Gravitybread presents Kari Dunn Buron

kari dunn buronI am proud and excited to present Kari Dunn Buron, author of When My Worries Get Too Big, A Relaxation Book for Children Who Live with Anxiety. The second edition has just been released this year and provides additional carryover activities.

Kari Dunn Buron taught in K-12 with students on the autism spectrum for 30+ years. She developed an Autism Spectrum Disorders Certificate program for educators at Hamline University in St. Paul, MN and has done volunteer work specific to autism in Trinidad, Tobago, Barbados, Tanzania and Ghana. In 2003, Kari received a Self-designed Bush Leadership Fellowship that allowed her to spend a year interviewing and working internationally with a number of scientists and researchers in the area of Social Cognition, Education and Autism with a focus on challenging behaviors.

Kari is the co-author of The Incredible 5-Point Scale, and the author of When My Worries Get Too Big, A 5 Could Make Me Lose Control and A 5 is Against the Law! (2008 ASA literary award winner). Kari is the co-editor of a textbook for educators titled Learners on the Autism Spectrum: Preparing Highly Qualified Educators (2009 ASA literary award winner) and is the creator of an original social skills magazine designed for students with Asperger Syndrome called The Social Times (2010 Gold Winner, National Patenting Publications Award and Gold Medal Winner – Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards).

Kari’s latest projects include Social Behavior and Self-Management (a book about how to use the scale with adults); the second edition of The Incredible 5-Point Scale; and an early chapter book titled Adalyn’s Clare.

I want to personally thank Kari taking the time to answer my questions so thoroughly. I am very confident that her responses can be very helpful to any educator, therapist or parent reading this interview.

1. What inspired you to write When My Worries Get Too Big?

I was working with a Kindergarten student who had extreme social anxieties that led to aggressive behavior in school and eventually led to full-blown school phobia. It was obvious to me that his challenging behavior was directly related to his chronic anxiety. I began to investigate the effects of anxiety on children, using Cognitive Behavior strategies with children, and adapting relaxation strategies for children.

I wanted to teach Nicholas self-management strategies that could help him recognize the physical symptoms of his anxiety and help him understand how to think about the feelings and emotions he was experiencing, so he could make better decisions about how to handle difficult situations. I pulled from John Marsh’s work called How I Ran OCD off my Land. Marsh stressed the need for a child to understand his problem, but to not feel that the problem defined him. This is why the child in the book “fights back” against his worries when they get too big.

After I wrote the book for Nicholas, it proved so helpful that I decided to write a more generic one that could be used with my other students. This resulted in When My Worries Get Too Big!

2. Can you provide some tips to parents whose young children struggle with anxiety?
Try really hard not to discount your child’s anxiety or fears. They might be difficult for you to understand and may seem silly, but they are very real for you child.
Remember that as humans, we feel before we think. This means that feeling anxiety, fears and stress can actually hi-jack your child’s brain and make it hard for them to think clearly, often leading to unfortunate behavior. This can happen at any age, even if you think she should “know better”. The process of helping an anxious child to regulate and manage her own emotions takes time. It is not a simple process. Traditional behavioral responses to unwanted behavior tends to be very simplistic and unreasonable. She is not just going to “stop it” because you want her to stop it. Most children with chronic anxiety know that their behavioral responses are unreasonable and most suffer regret and embarrassment after a loss of control.
Parents should become familiar with the physical effects of chronic stress and anxiety. Cortisol can actually turn off the immune system and negatively effect the development of the brain. MRI research is beginning to document how anxiety and emotions work in conjunction with the brain and thinking. This research is slowly making its way into the educational system where creative teachers are developing plans for teaching relaxation, self-awareness and self-management.
New and emerging areas of science that relate to anxiety disorders include Contemplative Neuroscience, Affective Neuroscience, and Interpersonal Neurobiology. I recommend Daniel Goleman’s new book called The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights. 2011 for those who want more information.

3. What are some ways to differentiate anxiety from other emotions (such as anger, frustration, etc) in your child?

Anxiety is the word used to define the body’s release of cortisol and adrenaline. I think of anxiety as the “state” of being aroused by your body in order to respond to some situation. Anxiety isn’t always a bad thing. A form of anxiety might be “stage fright” or “butterflies in your stomach before a big test”. In these situations, the release of cortisol then acts to get your attention in a good way. When a child has chronic anxiety, his amygdala is primed and quick to react to situations, even if a big response is not warranted. Some researchers say that anxiety feeds on itself and if not addressed can cause dangerous levels of cortisol.

Anger and frustration are emotions. Typically children mature in their ability to think about and regulate their emotions as they continue through childhood. A two year old has very little self-regulation and so gets easily over-whelmed by her emotions. If a child has chronic anxiety, the over-active fight or flight (primitive brain) response can disrupt this developmental skill of managing emotions. Emotions are felt way out of proportion to reality. Dr. Richard Davidson and Dr. Richard Boyatzis are two researchers who have discussed this and are well worthy of a “google” to learn more.

At the end of the day, it might not be so important to know what to call your child’s seemingly unreasonable reactions and behavior. Whether he is acting out because of anxiety or anger or frustration, the point is that self-regulation is a developmental skill and it involves our ability to think our way through emotions and feelings. How we think about the behavior we observe in our children determines what we choose to do about it. If a parent realizes that her child would use a more effective solution if he had the skill to do so, that parent is more likely to seek out proactive teaching solutions, rather than punitive ones.

4. What was the process in developing the incredible 5 point system?

The 5-Point Scale was developed to teach almost any social or emotional concept by breaking the concept into 5 parts and defining each part. The premise of this approach is that some children (or even adults) have difficulty grasping social and emotional concepts, and so can benefit from more defined and systematic training. In the “Worries” book, the scale is used to define the levels of worry (no worry; a sometimes worry; a nervous worry, an angry worry and a really big worry that I can’t handle). After defining the 5 levels, it is easier, and hopefully not as overwhelming, to practice positive solutions to each level.

A scale is a non-judgmental system for teaching and processing information that is typically assumed. The approach is considered a cognitive behavioral approach to teaching.

The scale was originally developed to support students who have difficulty understanding social situations. It is a method of taking what might seem like an illusive concept and making it more concrete, tangible and systematic. The first scale developed was a “voice volume” scale for a student who did not understand that he was being too loud when talking to peers in social situations. He had been told many times that he was “too loud” or to “keep it down”, but he never really understood what that meant and so continued to talk too loud. His educational team developed a 5-point scale for voice volume where #1 was no talking at all (like when the teacher is talking); #2 was soft talking (like in the library); #3 was conversation talking (like in the hallway with your friends); #4 was loud talking (like outside at recess or at a ball game); and #5 was screaming (for emergencies only). We then label the school environments with numbers indicating which voice volume was most often used in that area. The hallway was #3. We then practiced the different voice levels with a recorder so that he could experience what each level felt like. We then practiced hallway talking so he could recognize when he started to climb into a #4 voice and then adjust. Finally, we assured him that we knew he did not mean to talk too loudly, and that we would try to help him by using a #3 card reminder if we noticed that his voice was getting too high in the hallway. We promised not to say anything to him in front of his friends to avoid any embarrassment.

The success of this program led to the book The Incredible 5-Point Scale which is now in its’ second edition.

5. What is the best way to implement the 5 point scale at home with a younger child (preschool to 2nd grade)?

A scale can be used whenever your natural teaching methods have not worked. We tend to teach naturally by using words to define our expectations. If your child does not seem to understand, try using a scale – for some children, the numbers and levels are easier to understand than words. There is also some work to support the use of a visual system vs. abstract or spontaneous verbal feedback to teach an anxious child. A research biologist, Dr. Martha Schmidt said, “Under stress, the brain favors rigid “habit” memory over more flexible cognitive memory.” The scale is meant to be just that, a rigid, repetitive and over-practiced tool. Assuming the problem is chronic anxiety, I would recommend reading the story When My Worries Get Too Big and then developing a personalized scale for your child. The book walks you through the process of making a personalized scale.

Once the scale is developed, post it on the refrigerator or somewhere it can be easily seen and studied as a reminder. Start referring to levels of stress and anxiety in numbers (“I could tell that you felt like a #3 when your TV show was cancelled). Be sure the scale includes good ideas about what your child can do when his worries start to grow. I recommend you focus on levels 2 and 3 since when a child is at a 4 it is usually too late to easily re-direct him.

For example, a 2 is just a little worry but what can he do to make a little worry go away? Sometimes that might be taking the dog for a walk, talking about the worry, taking a bath or listening to calming music. A 3 is a nervous worry and so if this is how your child is feeling, the activities might include something more substantial such as creating a calendar for a child who has a nervous worry about a parent being out of town, or creating a photo book of things that make your child feel relaxed (his bed, a special vacation place, a family pet, etc.). This works like an intro to visualization for young children. We often recognize early signs of worry (whining, ruminating, etc.) but tend to wait until the worry is too big to ignore before responding. By then the emotions can be too big for your child to manage.

A big part of using the scale is recognition that anxiety is not a character flaw, and the solution will need to be proactive, systemized and supportive in nature.

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