Introducing independence is the key to helping kids shed their anxiety
By Jodi Maurici
Last fall I was excited to start another promising school year with my 240 seventh grade health education students. However, I was confronted by an array of challenges I had never witnessed in my 25-year career: Students with incredible anxiety and attendance issues, students who broke into tears when a task presented the slightest challenge. I got into this field to make a difference. This year, more than ever, I had to.
I heard about the Let Grow Project from a teacher in another district. It’s really simple. Kids are given the homework assignment to “go home and do something by yourself.” This looked like it might provide me with a way to meet my students’ needs, and it even fit into the Social Emotional Learning standards New York recently adopted. These state that students must develop the self-awareness and self-management skills essential in school and life. Some of the specific benchmarks that tied right in with the Project are the ability to use problem-solving strategies, communicate with others, and identify ways to reach goals/challenge obstacles/come out of your comfort zone.
In October I introduced The Let Grow Project to my students. I explained that I expected them to do five new things in each of our marking quarters without their parents. The goal was for them to gain independence and parental trust.
Next, I distributed an extensive list of challenges they could consider doing, such as walking to town by themselves, ordering a meal, babysitting, advocating for themselves with a teacher or coach, or even just trying a new food, game or activity. “What if I can’t do something on the list?” “I am afraid to do some of the things.” “What if I have already done everything?” “Will I fail if my parents won’t let me do them?” The questions came thick and fast. Some even wondered, “Is there something hidden in this project to make it more difficult? These look fun!”
While my students were all the same chronological age, clearly they represented a huge spectrum of emotional maturity and independence levels. I had seventh graders who viewed any “failure” as a crisis and would break down crying, as well as those who excitedly learned from their mistakes. I had some who had already taken the Long Island Railroad by themselves…and some who’d never been allowed to cut their own meat.
What happened when they started doing the Project? So much.
“I went to town by myself and bought myself lunch!” ”I made my entire family dinner!” “I went on a train by myself and got off at the right stop!” “I stopped asking myself ‘What if???’ and just did things!”
And that was after just the first weekend. Students who thought this was going to be just another “boring” project changed when they saw how grown-up it made them feel. And while I had been a bit concerned about any opposition I might get from the parents, I got emails sharing their excitement as well. Many said that this was not only a project for their children, but also for them. One wrote, “I really didn’t think he was ready...but I was pleasantly surprised!”
The kids did everything from shopping to climbing trees to taking care of their siblings. One of my more skeptical students pushed herself to finally get her ears pierced. “After I started this program, I felt more comfortable going out of my comfort zone and finally did it,” she wrote. She also challenged herself to try out for the swim team – and made it.
Another student wrote, “This program gives me a reason to do important things that I need to do by myself -- and encourages me to do things I may not want to.” In June he made himself a set of independence goals for the summer.
It has now been a full school year since I introduced this project and I am beyond ecstatic at the progress I see in my students. They express a sense of pride and confidence that many of them did not have at the start of the school year. So many of those “anxious students” I spoke of earlier told me that they have less anxiety because of the Let Grow Project. They will now take risks and feel that it is okay if they don’t succeed because they know they tried, and are comfortable trying again. For example, one student wanted to go to a restaurant that is on the very high floor of a city building. But he’s terrified of heights and waited downstairs the first time his family went there. This summer, he told me, he will make it to the top!
The Let Grow changes I have witnessed make me remember why I became a teacher, and embrace the feeling of making a true difference in the lives of the students.
Jodi Maurici is a seventh-grade health ed teacher at Sayville Middle School in Sayville, NY.