A school-based anxiety prevention program
Reprinted from "First Responders for Young People" issue of Visions Journal, 2006, 3 (2), p. 25
FRIENDS is being taught in grade four and five classes across British Columbia. In the largest school district in the province, Surrey, I am amazed at the effort to make this prevention program a success—from the leaders in Student Support Services, to the principals of elementary schools who encouraged teachers to attend the day of training. I am also amazed at the energy and commitment of the teachers, counsellors, child care workers, special education assistants and mental health therapists who have been trained. There is a drive to understand anxiety and a willingness to bring about change—by offering the FRIENDS for Life program.
All of us worry, but worrying becomes a problem when the worries overcome healthy experiences and interfere with life. The first step in making change happen is an understanding of worries—and then doing something to make these worries easier to manage for the children who face them.
As a behaviour specialist and in private practice I noticed that many children were having difficulty coping with their worries. This was reflected in their behaviours—avoiding, making excuses, blaming and not taking risks. As I gained more insight into anxiety, I began to wonder if interventions were too focused on changing behaviours, rather than figuring out what the behaviours represented. Hence, FRIENDS for Life began a journey of personal philosophical change.
Last fall, through my association with FORCE Society for Kids Mental Health, I was invited to become a district trainer for FRIENDS. I felt blessed to take this journey along the universal-prevention trail—far preferable to seeing children individually in private practice, with the stigma and expense for them and their families.
The challenge was to get the program out to all grade four and five teachers in our district. Fortunately, my excitement spilled over to Student Support Services. With very little convincing, I was on the way to getting the message out, with a memo to all elementary principals and grade four and five teachers.
The first workshop was scheduled for October 14, 2005. Interest in attending was high. Principals were finding ways to get teachers there even though there was no funding. Teachers who shared classes were coming on their own time. Wow!
Teacher job action in October 2005 stopped the process, but it did not stop the interest. Once the strike was over, we scheduled another workshop. Since then, there have been more opportunities to train teachers. It is their response and the support from Student Support Services that continue to drive my commitment. More importantly, my commitment is driven by the children who learn the skills and techniques that address the experience of anxiety.
Over 66 elementary schools in the Surrey School District have at least one or more teachers trained to run the FRIENDS for Life program. My goal for the upcoming school year is to have training available that enhances those numbers and reaches all elementary schools in the district. We will also be one of the districts supported by the FORCE Society for Kids’ Mental Health to offer a training component for parents.
Research confirms that universal intervention is the most practical and effective way to teach and promote resiliency for all children. The FRIENDS for Life program, when used by teachers, can effectively return a majority of clinically anxious children to a normal range without the use of other interventions, such as specialists. I’m honoured to be a trainer for this invaluable program.
About the authorJonaire has been a behaviour specialist in the Surrey School District for the last 13 years. She also has a private practice as a family therapist, and is a trainer for the FRIENDS for Life program.