Wednesday, September 21, 2016


Originally posted September 21, 2016 Author: Samantha Woods

How did the first weeks go? 

There isn’t a day that goes by at the office when I don’t hear how heightened anxiety has effected a young developing brain. Parents and students openly share with me how stressed and anxious they feel when they even begin to speak about school! 

As the days become shorter and relaxing summer days at the lake come to a close, many students sit in a pool of anxious anticipation of the school year ahead. With the first day of school under their belt, our children are often silently beginning to stew, wondering what is in store for them this school year.  

This month ALONE (beginning September 1), I gathered a handful of ‘word for word’ statements that our students have shared with their academic coaches during their one-on-one sessions in our office:

“Who will my friends be?”
“Will I have a partner for that massive social studies project?”
“I am going to fail if….”
“What if I do fail?! What will people think?”
“What will my parents say if I don’t get a good mark?”
“I am so BAD at …”
“Everyone says THIS is the hardest year EVER...totally freaks me out!”
“I don’t have time to do everything they are asking. I am scared. I won’t get it all done…..”
“The teacher told us on the first day of school that the P.A.T exams are really important and we need to do well. Can we work on that?”
“Does it get better when you get older?”
“Can you tell my parents that?!” (when speaking about optimal study times and the importance of taking effective breaks)
“I feel stupid.”
“Everyone thinks I’m stupid.”

The list continues but I’ll stop there because the general theme repeats:  F.E.A.R

More often than not, adults will tell you that their junior high school experience presented some of the most challenging experiences during their growth years. Climbing the rough terrain of junior and senior high can be exciting and thrilling, but can also create anxiety, stress and self-doubt. During the already challenging and hormonal experience of adolescence, emotions escalate more quickly and intensely, affecting developing brains more adversely.


If a brain interprets a situation as life threatening, it will redirect its focus from high-level, rational thinking to a ‘get me the heck outta here’ mentality, resulting in students ACTING OUT or ZONING OUT.  This is what we describe to our students as a FRONTAL LOBE HIJACK! When students ‘act out’ or ‘zone out’ at school our coaches often ask  “were you using your reactive brain or your thinking brain? Let me show you the difference….”

The REFLECTIVE or “thinking brain” is the prefrontal cortex, which is in charge of conscious thought, logic, and judgement. The REACTIVE lower brain triggers an automatic response of FIGHT, FLIGHT or FREEZE. 

Beware of kids who ACT engaged but are bored or fearful of failing to achieve the highest goals set for them. These are the students we often challenge in our sessions with something like this:  ‘Don’t tell me what you think you SHOULD say. Tell me what’s really on your mind or weighing on your heart.” 

Students who ACT OUT or ZONE OUT are often labelled at school or home as: trouble makers, attention seekers, disengaged, not working to potential, not paying attention, quiet and unassuming, lazy… When we explain to our students how A BRAIN UNDER STRESS works  there is often an immediate look on their faces (sometimes accompanied by a massive sigh)...they get it. 

Suddenly, it’s not personal anymore. This knowledge empowers our students to set goals facilitating positive changes.

As Dr. Judy Willis explains, “When a person is in a state of high or sustained STRESS or FEAR: new information passing through the sensory intake areas of the brain cannot pass through the amygdala’s filter to gain access the reflective prefrontal cortex.” 

Instead, information is bypassed to the lower, reactive brain. Reactive brain = primal response! FIGHT, FLIGHT, FREEZE (aka ‘act out’ or ‘zone out’) In other words, as I already stated, extreme STRESS trumps all, resulting in the reflective brain shutting down and the reactive brain awakening into fight, flight or freeze mode.

Dr. Ross Greene was a philosophical life changer for me. He single handedly changed the way I thought about those ‘challenging kids,’ including those that seemed to be in a constant state of anxiety.  I have embraced his philosophy that Kids Do Well if they CAN and I’ve never looked back. 

A child’s behavior is simply an expression of a lagging skill or unsolved problem. That’s it. 

That’s all. Wow - game changer. Actually, life changer! Do you mean I can focus on the problem or lagging skill and not personalize this undesirable behavior going on?! “This (approach) carries the assumption that if a kid could do well, he would do well. If he’s not doing well, he must be lacking the skills needed to respond to life’s challenges in an adaptive way. What’s the most important role an adult can play in the life of such a kid? First, assume he’s already motivated, already knows right from wrong, and has already been punished enough. Then, figure out what thinking skills he’s lacking so you know what thinking skills to teach,” (Dr Ross Greene).

Sweet! I began teaching skills rather than implementing consequences with both my students and my own children! I slowly began to feel less like ‘the bad guy’ and more like a facilitator of positive change. Dealing with kids’ emotion and anxiety fell into the same realm - put the behavior aside (sometimes easier said than done!) and instead, teach the lagging skills.


  • Boredom of already mastering information being taught
  • No personal connection or being interested in a topic
  • Frustration and previous programming of ‘failure’
  • Fear of being wrong
  • Family expectations / pressure to fulfill a legacy
  • Lack of skills to cope (often executive functioning skills)

When our emotions are so intense that we become dysregulated, our executive function will not work at full capacity. Emotionally charged situations take us out of the frontal lobe of the brain, where our THINKING BRAIN is housed, and pulls us deep into the brain’s emotional center (THE REACTIVE BRAIN).  In an emotionally charged state, the two areas of the brain have difficulty communicating with one another, leaving our emotions in charge. Remember? Stress/emotions overrides all other thinking...unless a students has the tools to calm this center down, they can appear as ACTING OUT (class comedian, attention seeker, rebellious, challenging, flippant, too busy, too active)  or ZONING OUT (lazy, not caring, apathetic, lethargic, not trying).

Now, just to add a little fuel to fire… we live in a stressful world and are inundated with information 24-7. Dr. Daniel J. Levitin, in his book “The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload shares that - “Americans take in FIVE times as much information EVERY DAY as they did in 1986 - the equivalent of 175 newspapers!”

Now, throw in standardized testing (P.A.T’s), midterm and final exams, project based learning, standardized testing, summative evaluations, and a rigorous academic curriculum into the mix, combined with a young brain still ‘under construction’, and there you have the perfect recipe for student anxiety!  


  • Teach your child how to practice mindfulness. This video shows you how simple it is.
  • Teach your child about their brain. Dr. Judy Willis explains how a brain under stress can ‘act out’ or ‘zone out.’ Read more about what you should know about your brain and how superior learning  CAN take place when we reduce stress for our children. What You Should Know About Your Brain
  • Here are some more tips from Kristine Tye, a family therapist on How to De-Stress and Motivate Your Teen
  • Provide times to JUST BE BORED
  • Partner with your child to solve the problems that affect his or her life (rather than using power -- threats and adult-imposed consequences -- to exert control). Making the shift is hard, but it’ll be worth it!

At Kaizen, we have embraced the philosophy that “KIDS DO WELL IF THEY CAN.” If they are anxious, scared, or worried, we teach our students that 
FEAR = False  Evidence Appearing Real. 

We connect their worries to the latest in neuroscience research , sharing with them that they are not alone because this is how their developing brain works, grows, and learns from mistakes.  WE love teaching our students how a growth mindset………well, GROWS! We provide achievable challenges to prevent stress, reduce boredom and frustration while increasing student confidence resulting in better and better learning in school...but more importantly, in LIFE!

As always, we are here to help. We’re in your corner. I wish you all the very best for the 2016/17 school year.

Better and better!