other as a resource.  These can include strategies such as breathing, moments of mindfulness, expressions of emotions such as writing or drawing, or utilizing a safe place or person.  Provide positive feedback to students when they utilize a strategy.  Connect that success to courage.  It is far more courageous to calm your mind, slow your thoughts, and think about a response than to lash out without thinking of the repercussions to yourself and to your classroom community.  
  • Provide multiple avenues of expression.  Some kids do not know how to put words around their feelings.  Let them draw or share music that aligns with how they feel.  

On this journey of community and skill building remember to acknowledge and accept discomfort.  Normalize fear in its infancy.  Anxiety, tension, and nervousness can be transmitted in an environment.  Bring life to it and surround it with healthy conversations.  This is a good time to call kids to a shared space to facilitate dialogue.  Reinforce that acknowledging fear does not make you weak.  You can’t be courageous without the element of fear.  Fear is a natural emotion and simply a signal that we need to respond.   Once kids can acknowledge this, they can pick a strategy that works best for them.  

Most importantly, be a model!  In order to grow empathy, compassion, and kindness in the face of fear, you must embody those traits.  Be thoughtful before responding to the comments and actions of your students who may be expressing themselves in an unhealthy manner.  Listening is an action of love and respect.  Provide students the space both emotionally and physically that they need to be heard and understood in order to do better.  When we peel away the layers of misunderstandings or experiences we can catch glimmers of the whole child.  When we connect with the whole child we can begin to guide because he or she has given us the gift of their trust.  With trust we can face fear without focus on conditions outside of ourselves, but rather at the heart of where change occurs- within.

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