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Leveling anxiety in an abruptly disruptive time

By Rebecca Meyer

Knotted up roap

This week while retrieving my 12-year old twin boys from their cross country running practice after a full day of school plus an early morning knowledge bowl practice, I shared, “Hey, I’m working on a writing piece this week centered around youth: what is on your mind, is there anything that is challenging or you wish could be different?” One of my boys answered, “I wish I was not at school. School is hard. There is so much work.” In my head, I thought, “Totally. I don’t always want to be at work right now either.”

When I inquired more about the statement, it was clear that what was surfacing was not about being in school or at school, or even the quantity of work, but rather anxieties around performance. This stress is not uncharacteristic for youth, but it does feel magnified in the context of the pandemic. How can we adapt our programs to alleviate the elevated levels of stress that youth (and all of us) are experiencing as a result of one of the most significant periods of transition and uncertainty in our lives?

In nonformal programs like 4-H, we need to focus on our mission, but we should also be inherently flexible in regards to what is happening around us. We need to be adaptive with our programs to respond to our current contexts for youth and their families. Are there opportunities for us to modify our expectations for growth in learning, and to emphasize relationships and connections? How can we strengthen the development of social and emotional learning?

Before the pandemic entered our lives, I shared some relevant strategies for encouraging community in the context of youth programs. Later, I discussed this idea further on our UMN Extension YD Podcast. Faced with uncertainty, we need to adapt our programs to help youth with social and emotional learning. We can also give youth comfortable and consistent routines to help ease their stress. I find myself continuing to reflect on these important ideas as we consider our educator roles going forward. 

As we focus on the work of adapting our programs to help youth with their stress and anxiety, I also believe it is important to be mindful of our own stresses and anxieties. These may unintentionally influence our decisions around programming. If you change a program dimension, is it to manage your stress, youth stress, or both? Or, are you just going through the motions? 

In Judson Brewer’s latest book, Unwinding Anxiety, and in his 2015 TED Talk, he comments on human behavior and patterns, noting that sometimes they may be unhealthy for us. One idea Brewer notes that I believe to be relevant in our work is the connection to curiosity. Through curiosity and mindfulness we can keep our programs interesting while perhaps disrupting less desirable habits. Sometimes, even with our best intentions, we put ourselves on autopilot. This is a disservice to the youth in our programs. Given that anxiety (for all of us) has increased, how can we be more intentional and mindful of what we do and how it contributes to youth learning and growing in our current context? Perhaps taking a more playful approach with an emphasis on social and emotional learning and connections may be the best strategy for the path forward.

What strategies are you using in your practice to alleviate anxiety, worry and stress in youth?

-- Rebecca Meyer, Extension educator

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