This evening I was lucky enough to attend a session by Little Lessons Australia with Kirrilie Smout from Developing Minds. As a clinical psychologist, Kirrilie has worked with children, young people and their families and teachers for 20 years. In the talk she gave, she explored the make up of a teenager’s ever changing brain and gave some great strategies that could be used to support students who are suffering from anxiety, depression or experiencing any kind of crisis. The strategies she gave, some outlined below, we also mindful of the fact that, as teachers in a high school setting, we may only get very limited moments to work with these students in these situations.
What’s the difference between a teenage brain and an adult’s?
I knew from previous reading and professional development (With John Abbot and Terry Ryan, completed in 2005 – well before this Edufolio existed) that the adolescent brain is incredibly busy. It’s disconnecting and reconnecting synapsises rapidly, pruning its pathways in a bid to create it’s own sense of self. To evolve and help shape the future. Studies show this process tends to stop at around 24. Kirrilie talked about this briefly, but then went on to explore how teens have less developed skills in a number of areas. Their “executive skills” – things such as prediction, analysis of risk, the ability to delay gratification and to focus their attention on a singular thing were all less than that of the brain of an adult who might be working with them. They are also not all that great at identifying emotions. In studies she has read, they find it difficult to identify anxiety, or other complex emotions such as embarrassment and often miss interpret them for someone being sad, angry etc. A much simpler set of emotional labels.
As a result of their inexperience with complex emotions, they can feel bewildered by the feelings that anxiety or depression can cause. If they feel anxious or suffer from a panic attack they are overwhelmed by it. They don’t always have a sense of what’s normal. They’re also dealing with a massive influx of hormones. Having dug around abit since, This table demonstrates beautifully how much these hormones increase before settling again at around age 19. It’s a roller coaster and not just for the boys! Of course, some of us are also wired to be more sensitive than others.
Add these biological factors to environmental ones and things can get more tricky. Up on their phones when they should be sleeping? Now they’re sleep deprived. They’re statistically not all that great at managing their sleep patterns. Being over tired obviously creates another level of difficulty.
Most of us will not find these differences difficult to understand. What’s more important is the acknowledgement of these differences and the ability to repond to young people with that knowledge framing our words and actions.
Kirrilie had us all pause for a moment to connect with our former 15 year old selves, to consider a time during that year where we felt stressed, troubled, unhappy. To think about who we talked to, where we went, what we did, what activities we had in our lives to help us through it. She also urged us to consider what kinds of things we wished had been present, had been said etc. This conversation brought out the fact that adults are very important to young people. That the presence of a good adult role model who may be able to help is vital. We were urged, wherever possible, to seek out the adults that they were close to, the parent, neighbour… someone and ask for their assistance too.
She also touched on the importance of acknolwedging feelings rather than dismissing them as something they should “get over”. It is important that they experience these feelings, are able to process them and then move forward. By pushing on, ignoring emotions and disregarding them we run the risk of leaving many things unresolved for the young person. Things that will eventually rear their head again and again and be disruptive.
Empathise with the emotion they’re experiencing, no matter how irrational it may seem and help them to move through a process.
Of course, we also want to be able to build strategies for our students so that they don’t always need to seek us out to help regulate them. Kirrilie suggested helping them to generate three or four reassuring, calm sentences that they could repeat to themselves as a way of relieving distress. She talked about how we can help them use these sentences by allowing them to take photos of them on their phones, to record them and play them back. There is also a strong need to ensure that they understand the reason why they need to practice with these sentences.
Kirrilie gave a really cool analogy around the idea of fitness. She shared a conversation that she often has with the young people she works with,
Kirrilie: “how would you suggest I get fit?”
Student: Do some exercise
K: Great! I did some sit-ups back in 2010. I don’t feel that fit
S: 2010? That was ages ago. You need to do it more regularly
K: why’s that?
S: Well you’re not going to get fit just from doing a few sit-ups, you need to keep doing them and practising.
You can see how this conversation around physical fitness could then be translated to the idea of emotional and psychological fitness. The need to practice these skills to see growth and strength – improvement over time. She shared the resource Calmkidcentral.com as a place where families with a health care card can access free resources and video to help them with these skills. There is a subscription for professionals at $30 a month. These resources would be very helpful as an educator. They contains several short videos produced specifically for primary aged students and then have follow up activities that can be used with the student to help them process and retain what they have watched or learnt. Although these videos are not aimed at teenagers. It is possible, as Kirrilie herself suggested, to frame the video use by saying something like “i’m working with this young person and I was wondering what you thought of this…”. I love that this resource is free for parents (with a health card) too. By empowering parents in this way, the resource has the potential to be something that , in certain circumstances, might be a helpful way to build strength around the adult relationships that are so vital for these young people.
As an English teacher, I wonder if there might be an opportunity here to use these videos as prompts. A unit could be created where my students make their own videos talking about similar ideas for their own audience? This might also be a great way to include some of the ideas that Kirrilie discussed around helping them generate tools and phrases to self-regulate (See below). The videos could be assessed for English but could remain private for that child, or with their permission, become a tool to help them lead in that area. It’s certainly an interesting idea and one I’d like to explore in the future. It could potentially be a cross curricular activity with a STEM swing on it.
To help us work out what these calm, affirming sentences might be, she suggests asking the following kinds of questions. Obviously, avoiding things that will embarrass or cause stress, questions with simple choice answers that require less effort. The answers to these questions can then be used to create the sentences. They’ll need to be condensed and played with to get them right.