My Experience as a Counselor at “Outside Voice” Selective Mutism Camp

By Natalie Maldonado

As a recent graduate with a degree in Psychological Science and one who has been an advocate for students with special needs, working in the local unified school district for the last 4 years, I felt like I would be very qualified for the volunteer position at the Selective Mutism camp. Initially, my feelings and expectations going into camp on day 1 did not match up with what I actually experienced during the camp. After leaving camp on day 1, I felt exhausted and overwhelmed, and even a little apprehensive at the thought of returning for days 2 through day 4. It was such hard work for both the campers and I to form that connection and for me to set up an environment for them to feel comfortable enough to be able to find and use their voice. That initial apprehension drove me to feel determined to try my best and to focus on the kids, and their needs.

My goal from day 1 to day 4 was to focus on each camper that I had the opportunity to work with and to create an atmosphere that was comfortable, secure, and relaxed for them. At the beginning, I noticed some of the counselors and campers were a little nervous and anxious, but those feelings diminished as the days went on. We did many activities that I have seen in a public-school setting: birthday parties, show and tell, demonstrations on specific tasks, asking new friends questions about themselves, independent free play and playing with peers, award ceremonies, and on the last day we went on a field trip to a local children’s museum. These students were given tasks, opportunities, and prompts to overcome their anxiety and fears in new settings among unfamiliar faces and they did an absolutely amazing job! It is quite astonishing to see them overcome some of their fears right in front of our eyes. From day 1 to day 4, I noticed these campers’ skills improve drastically. I hope they will carry their new skills onto their everyday lives upon leaving camp.

It has been an amazing opportunity and pleasure to work with and witness these kids learn new skills that will help them break down their barriers of anxiety and fear. Looking back on day 1 and the lack of energy I felt to day 4 where I felt like the kids did not necessarily need me there anymore, they had become so independent and were constantly interacting with other kids using their voices. I cannot put into words the feeling I felt when I was able to witness firsthand the trials these little ones overcame and the dismay they were encouraged to face that only made them stronger. Of course, it takes baby steps to progress in any situation but what I witnessed with these campers specifically were not only baby steps, but leaps!

Anxiety in the Classroom

Your child is experiencing anxiety in the classroom. This experience can make your child feel frozen, which in turn decreases your child’s ability to learn the information being taught.  While we never want our children to experience high levels of anxiety, the classroom is one of the last places we would want our children to be anxious.  

So, how do we identify anxiety in the classroom? Unfortunately, identifying anxiety in a child at school is not always a straightforward task. Symptoms of anxiety often mimic symptoms of other difficulties, such as ADHD, learning disorders, and oppositional behavior. In order to provide the best care to a child, we need to observe behaviors closely and try to identify the root to the behaviors.

What are some behaviors to look out for that may be a result of anxiety?

Here are a few common ways that anxiety presents itself in the classroom: 

1.     Attendance problems/Trips to the nurse. Anxious kids may protest going to school due to the anxiety that arises when they are there. They also may frequently ask to go to the nurse once they are at school. Children experiencing anxiety may express that they feel sick due to experiencing stomachaches or other physical symptoms. If this is happening on a regular and consistent basis, these physical symptoms may be a result of anxiety rather than actual illness.

2.     Inattention and restlessness. While we often think of attention difficulties and restlessness as being related to ADHD, these behaviors may also be a result of anxiety. Anxious children may have difficulties attending to the lesson or sitting still when they are preoccupied with worries swarming in their heads.

3.     Not answering questions or asking for help. Children experiencing anxiety may be overly concerned with their answers being exactly right, and therefore may not share information with the rest of the class. Children experiencing social anxiety may be acutely concerned with what their peers and teachers think of them. When children are experiencing difficulties with Selective Mutism, they often “freeze” up and are unable to provide verbal responses to questions.   

4.     Unfinished work/Difficulties in certain subjects. If a child has not been completing work that was assigned, this could be a sign of anxiety. The same goes if a child is struggling in a certain subject at school and having difficulties completing the work in a specific subject. The child may either not want to turn in work that isn’t “perfect” or may be overwhelmed by intrusive, anxious thoughts that are distracting him from getting his work done.

By no means is this list exhaustive, as anxiety has many different expressions. However, if you notice your child exhibiting any of the above behaviors or others that are concerning, you might consider the possibility that the issue is stemming from anxiety. Ultimately, anxiety can be extremely disruptive in multiple areas of a child’s life, and the classroom is often one of these areas. The good news is this: if we are able to pinpoint anxiety as the root to the difficulties that our children are experiencing, we can provide the appropriate care in order to help our children conquer the anxiety that’s hindering their success. 

- By Dr. Lindsay Haig, PsyD -

The word “mindfulness” is popping up everywhere today. Maybe because I am in the field of psychology and I practice mindfulness myself, but it definitely feels as if no one can get enough of mindfulness. But how does this translate to kids and anxiety?

 

John Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as, “Paying attention in the present moment without judgment.” Fair enough, but what does this mean and how does this help kids struggling with anxiety? Mindfulness can feel simple and, at the same time, totally out of our comfort zone all at once. For kiddos (and other ages alike), mindfulness can be practiced by paying attention to the senses. When children are anxious, they are very much stuck in their thoughts and not aware of what is happening in the present moment.  By coming back to what is happening in the here-and-now (which can be extremely difficult no matter how old you are), children and adults can refocus their attention to what’s happening in the present instead of thinking about the past or future.

 

One exercise that I love to do in therapy is called the “5-4-3-2-1” grounding exercise. In essence, this is how it goes. Look around the room that you are currently sitting in and identify 5 things you can see (i.e. I see a cup, I see a computer), 4 things you can feel (i.e. I can feel my back on the chair, I can feel my feet on the floor), 3 things you can hear (i.e. can hear the traffic outside, I can hear my dog making silly noises), 2 things you can smell/like the smell of (i.e. I can smell mom cooking in the kitchen OR I love the smell of chocolate), 1 thing you can taste/like the taste of (i.e. toothpaste from brushing your teeth OR I love the taste of chocolate).

 

Why is this exercise or using mindfulness in treating kids with anxiety important? It helps them return to the here-and-now. With anxiety, it is so easy to get inside your head and be out of touch with the reality of the present moment.  Using mindfulness, we can return to what’s actually happening and leave behind those things that we think are happening. 

~ Dr. Lindsay Haig ~

We are thrilled to announce the dates for our summer camp for children with Selective Mutism, ages 3 to 9. Camp registration will be open to the public, as well as to current clients. This is the first time that Pinnacle Counseling and Testing Center will be opening its doors to offer treatment to children who are not already registered clients! Our 4-Day camp, Outside Voice, will run June 23-26 in Murrieta, California. For more details, Contact Us.

*Stay tuned for dates on our “older” kids SM camp, which will be held at the end of July!

Dr. Gosney Featured in SDVoyager Magazine!

Dr. Gosney Featured in SDVoyager Magazine!

Dr. Clarissa Gosney, PsyD was featured in SDVoyager Magazine to highlight her work with treating anxiety and selective mutism.

Doubt and Dysfunction in OCD

Johns Hopkins Medicine recently highlighted Gerald Nestadt, Psychiatrist, who has studied and treated patients with OCD for the past 30 years. He has found strong evidence for a biological basis for OCD, while he acknowledges that one’s environment also plays a role. Recently, Gerald Nestadt has been studying the role of doubt in OCD. He has found that the more self-doubt one has, the more dysfunctional their OCD tends to be. For instance, one does not simply act on an obsessive thought (compulsion) for the sake of performing the act, but out of their own self-doubt that they had performed the act correctly or thoroughly enough.

We know that with OCD, the behaviors (compulsions) are performed in an effort to reduce one’s own anxiety. This may work for the short-term, but anxiety is not decreased overall unless the person is able to resist acting out on their compulsions. At Pinnacle CTC, we guide clients through this process by using Exposure with Response Prevention (ERP). ERP is not only effective in the treatment of OCD, but for many anxiety disorders as well.

Learn more about the Conditions We Treat and other information on the Evidence-Based Treatment modalities we offer at both our San Diego and Murrieta, CA offices.

Read the full article.

Trauma-Informed Teaching

As we approach a new school year, it is important for all teachers to look deep into the needs of each child who sits in their classroom.  Trauma is something that can scream so loudly in a voice that can be easily mistaken as oppositional, inattentive, hyperactive, and angry.  

In a recent post, Ransom for Israel painted a vivid picture of a child who has experienced trauma as a goldfish that has been mistaken as a shark.  "...our children often present with behaviors that look like the shark, but if we look below the water, we will realize they are really just scared goldfish trying to have a need met.  Their behaviors might communicate anger and hostility, but below the surface is fear and a hurting child."

School can be a fortress for the hurt and the weary.  For teachers, you have the honor of being able to "provide a safe space and help them regulate.  This might mean sinking down to eye level and saying, 'You are safe.' and then simply step away for a while.  The cure for trauma is a safe relationship and you are going to give the child space and environment to feel safe."

When you see a child who is struggling, find the need that has yet to be met.  Be their safety.

Secondary Emotions

Secondary emotions Dr. Gosney

Anger is often considered a secondary emotion because it is used as an attempt to protect ourselves against feeling or showing primary emotions such as sadness, grief, fear, and anxiety.  We may unintentionally hurt others as a form of self-protection.  Only when we decide to take off the mask of anger can we allow ourselves to begin to heal.

The next time you find yourself angry, I challenge you to look beneath the surface.  Are you feeling embarrassed?  Disrespected?  Undervalued?  Afraid?  Open yourself up to learning more about the real you, and let the healing begin.

"Anxiety is the work of a strong, healthy brain that’s a little overprotective" - Karen Young

"Anxiety is the work of a strong, healthy brain that’s a little overprotective" - Karen Young

"Anxiety is the work of a strong, healthy brain that’s a little overprotective." - Karen Young

Selective Mutism: What it is and What it is NOT

Selective Mutism: What it is and What it is NOT

Selective Mutism (SM) is an anxiety disorder that begins early in a child’s life, where the child consistently feels unable to speak to certain people or in certain situations in which speaking is expected (such as at school or in the community), while speaking freely in other settings (such as at home). 

Could your child have anxiety? How anxious children are often mislabeled and lost in the mix.

Could your child have anxiety?  How anxious children are often mislabeled and lost in the mix.

There is no age limit on stress and anxiety.  The truth: anxiety looks different in kids!  Anxious children are often mislabeled and misdiagnosed (and sometimes inaccurately medicated).  Here, you can learn how anxiety, trauma, or stress may look in a child.  This information is not just for parents, but can be extremely helpful for educators!  Feel free to share with a parent or educator you know.