Do you remember when you had to take a test to determine if you could go into the 4th grade? Therapist (and parent) Steve Polovick, MS, LSW addressed Miss Mayer’s 3rd grade class at McVay Elementary in Westerville, Ohio, the day before the Ohio State test-‘the big exam’. He asked the class, ‘What does it feel like when you’re going to take a test?” Hands shot up. One girl said, ‘You might start to shake a little bit.’ Mr. Steve asked, ‘What shakes?’ to which the child answered, her hands. A boy said, ‘My stomach hurts.” One child added, ‘Your brain is gonna explode.’ Miss Mayer explained that there are probably between 7-12 questions and some of the anxiety is not knowing how long the test is.
‘I’m going to teach some techniques to help you feel calm, he said, and you’re going to do fine. I want you to practice these coping skills and relaxation techniques. You can use these the rest of your life any time you’re facing something that makes you anxious.’ The first technique he led with, was deep breathing. ‘You have blood running through your veins. What is being carried in your bloodstream through-out your body?’ A boy answered, ‘blood cells’. Therapist Steve answered that “you need oxygen to function well. Oxygen helps your brain fire faster, helps you think clearer, see better and controls your heart rate. In basketball, you often see players take a deep breath before the big shot; it steadies their shot.” He shared an example. ‘A mom could use this technique coming into the kitchen and her 2 year old is finger painting all over the floor with peanut butter.’ This was amusing to the 3rd graders and they laughed. ‘We recommend mom takes 2 or 3 deep breaths before stepping into the room,’ he said. ‘Whenever you’re nervous or distracted, take a deep breath first. Let’s put deep breathing into your magic bag of coping skills.’
The second technique was guided imagery. He told of Nelson Mandela, the 1st black president in South Africa who was put in prison for 27 years for something he didn’t do-before he became president. To occupy himself he read books, poetry and painted. “He took himself away to a calm and happy place in his mind,” the therapist said. ‘Was it like a cage?’ one girl asked. ‘Yes,’ Mr. Steve said. ‘Close your eyes and imagine you’re in a different place, a calm and happy place where you feel like you’re safe.’ For one child it was a soft chair, for another her own bed, for another-family piled on top in a group hug.
A third technique beyond breathing and the happy place includes self-affirmation statements. ‘Remind yourself you can do this,’ he explained. ‘Did you ever not do so well on something? It can carry over into worry.’ Many kids nodded. ‘Take a deep breath, visit someplace better, it is only one test. In self affirmation, what would you say to yourself?’ Hands shot up. ‘I can do this!’ a boy said, emphatically. From the back of the room, ‘I won’t give up,’ and ‘I believe in me!’ Other responses of self-affirmation: “I will go to the 4th grade’ [not I want to go to the 4th grade], and, ‘Never say never.’
Therapist Steve led them in a fourth exercise, muscle relaxation. ‘You tighten your muscles when you’re anxious; stretching untightens them- quite simply. With this exercise you relax from your toes to the top of your head; tense each part of your body from your feet to your legs, up to your torso, arms, neck. Be aware of it, and let it go; take a deep breath. You can do this anywhere and immediately relax,’ he explained. He reviewed all the techniques with the 3rd graders, and added a final one.
The last technique for the day was talking. This is talking before a test or event, in the days leading up to it and after, to build yourself up for other tests, and other challenges that will come. Miss Mayer added that this is like mental movies, not from a story, but from your life. [Self-talking]. Therapist Steve recapped the five simple techniques in their bag of coping skills and wished them well. The kids clapped.
[photo credit: Therapist Steve addressing Westerville McVay Elementary, 3rd grade].
Guided Imagery and Self-Affirmations on CD- http://www.healthjourneys.com
BelleruthNaparstek, MA, LISW [Not a substitute for medical treatment]