In my previous blog I summarised the impact of negative thoughts.  I mentioned how simply changing ‘I can’t’ to ‘I can’ isn’t the simplest answer. Importantly for me, I feel implementing consequences for anxiety based ‘poor behaviour’ related to learning difficulties, is only reinforcing negative thinking, by negative experiences. I spoke about Pavlov’s Dog theory and creating automated responses.

I know from my own experiences I have created an automated response to things which cause me anxiety. I only have to think about them, not even be in the process of doing them and I can create a negative thought.  From that I then feel negative because my brain has sent chemicals to my body. And you guessed it, because I feel negative, I then think negative. So, the cycle continues.

As I’ve created this negative thought process, before it’s even happened, when it comes to actually happening, I’ve already prepared and conditioned my mind and body to react. So it’s never going to be a positive experience.  Trust me, over 20 years I’ve engaged in several rounds of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) and ultimately, it’s resulted in me withdrawing from it, as the experience becomes so filled with anxiety, I become physically ill. CBT usually means setting yourself goals with a trained therapist.  Please note, I’m not dismissing CBT, for me it just didn’t work. There are many that find it successful. Once goals are set, therapists work with you to provide you with gradual exposure to those experiences. This means constantly exposing yourself to what the brain and body perceives as anxious and negative experiences.  Therefore, reinforcing that when you attempt these experiences, they will be negative. Those who experience anxiety will often react in one of two ways, withdraw and stop trying or get more anxious and frustrated and sometime result in an angry response. My own experiences have lead me to mentally bully myself and reprimand myself for not trying hard enough. I would also over analyse every process of what I was doing or going to do. It caused regular sleepless nights and anxiety as I prepared to expose myself to a situation which caused me anxiety. Yet I fought with the anxiety of how I felt. Despite this I can go for days berating myself. Remember, I am an adult with life experiencing and the ability to rationalise.  How must children process anxiety? When I did have small successes, I rarely congratulated myself and certainly if I did, not to the same degree as I could berate myself. I would tell myself it was a ‘lucky day’ that I didn’t experience anxiety and that if I had done well, then I say “Hey, now I have to go to the next level and that’s going to be an even bigger hill to climb”.

The mind is a powerful tool and can maintain this self-perpetuating negative response. Whilst we keep having the negative responses we will respond as a victim.

I once asked a student why they wouldn’t attempt to have a go at a task.  I explained I’d be there to guide them through and certainly wouldn’t make them feel uncomfortable by asking them to do more than what I thought they were able to do. I reassured we could stop at any time.  The student told me that if they did well at this task, they would be concerned about the next task and would I increase my demand.  They also thought that they had to perform at that level every time.  So, in effect, they needed to hold back. I don’t think this came from a place of defiance and control; it came from a place of anxiety. This student was again creating an automated response to being asked to complete a task.  I’ve done this myself with my own therapy, not pushed through anxiety to meet a goal. One this was very frightening and two, I knew I’d have a far more challenging experience next time. So, I get it. This is not to say these individuals are weak because they are afraid.  We all have fears, it simply depends on how much they impact your daily life whether you need to address them or not.

I have in the past tried to ‘negotiate’ and attempted to rationalise the way my students have thought. We have a great deal of wisdom as teachers, parents and fellow anxiety sufferers.  However, when we are overloaded with information, we tend to do nothing.  Furthermore, our students, children and adults with ASD and language development difficulties can simply be overwhelmed with too much information to process. In states of anxiety it’s very hard to process information anyway, as the body is usually focusing on ‘fight or flight’ and words aren’t really important. In fact, it’s hard sometimes to process language.

One thing I have learned, say little and be concise. Don’t try to fill the silence with encouragement or coercive talk. In a state of panic and anxiety, little is processed. In fact, if anything, take time out to relax and calm the brain.

I’m a great believer in relaxation and learning the values of meditation which I’ll talk about later but for now, try this calming video to relax for a few moments. View it here 

If you do feel it’s purely a behavioural issue when refusing to complete work, again, I tend not to enter into negotiation.  We’ve all had a tantrum as teenagers, gone up stairs and slammed the door. For our parents to have followed us and shouted from the other side of the bedroom. It only fueled our fire and retaliation. Imagine how we’d have felt if they let us storm off and said nothing in that moment. Usually, the wind would have been taken from our sails and we had nowhere to go. After a while, we knew we seemed idiotic slamming doors.

Of course, I’m aware that there are individuals with severe responses and can put themselves in danger. This of course is a different matter and their safety is paramount.

We need to help our students ‘Kick the habit’ and stop the automated responses. Habits are a redundant set of processes, yet we still do them automatically and our bodies and mind respond so quickly, sometimes without us even knowing because it is an engrained response.  However, the good news is there is still a process in an engrained response and that process can be changed.

If we can imagine the response as a thought bubble, we can fill that thought bubble with anything we like.  At this point, I don’t advocate that thought bubble being a dialogue about ‘Tell yourself you can’. Of course, simply telling yourself you can, won’t necessarily change a lot. There is likely an obstacle in the way, which causes the anxiety. I’ll be talking about obstacles in later posts. I’ll be sharing learning from Gabriele Oettingen, Professor of Psychology.

For now, the biggest and most powerful words I have put in my bubble are “Illusion” and “It’s just a thought”.

In my initial blogs, I wrote about the power of negative thoughts. When I fill my thought bubble with ‘What if’ this fuels anxiety. This anxiety makes my body respond and feel negative too.  I’m learning slowly to take the wind out of the anxiety sail by replacing the negative thought with.  “It’s simply a thought”. Thoughts come and go.  Do you recall in my earlier blog I was told about the tens of thousands of thoughts per day we have. Many just come and go without notice and without impact, without action. The anxious thought I have is simply, a thought.  Letting it pass and go is really empowering. I can do this in the safety of my own home and practice this technique.  Learning to train my brain to accept it’s simply a thought when I am in a safe place will allow me to train my brain with this response and replace the negative response it habitually responds with.  I know this sounds very simplistic but after 20 years, it’s working. This is the opposite to CBT, ‘going into battle’ and trying to fight the feeling.

The negative thoughts my mind created and physical responses my body created are simply an illusion. Of course, they aren’t happening. My mind is so powerful it can create any illusion and I will also talk about how this can be used as a tool to overcome anxiety. I know this seems very simplistic.  However, we all have the ability to change the words in that thought bubble and make change to responses. Teamed with other skills I’m finding it successful.  I’ll talk about the skill of illusion and mediation in my next blog.

How does this work in relation to learners? I consider, for many, avoidance ‘behaviour’ and poor ‘behaviour’ comes from anxiety related to learning difficulties.  Of course, I recognise this can also be a result of other external factors. For the purpose of my articles I am considering students with learning difficulties, un/diagnosed.  If we can help our learners understand that the negative thought they experience when met with learning are simply thoughts, we can help them understand anxiety more. If we can help them replace that automated response of mind and body, we can help them enter learning with less anxiety.  As mentors and teachers, ask if we can change our policies, responses and intervention for students who are struggling with learning and not reinforce the negative experience. Importantly, I consider providing students with learning difficulties with appropriate intervention which offers positive learning outcomes will build confidence. Primarily, I feel removing consequences for not meeting goals can be helpful by not reinforcing a negative experience of learning. Reframe the words, ‘They are not trying’.  Understanding poor behaviour is often an anxiety response and usually a secondary behaviour to a learning difficulty or other external environmental factors which are social and emotionally fueled. Adopting a culture of mindfulness and where possible relaxation or relaxation zones. I understand this is a costly thing to do at an individualised level and a whole school approach may be more cost effective and beneficial for all.

Our key speakers and workshop hosts at SEN Jigsaw Conference 2020 will offer information and ideas on specific learning difficulties, to take away for home and school.  Dr Ian Millward, EP,  will discuss learner behaviour. Jaqueline Gray with host a workshop on how to support children with anxiety. Friend and Co-organiser of SEN Jigsaw Conference, John Hicks will offer a workshop on Dyslexia and Self Esteem. Everyone is made welcome at this professional but relaxed conference for parents and education professionals.