Back to school as normal – really?
How Anat Baniel Method® NeuroMovement® can help make the return to class a more positive experience for children, parents and teachers.
School’s been out and not just for summer. And now that the time to return is here, most of us are keenly aware that this isn’t going to be a normal back to school transition for anyone.
Sure, the school will still be the same: there’ll be tables, chairs, and teachers standing at the front of class. But, in another sense, everything’s changed. There are more questions, doubts and uncertainties. Masks or no masks? Who’s been vaccinated? Who hasn’t? Children have been away from school in some cases for up to 18 months. How far behind are they in their learning? How uncertain might they feel socially? And then there are the teachers who, along with parents, are our children’s heroes – how much stress are they experiencing? All these concerns are on top of the usual worries, such as: “Will my child like their new class and settle in? Will they get along with new teachers, new classmates, new lessons?” This situation is new to everyone. As a parent, it’s easy to feel stressed, anxious, and overwhelmed.
But it’s not all bad news. ABM®NeuroMovement® offers tools to support the brain of the child and adult in responding to and dealing with these challenges. Tools that reduce fear, anxiety and confusion, and increase the child’s ability to learn. By using the Nine Essentials, this transition to a new school year can be a more constructive and positive experience for parents, children, and teachers than it might otherwise have been.
The parent/child connection
When we focus on the needs of children, we tend to neglect the experience, needs, and feelings of the parents. But it’s important to remember that a child is typically very connected to their parent(s) and looks to them for cues on how to act and feel (at ABM we call this the “One Brain Phenomenon”). To a great extent, the child’s brain, as the brilliant neuroscientist and researcher Elizabeth Torres contends, syncs with the frequencies of the adult brain, what she calls entrainment, so it essentially “joins” and is guided by parent’s brain. The higher the quality with which the adult’s brain functions, the easier it is for the child’s brain to learn and for the child to be well.
As most, if not all of us, have experienced in the last 18 months, when we are anxious, fearful, or angry we do not function very well. Therefore, if the parent is experiencing negative emotions, the child’s brain picks up on these emotions and amplifies them, not only making the child feel fearful or agitated, but also degrading the functioning of the child’s brain so that learning becomes much more difficult, and learning outcomes are compromised.
It’s important for parents to realize that it’s totally normal for them, and for their child, to feel anxious about this return to school, and that parents are most certainly NOT the cause of any of the usual reservations their child may have about going back to classes. Nor are parents supposed to know how to resolve all these issues.
When we realize the impact we have on the child’s brain by how we are functioning and choose to shift from fixing to connecting with the 9 Essentials, we have the opportunity to help transform the child’s challenges into powerful learnings and transformations and much of the anxiety, fear, and anger can dissipate for everyone.
To do that, we need new knowledge and tools. The Nine Essentials that form the crux of Anat Baniel Method®NeuroMovement® offer tools from which to build.
Anxiety and the learning switch*
We are living through difficult times and an enormous amount of uncertainty. The normal biological reaction to an uncertain and challenging situation is the loss of a sense of safety which leads to anxiety. And when that happens, one of the things that tends to shut down is our learning, or what we call the “learning switch.”
“The Learning Switch is, of course, a metaphor. It is a way to describe the fact that at any given moment, your child’s brain can be either poised to learn—being the learning ‘machine’ it is designed to be—or not.”
Living organisms don’t like uncertainty, and we are experiencing unprecedented levels of uncertainty. Here are some ways you can reduce the anxiety and upset and enhance your and your child’s experience:
Applying the Anat Baniel Essentials
When we’re anxious, we tend to speed up. When you slow down you give yourself time to feel and think. Slowing down will also tend to calm down your child. There is no rush. You are telling your brain and your child’s brain that all is well. So, slow down getting ready to go back to school. Slow down getting dressed in the morning of a school day, getting breakfast on the table, packing the school bags. Slow down your speech and your own movements. (By the way, rushing rarely gets things done faster). Slow it all down, including the journey to school too.
“Slow gets the brain’s attention, giving your child the time to feel. The feeling of what happens is at the core of everything we do. It is at the heart of our ability to think and move.”
Variation is another Essential with the potential to be magical. Parents who normally talk to their child in a certain way may choose to experiment with another way of talking. If you usually tell your child to do a certain thing, either don’t tell them or do so in a different way, using a different tone, a fresh approach, and with new words. You may also consider offering an alternative. The ultimate goal is to bring some variation to the situation. Variations provide the brain with new information so we can do things we couldn’t do before, with the result that we feel, think, and act differently. Variation leads to greater mastery which reduces anxiety and enhances well-being.
“The remarkable process of growth and development happens through the perception of something new, something different, something that stands out from the background and the habitual in our bodies, our minds, and our lives.”
When we are in uncharted territory, which all parents, teachers and children are in now, we can’t be certain what the correct ways to act are. We are bound to make mistakes. Mistakes are variations. They are not a bad thing. Celebrate them! They are the “breadcrumbs” that give our brain necessary information to figure things out. Celebrating mistakes reduces anxiety.
Variations are also a form of playfulness, which is the exact opposite of anxiety. Anxiety narrows our world, while playfulness broadens it. When we’re afraid we tend to freeze, we don’t want to do or try new things or even old things. Playfulness opens us up to trying new things, and doing things differently.
Another Essential which is extremely important is flexible goals. Of course, a parent’s goal is to get their child to happily return to school, and to learn well while they are there. But, expecting the child to attain that goal, straight off the bat, is problematic. Unless the child already knows and is able to do what is expected, pressuring to achieve the goal will only increase the child’s, (and often the adult’s) frustration and anxiety, and we know how that tends to shut down the Learning Switch.
Of course, every parent needs their child to be in school at a certain time each day. There’s no saying “ah, it’s OK if you don’t go to school today,” unless a child is unwell. It’s more about being flexible about the idea, and the timing. Children will likely have certain reservations and feelings of anxiety which could last for days, or even weeks, until going to school feels safer and more routine. So, we encourage parents to try to be flexible about when they expect their child to feel comfortable being back at school again.
“Our child can accomplish more, with less suffering, while we stay open to possibilities otherwise not available, by holding our goals loosely.”
Human awareness is a unique quality and gift we have. It behooves us to make as much use of it as we can, especially in uncertain, challenging times. Parents and teachers can make it a habit to frequently focus inward briefly and become aware of themselves and of how they are feeling. How we feel impacts what we do and say to the child and how we do it. Even if we don’t speak, we communicate through our breathing, our voice, our body language, and more. If you find that you are feeling anxious or angry, try slowing down. Allow yourself to detach a bit from the goal you have at this moment, and see if telling yourself that “at this very moment all is fine” alleviates some of your anxiety. If things are really not fine, then see if you can use variations to reach a new way to a solution.
“Awareness elevates the brain to a place of discovery and choice rather than being reactive and on automatic pilot.”
Where to start?
Start from wherever your child is now, in terms of their thoughts and feelings about going back to school and build from there. Use the Essentials, one small, new step at a time, and discover how to be more connected to your child. Notice how, in turn, your child is more connected to you and is doing better.
All the Essentials—flexible goals, variations, slowing down, being aware—need to be initiated and generated by the parent. The child is like a high-fidelity receptor that’s continuously gauging what’s going on around them, and they depend on their parents for information and cues. This opens a wonderful opportunity for adults to take leadership in a way that is harmonious with our physiology, biology and neurology, and make returning to school a more positive experience for all.
*Anat features much more detail about the positive impact these essentials can have on children, especially those with special needs, in her book Kids Beyond Limits. For the purposes of this article, we have quoted lightly from the book and have highlighted the important role some of the Essentials can play in making the Back to School experience a better one for all.