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Nurturing Competence

Sep 08, 2022

The fun, or if you don’t like surprises, daunting part of working at a school is you never know where you might wind up on a given day - especially if a teacher is out sick. And this is how a drama therapist found herself teaching a middle school math class. I looked over the lesson plan. Math was my Achilles heal growing up, and here it was coming back to haunt me -as I sat there baffled. To make matters worse, I knew this class was struggling with anxiety around math, even with their brilliant and highly competent teacher. So, I did what any self-respecting drama therapist would do- I grabbed a puppet.

Gabby The Dragon was a fan favorite amongst students and I hoped she could provide some direction. I dashed into the class and told the students, "We've got a big problem! Gabby is TERRIFIED of Math…even at the sound of the word, she COMPLETELY freaks out!" Their interest was piqued, and of course, they had to test out the validity of my claim by calling out the word “MAth!” over and over again. Gabby hid under the desk and yelled, “No! You can’t make me!” One student jumped up and said, “Don’t worry, Gabby I will help you. He spontaneously led her in some deep breathing exercises and then proceeded to  desensitized her to the word "Math" by having HER say it softly.

Once she was able to say the word Math while staying calm, another student went up to the board and wrote three problems. Gabby started to lose it again, stating “Oh no! That is making me anxious!” The student at the whiteboard reassured her, "Gabby, it is going to be okay! I made it easy for you. Look, the answer is the number 1 for all three problems, so there is no way you can get it wrong. It will build your confidence!” Gabby solved each problem, and every time she got dysregulated, they told her to breathe and cheered her on to try again.

Once she had solved all three problems, we all celebrated her victory. When their teacher returned the next day, the students reported their success in conquering Gabby’s Math fear. Without so much as a second thought, they eagerly jumped into the math lesson. While I am blown away by their ability to problem-solve, execute advanced cognitive-behavioral techniques, and use error-less learning, I am most moved by the gentle and skillful way these middle-schoolers held Gabby’s anxiety while nurturing her competence- a lesson for us all.