School program a successful antidote to anxiety for alternate education students
Reprinted from the Mindfulness issue of Visions Journal, 2016, 12 (2), p. 32
At C.H.A.N.C.E. Shxwetetilthet Alternate School in Chilliwack, British Columbia, many of the students, who attend between Grades 7 and 9, face socio-economic and other issues that make it challenging for them to be positioned for learning. These include homelessness and poverty, substance abuse and other addictions, sexual exploitation, chronic health challenges such as fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and ADHD, and suicidal ideation. In the school, 73% of the student population self-identifies as First Nations.
Almost two years ago, one of the school’s counsellors, Cathy Preibisch, attended a conference and heard AnxietyBC’s Dr. Kristin Buhr speak about how mindfulness techniques could help with anxiety.1 Cathy immediately knew that these techniques had the potential to help the students at her school. The school partnered with AnxietyBC, which helped the school develop a curriculum of mindfulness activities for anxiety.
A school counsellor’s perspective
Cathy shared her experiences and learning with us:
“At C.H.A.N.C.E. Shxwetetilthet, there are many kids who were not attending at regular school due to their social anxiety. The anxiety arises from the hurdles and traumas they face in their lives, including bullying. It can manifest through acting out; being in constant fight, flight or freeze mode; or just isolating themselves in their room with video games. A big part of our job is getting them to attend school and to feel comfortable enough to stay there.
“We embraced mindfulness as a staff before introducing it to students. Dr. Buhr and Stephenie Gold came out to present to our staff and do workshops on anxiety, how to manage it and how substance use can affect it. As a staff, we participated in mindful colouring, breathing exercises and a sharing circle before we introduced it to our students, so that we could experience what it’s like. Dr. Buhr and Stephanie also led five student workshops over the course of the year. They made them interesting, fun and exciting by using media and keeping it engaging.
“As a result, we have really changed the environment of the school and the shape of our day. Instead of coming in and eating breakfast and then immediately beginning schoolwork, we have a morning circle in which each youth communicates how they are feeling, on a scale from one to ten. This allows staff to identify who may need space or support. They really like the sharing circle. When students are feeling anxious, they can go to the Chill Out Room, which is painted soft blue and has a water feature. They can colour, play music or just take a break.
“The techniques the students learn are those developed by AnxietyBC through their conferences on resources for youth with anxiety. They include different types of mindful breathing, grounding techniques, muscle tense-and-release and guided imagery, including those on the MindShift app.
“We have many success stories, including one student who had a lot of anxiety around getting needles. He was very proud to tell us that he had used mindful breathing to get through his most recent round of blood work. We have had other children practise their mindful breathing in bullying situations. One student had terrible anxiety around riding the school bus. Now, this formerly isolated child is riding the bus, participating and making connections with others. Another student recently said, “I’m feeling a lot of anxiety so I’m not going to go on the field trip—I would be more comfortable staying here.” The fact that the student was self-aware and confident in expressing and acting on their feelings is a huge step.
“A really important piece has been the involvement of parents, who are either being taught by their kids or learning the techniques on Parent Night. Recently, AnxietyBC ran a workshop, and afterwards one parent said, “Now I feel like I’m not alone,” and the room broke into spontaneous applause. The AnxietyBC partnership has been incredibly helpful for all of us.”
A teacher’s perspective
Mike Beauchene has been a teacher at C.H.A.N.C.E. Shxwetetilthet for ten years. He shared his impressions of AnxietyBC’s pilot program for children and youth in the alternate education system:
“This is all new for me, and I couldn’t have done this without help. Our whole team decided that this approach would be the best for our students.
“I have a challenging class, with serious academic and neurological deficits. In terms of outcomes, I don’t think it’s realistic to see scores going up, but I have seen attendance rise dramatically to around 75%. Now the kids can articulate to me that they need a brain break, and then come back and be engaged. These are tools they never had before. The fact that my class is set up to be more Zen-like, with varied seating arrangements and comfortable furniture, is all part of the strategy.
“I believe this type of curriculum should be embedded in kindergarten so that by the time they get to Grade 8 they are fluent in the vocabulary. The attitude of my generation about anxiety was to suck it up. Now parents recognize that these are tools that we can all use in our lives.”
Richard and Cori, students at C.H.A.N.C.E. Shxwetetilthet, told us what they think about the mindfulness techniques they have learned.
Richard: “I feel that they have been very useful because without it we might have gotten into some trouble, you know? I especially like the colour breathing, where you breathe in a colour and breathe out another one. And the grounding exercises where you notice five things you can see, hear and touch.”
Cori: “I do the colour breathing when I feel super stressed out, and I calm myself down ‘til I feel warm and fuzzy inside. I can do it in my day-to-day life and nobody is going to notice.”
Richard: “Yes, mindfulness is very flexible. You can do it at a job, or home. I will be able to use it for anything in my life.”
Despite the undeniable challenges they face every day, the staff at C.H.A.N.C.E. Shxwetetilthet Alternate School have made progress with students by introducing mindfulness to the curriculum. In doing so, they hope to provide a foundation for resilience and health that will sustain their students as adults.
About the author
Justine is a writer, editor and researcher with 20 years of experience writing and developing content for diverse clients, including AnxietyBC
Buhr, K. (2014, October). Supporting anxious youth: Effective strategies and helpful resources. Paper presented at the BC School Counsellors Conference, Vancouver, BC.