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In high school, we are seeing more and more students voice concerns about anxiety around oral presentations. They often choose to take a zero on the assignment rather than do the presentation.  How can mindfulness strategies help our students who are experiencing these anxieties around presentations?

LDs and Anxiety

To begin, it is useful to review the relationship between learning disabilities (LDs) and anxiety. The following is an excerpt from Integra’s document, LDMH: A Handbook on Learning Disabilities and Mental Health.

Children and youth with LDs typically experience repeated failure. In school, they may work incredibly hard but the outcome may not reflect the effort. Over time, it can be more difficult for a child to keep trying and often, we see behaviours that are identified as ‘non-compliant’ or ‘oppositional’ yet which may reflect an understandable coping strategy of avoidance or hopelessness.

This may lead to a lower sense of mastery and fewer opportunities to feel competent at something or to achieve success. Children and youth with LDs may feel like they’re not meeting others’ expectations, that they’re letting down their parents and teachers, and not working hard enough when they’re trying so hard. This can all lead to the experience of negative feelings, including worry, anger, frustration, and sadness.

Most of us do not enjoy experiencing difficult emotions. It is an understandable reaction to want to avoid experiencing hardship. Children and youth, especially those with LDs, who have experienced repeated failure in the past, learn that it may be ‘better to be bad, than look stupid’. Students may act out to distract from or avoid the challenging situation, or may self-medicate, or engage in strategies to avoid experiencing negative emotions and stressors.

Mindfulness Practices to Reduce Anxiety

Elli Weisbaum, Toronto-based mindfulness practitioner and teacher, suggests the following mindfulness activities that help students understand, control, and express their emotions in adaptive ways.

Body Scan

  • Use the three foundations (breath, bell, present, moment);
  • Move focus down body from head to toes, calming each part of body you bring attention to;
  • For students with attention issues, have them place their hands on the part of their body they are focused on.

Mindfulness practice provides us with several practical activities we can use to handle anxiety when it arises, such as stopping to anchor ourselves in our breath to calm our mind and body, or lying down to try a short body scan.

Doing an activity like this on a regular basis, not only when the anxiety arises, will help us to implement it at times of difficulty (such as before public speaking).

Practice Non-Judgement

In addition to breathing/meditation practices, mindfulness invites us to practice non-judgment towards ourselves and others. Anxiety and fear often arise from our own perceptions and judgments of a situation, both towards ourselves and others. If we are working to be kinder and gentler to ourselves, this will also help us to calm our anxiety and fears in a difficult moment.

Mindfulness is being aware of what is happening inside and around us, so the examples I have given above address some of the internal work we can invite our students to try (coming back to their breath, taking a moment for themselves). You might also want to bring some awareness to the external situation by looking deeply as a class at what is causing the anxiety, beyond the student’s personal mindset (which is of course a big component). Some questions you might want to explore as a class could be: How has the assignment been introduced? What pressure is connected to the public speaking assignment? Is there a way as a class to better prepare and support one another during the public speaking so it feels safer to attempt? These conversations (which can be done with mindfulness by practicing non-judgment of each person’s sharing, along with listening with kindness and compassion) coupled with the breathing meditation activities, are some great ways to apply mindfulness to the situation you have described.

Do you have a question about LDs? Click here to ask our experts!

Related Resources on the LD@school Website

Click here to access the recording of the webinar Introduction to Mindfulness for Educators, Classrooms, and School Communities.

Click here to access the video Supporting the Mental Health and Well-Being of Students with LDs through Integra Mindfulness Martial Arts (Part I).

Click here to access the video Mindfulness Teaching Practices: Implementing the Integra Mindfulness Martial Arts Program in the Trillium Lakelands District School Board (Part II).

Click here to access the resource LDMH: A Handbook on Learning Disabilities and Mental Health.

Elli Weisbaum, BFA, MES is a Toronto-based mindfulness practitioner and teacher

Elli Weisbaum, BFA, MES is a Toronto based mindfulness practitioner and teacher, who attended her first retreat at the age of ten. Since then she has been passionate about the translation of mindfulness practice into everyday life.

She holds a Masters degree in Environmental Studies, focused on bringing mindfulness into education. In 2016, she began pursuing a Ph.D. at the Institute of Medical Science in the Faculty of medicine at the University of Toronto focused on integrating mindfulness into healthcare. She is also on faculty at the University of Toronto's Applied Mindfulness Meditation certificate program.

Elli has worked internationally to integrate mindfulness into key sectors, including education, healthcare and business, organizing retreats and workshops in Bhutan, India, Germany, Canada, the UK and the USA. She spent a year as the international program coordinator for Wake Up Schools, a global initiative to cultivate mindfulness in education, established by Nobel Peace Prize nominee, scholar and Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. Her ongoing work with his community, Plum Village, focuses on a holistic approach to education, working simultaneously with teachers, students, parents and administrators to build sustainable inclusive communities.

Elli is dedicated to the cultivation of a compassionate and healthy society and through her work she hopes to continue walking a path that leads there. www.elliweisbaum.com