New View EDU Episode 48: Full Transcript

Read the full transcript of Episode 48 of the NAIS New View EDU podcast, which features Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, author of Future Tense: Why Anxiety is Good for You Even Though it Feels Bad, joining host Tim Fish to discuss her research on the benefits of anxiety and the lessons it can teach us.

Tim Fish: One topic that has come up over the past four seasons has been this notion of how our students and our teachers in our schools are grappling with burnout, anxiety and depression at levels we’ve never seen before.  This was definitely a real issue as we went into the pandemic, and it is even worse now that we have come out.  Today’s conversation is going to focus on this important issue.  

I am delighted to welcome Dr. Tracy Dennis-Tiwary to our studio. Tracy is a clinical psychologist, scientist, author, and health tech entrepreneur. She’s a professor of psychology and neuroscience at The City University of New York, and co-founded the digital therapeutics company Arcade Therapeutics. Tracy is also an independent school mom and the author of Future Tense: Why Anxiety is Good for You Even Though it Feels Bad.

I was introduced to Tracy’s work at the 2023 NAIS Annual Conference in Las Vegas.  Tracy was a keynote speaker, and as she spoke and I saw the way she connected with attendees, I told myself, “We have got to find a way to bring her ideas to our audience on New View EDU!” You are absolutely going to love this conversation.

Tracy, welcome to New View EDU. We are so excited to have you here today.

Tracy Dennis-Tiwary: Tim, I'm so happy to be with you.

Tim Fish: So thank you for taking some time to share your experience with our listeners. When you were at the NAIS annual conference, I loved your keynote, and I've been really enjoying Future Tense, that I got after the conference, and just love it. I recommend it to all of our listeners. To paraphrase one of my favorite movies, Jerry Maguire, you had me at hello with the subtitle of your book, Why Anxiety is Good for You, Even Though it Feels Bad.

That notion is so counterintuitive. Most people I know don't think of anxiety as being something that's good for you. So please help me understand, or as Bill Gates often says, unconfuse me.

Tracy Dennis-Tiwary: I'll do my best, Tim. And thanks for, you know, you fall into, there are two group reactions to that subtitle. And I'm really happy you were intrigued by this idea that anxiety, yes, it feels bad, but it can really be a healthy part of being human and doing great things in the world. 

So when I wrote this book, I had been, already, a professional psychologist and researcher for 20 years. And what I saw is that we had amazing solutions for anxiety, whether that's therapy, whether that's wellness practices. There's wonderful school-based interventions and supports for helping people work through anxiety. But yet when you look around, despite all these tools, rates of anxiety disorders are on the rise. And I really had to grapple with a sense of personal failure, honestly. Really a sense that what are we doing wrong? Because all this should be working. 

And so what I came to realize, and what I really tried to capture in the title of my book and the storytelling and translation of science I do, is that actually anxiety is a healthy part of being human. It's not always a disorder, although I fully acknowledge the pain and suffering caused by anxiety disorders. They are real. But anxiety is an emotion that evolved to serve us as human beings, and to help us survive and thrive. And it does feel bad, because it has to feel bad to do its job, which we can talk about that more. 

And that when we, I believe that one of the sources of the sense of, well, my personal sense of failure as a mental health professional is that, why have we not conveyed this double edged sword aspect of anxiety to people? Because it's meta anxiety, our anxiety about anxiety, that truly makes anxiety worse and drives us, often, down the path to not being able to cope well with it. So this was really like at the meta level, this was, this was part of my goal and why it is a bit of a controversial subtitle, perhaps.

Tim Fish: It sure is. Well, you know, and you go on to say within the book, and in your talks, that we actually need it. And I think about my own time as a parent, right? And I think about how much of what I did was almost to relieve my children from having to experience anxiety. And your sense here is this notion that we need it in our lives.

Tracy Dennis-Tiwary: Yeah, and listen, we don't have to worry about anxiety showing up or not. It's going to show up. It's going to show up, number one. 

Tim Fish: It's going to show up. It already has three times today.

Tracy Dennis-Tiwary: Yeah, exactly. At least for me. And so, and really as a parent as well, as well as a researcher and an educator, I think about what our...our task is, our sort of our responsibility is for our kids, whether they're our biological kids or our students. And what I've come to realize, and which actually clinical science tells us and research tells us, is that the only way out of anxiety, because we do want to relieve suffering, we shouldn't be suffering all the time, but the only way out is through. Which means what we really need to help kids do is figure out how to be anxious in the right ways. It's not going anywhere. We're never going to eradicate it. And to give them the sense of confidence and the skills and the inner strength to do that well in life and actually use anxiety for some of its positive purposes, why we evolved to have it.

Tim Fish: So what are those positive purposes? What are those things that anxiety can do for us?

Tracy Dennis-Tiwary: To explain that, I just want to briefly define anxiety, because anxiety feels like a lot of things in our life. It feels like fear, it feels like stress. But anxiety is a very specific type of emotion. Anxiety is apprehension about the uncertain future. So what that means is that when we're anxious, we're not actually in the moment. We're actually becoming mental time travelers into the future.

And what anxiety both signals and helps us do really effectively, is picture that future. There is potential threat or peril. That is, you know, that's why it feels bad. We're kind of sitting up and paying attention. But at the same time, when we're anxious, there is also still positive possibility. So when we're anxious about an upcoming podcast interview, for example, like, you know, I could be like, oh, gosh, I'm going to be talking with Tim Fish. It could go terrible. I could have nothing to say.

And that's part of the anxiety. But the other part is that we could have a great conversation. I'm so looking forward to meeting him, and what a wonderful podcast and organization. And so anxiety is not despair. Because if I only focused on the negative, I would give up. And anxiety keeps us in it to win it.

So it's this emotion that pushes us like a wave forward, into this future where we now have the energy, both biological, cognitive, attentional, like focus, persistence, to avert disaster and work our best to make our dreams come true. That is why the emotion of anxiety is one of the greatest assets we have as human beings. It's one of our greatest allies. We just have to negotiate with it like any ally.

Tim Fish: And so your sense is, what I'm hearing is that when I feel it, as I did yesterday, I was working with a school, I was going to work with this one school, this leadership team of a school for four hours. I was trying something I had never done before. It's a long block of time, I didn't know these folks. And there was a lot of sort of risk involved, and a lot of excitement about what might come, right?

And I found the night before, you know, as everyone does, going through the slides, going through the exercises, what am I going to do? I almost had that sweaty palms kind of feeling, that sort of palpitation of my heart. But it also, you're right, it did, it got me up, it got me going, right? And I guess at that moment, right, how can I sort of step away from that? A good friend of mine who does a lot of meditation talks about this notion of getting to a point where your thoughts can come by and you can be disconnected from them and you can kind of look at them, and kind of look at them as a dispassionate third party in some ways, right? And I'm wondering, is that part of how we sort of respond? Like, I know I can become conscious of the fact that I am in that anxious moment, and not be debilitated by it.

Tracy Dennis-Tiwary: It's an absolutely necessary first step, because when anxiety becomes problematic, it's usually because we think of it as dangerous, as a signal that we're broken, and we start avoiding it. So we start doing everything we can. We contort ourselves, our lives, to suppress it and avoid it and eradicate it like it's cancer. And it's not cancer, it's actually this essential part of being human. 

So you already said two or three ways that are very powerful kind of way—Once we have this mindset that there's potential good, we have to enact that mindset, and the first step is to listen to anxiety. And one of the best ways, as you're saying, to listen to it, is to be able to take that step back. Now, if we think anxiety is dangerous or a sign that we're broken, how can we possibly do that? It's really going—So this attitude that anxiety is bad actually sets us up and primes us to do unhelpful things, to not engage. 

So there's mindfulness, this notion of creating a space between having the emotion and reacting to it. That's one powerful way. I talk about it in my book and in other work I do, I talk about the crucial first step being listening. That's because when we listen to anxiety, we first acknowledge there's something useful to listen to, potentially. We become curious.

And so now what we're saying is, oh, and just like you said, you gave words to it, and not just nervousness, but excitement. So you've already started to listen to this physical and mental experience by saying, well, I'm nervous, but I'm also excited, and I really care about this, and it's something new and uncertain. So that means I have an opportunity. So do you see, by immediately engaging and being curious about this experience and kind of leaning into it, all these vistas open up to you? And again, anxiety and uncertainty are the key. That's what goes hand in hand, not just threat, not fear. It's really that uncertainty, which means we're trying to tell the future. We're trying to create the life we want.

Tim Fish: Uncertainty about the future. You know, one of the topics that we've been talking about a lot in this season of New View EDU is this idea of like, there's a couple of words that are thrown around in schools. One is rigor and the other is excellence. And a lot of times when we talk, when parents and other folks talk about, I want a rigorous, challenging, excellent experience for my child, there's a whole lot packed in that language, right?

And so we've often said like, we gotta move away from that, because in that is often a lot of stress, a lot of anxiety, a lot of worry, a lot of perfectionism, a lot of those kinds of things that are unhealthy for young people. And yet, we've also been talking, in our conversations, about the necessity for resilience and how important it is for students to experience what we call productive struggle, right? That sort of like, right, we don't want school to be not challenging, right? If you look at Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work around flow, it requires complexity and challenge. So the question for me has been, what is the new rigor? What is the new excellence? How do we get to a place where our students can develop and sit in that productive struggle, in that angst, and develop resilience?

And you said the only way is the way through it. So I'd love it if I could hear more about sort of how that all connects to this larger conversation we've been having.

Tracy Dennis-Tiwary: Tim, you've literally put your finger on why I wrote this book. And by the way, I first wrote this book as a book for teen anxiety, because I come out of a developmental—

Tim Fish: It's helping me,Tracy, it's helping me.

Tracy Dennis-Tiwary: Well, thank you. But I wanted to have, I think it is applicable to a broader audience, but this is so crucial. I think this is the question.

The fundamental question for 21st century parents and 21st century educators. And I think one, the first simple way to think about this is we are living in uncertain and rapidly changing times. We cannot protect our kids from that, and nor should we. We need to prepare them. And how do we prepare them? We allow them to have that productive struggle. 

So if we are protecting them, we are creating an opportunity cost. Doesn't mean we have to throw them into the deep end and let them fall, but it means that when they go into the swimming pool, maybe they start with little floaties, or maybe we give them swim lessons. We have to let them struggle. And there's several reasons from my perspective and a psychological perspective, I think that's crucial. 

One is that our emotions, that when we're emotionally struggling, it doesn't indicate that our kids are fragile and we should protect them from feeling those feelings. It's actually showing us that our kids have an opportunity to be anti-fragile. And if people are familiar with that term, it's this idea that was coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb a number of years ago. He's, you know, I think, you know, he comes from corporate environments and economics, and he talked about this concept that when something is fragile, it's like a China teacup. You drop it and it breaks in a million pieces. You will never be able to put it back together again.

But when something's anti-fragile, it actually grows from challenge and uncertainty. And then you want people to be resilient, which is a word you just mentioned. You want them to be able to bounce back from challenges, not be fragile. But anti-fragility is actually growing stronger because of them. So the immune system is anti-fragile. So we have to throw germs at it, bacteria. It has to be challenged to actually function optimally. And our emotions are the same thing.

We have to challenge our emotions so that we can build skills and strength and endurance to go through them. And then actually, sort of like the yes and improv technique, to engage with these different, whatever the world throws your way, whatever learning challenges, whatever life challenges, you take it, you spin it forward and you do something with it. 

Now, we're going to fall down sometimes. We're going to make mistakes. But an attitude of antifragility, of excellence instead of perfection, requires that we actually, like, really engage and accept mistakes, but know that we can learn from them and grow and get better, and get to excellent, because we've made mistakes.

Tim Fish: That's right. Yeah, it's what Ron Berger in a book called An Ethic of Excellence talks about, this concept of craftsmanship, which is a term I absolutely love, right? And I think about, let's think about a seventh grade teacher. I taught a lot of different seventh grade classes when I was at McDonough School in Maryland. Let's take the year I taught middle school, seventh grade history.

Tracy Dennis-Tiwary: Oh, you're in it in middle school.

Tim Fish: Seventh grade, man, there's a lot going on in that classroom. And let's talk about when, like ways, like I could say, well, you know what? I'm going to give the kids, I'm going to do a pop, let's say pop quiz. And I'm going to use a pop quiz because they have to learn that I'm not going to tell them it's there. They're going to come in, I'm going to say, we're having a pop quiz right now. And I'm going to drop it on them, make them push everything off their desk. And you can say, I'm doing this because I want them to be resilient. I'm doing this because I want them to use their emotions.

I'm wondering, and my gut is telling me, that's not going to generate the kind of situation we want. Right? Because there's a lot going on in that mode that's actually going to put kids in a not helpful situation. What do you think about that? Like, is that, you know what I mean? Cause I could see someone saying, me saying, well, I want to push them. I want them to be uncomfortable. They have to learn to bounce back from stress, you know. So I'm going to create these artificial stressful situations, which sometimes I would imagine are not helpful.

Tracy Dennis-Tiwary: Yes, I think your imagination is getting you to the absolute right conclusion. I'm sure as an educator, you've seen that firsthand. I mean, that's sort of a throw into the deep end approach. And what we know, whether it's education, learning, child development, clinical, you know, kind of knowledge about mental health, scaffolding, the zone of proximal development, which will probably be a term familiar to a lot of educators, this idea that we bring them to the edge of what they're capable of and let them take that next step forward.

Now, that doesn't mean that you never, like sometimes, get the pop quiz and just see what happens. But there's two things about that. Not only is it so much more effective to build up their endurance, you don't go to the gym for the first time and start, like, you know, like lifting. I don't go to the gym that much. I mean, how many pounds would you lift? Like a hundred? I don't know. Like, you know, whatever they lift. 

Tim Fish: I don't know. Whatever. Too much. I don't know. Whatever.

Tracy Dennis-Tiwary: You don't go from zero to a hundred.You start with little 10 pound weights. And it's the same for this emotional endurance. We have to think of not psychological or mental health so much as mental fitness. I just think it sets us up, when it comes especially to anxiety and major anxiety disorders, major depressive disorder, substance use disorders or these kinds of struggles. Let's think about fitness, because we can build these skills for people, we can help them. But you don't do it by going from zero to 100.

Tim Fish: I think you're spot on. And I'll tell you one of my lessons, from all my years of teaching, was that when the student is not invested and doesn't care, unhealthy stress is more likely to enter the space. And when the student cares deeply about what she's working on, then healthy stress can more readily develop, right?

So if this notion, like Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, who was on our podcast, talks about, you can't learn about something you don't care about, right? And so in my pop quiz example, when I pop that on them, it's like my control, they don't care about it, they're not engaged, they're not invested. And so it's going to open the door to a lot of unhealthy stress, right? This is going to affect your grade, blah blah blah, right?

But if I have them working on a project, as I sometimes was able to do, and they were all in and they were invested, they would push themselves for excellence because they cared. They would push themselves into some stressful environments where they wanted to work hard and stretch because they cared, right? So one of my wonderings is, how much is my, like that thing I just talked about with that faculty that I was working with.

I had a lot of anxiety the night before, but I cared deeply. And it feels to me like I was able to navigate that anxiety more because I cared. Is that accurate? Am I making any sense at all?

Tracy Dennis-Tiwary: Oh, 100% Tim. I mean, in many senses, we are only anxious when we care.

We don't get anxious about stuff that doesn't matter to us. Now, the trick here is when you'd give a pop quiz to a kid, if they don't feel any anxiety, they're either, they know this stuff down, you know, it's all down pat, or they really don't care about grades, right? But how about everyone else? One way we can talk about anxiety in the classroom is to frame it as this, OK, how are you guys feeling now? OK, let's talk about this. What are you caring about? 

So not only do we cultivate that caring about the material, which I agree with 100%, but we can interpret this anxiety as a way of caring, that that's our emotions telling us we care, because there's both the possibility that something could go wrong, or we could have this opportunity to learn, or to get good grades, or to, like, why do you care? Let's talk about this, let's cultivate this. 

So it sort of opens up this whole conversation, which also tunes, I think, students towards more purpose, because I think a potential, I'd be really curious what you think about this Tim, actually an idea I've been thinking a lot about, which is that we focus a lot as parents and maybe as educators on helping kids find passion. And the truth is that can really backfire, because the minute, like, OK, what's your passion in life? I don't know what my passion, OK, figure out your passion because that's how you find success. That's how you find joy. The minute it doesn't work out or you don't figure out your passion, actually, what research shows is that people end up more depressed, have a lower sense of well-being, lower quality of life. 

But when we instead tune young people towards purpose, towards finding a purpose, which is something that matters to you and has potential to impact others, it starts to actually open up all the opportunities for joy, investment, caring, just like you talk about. But the negative impacts of when things don't work out or you make mistakes, they become less. And you remember, I'm doing this because it matters to myself and the world. And I just wonder what you think about that, passion versus purpose?

Tim Fish: I love it. I think it's so powerful because also in passion, it's this like, I find often when I've worked with students and I've used the term like, what are you passionate about? You know, and they kind of look at you like, I'm supposed to be passionate about something? I don't know. I don't have like, there's this like performance anxiety, right? Where it's like, I've got to be like, passionate about something, but actually, I don't have that right now, right? 

And I think the same is a little bit true with purpose and I think the distinction, the way you put it is spot on in terms of this, this is what we're trying to get to, this idea of like, who am I, what journey am I on? 

You know, I'm curious, Tracy, as a parent, I think about my own children and how they've had times when they've been trying something new and they've been anxious, and I have not always done a great job. And I know that there's a story you shared in your keynote about a time when your son, I believe, was trying to learn to ride a bike and you had this sort of tech, fortunately or unfortunately, you recorded yourself. And I just, can you share that story with our listeners? Because I think it opens the door to this idea of listening and this idea of how are we present with others at certain times?

Tracy Dennis-Tiwary: Right, and it's also, yes, absolutely. And it's also, in addition, about our parental anxiety about our kids' anxiety, which of course is rooted in our own anxiety about anxiety is damaging, it's destructive, it means they're broken. So it's this mindset. So, my son is now going on 15, just got out of middle school, actually just ending, yay, believe me, oh my God. 

And so he was around eight or nine, and we're raising our kids in Manhattan. And he had not yet learned to ride a bike. Now I'm a suburban, I grew up in the suburbs. And this summer I was like, oh my gosh, you know, he has to learn to ride a bike. I had this real sense of, I don't know what, I don't know, like what, does he have to be able to ride a bike to like escape, I don't know, like, burglars? Like I don't know why, but I did. I had it in my head. And so, you know, I had this old bike. We happened to be out of the city. We were in the country. We were on a gravelly road. I got an old, like, it was 20 years old, at least this old BMX Gremlin, if you remember those.

Tim Fish: Oh yeah, I remember the Gremlin!

Tracy Dennis-Tiwary: And it's like a tank. It's like a million pounds and my son, Covey. I was like, OK Covey. We're going to go learn now. Let's go. So, you know, we're doing it, you know, we're on this like inclined gravelly road. It's really scary, you know, it's really, but he's doing it. He's doing well. I'm kind of taking little videos and he's starting to grumble and complain and then he starts to be like “I'm scared” and I was like, but you're doing great. You're doing great. Anyway, long story short, I finally sort of throw my hands up because I'm getting frustrated with him, because I'm seeing, he’s doing wonderfully, why all the complaining, what is this about? 

So we sort of, you know, we start marching up the hill. Now that recording I'd done of his riding, on my, you know, on my phone, it just kept on going. I never turned it off. So I have this, I have it in my pocket and it's getting all the audio. So I'm giving him what I think is like this tough love, like yeah, like, you know, and get to the top of the hill and he kind of goes up to his room and is kind of upset, and I pull out my phone and I was like, oh, I guess I just recorded my, my great parenting tough love moment by mistake. Let me hit replay and listen to it. And when I tell you it was a barrage of shaming. “Why are you scared? You don't need to be scared. You're doing great.” Like denying his anxiety.

Tim Fish: Yes, yes, oh I've been there!

Tracy Dennis-Tiwary: Oh my God, because you know, because I had this idea of achievement and I felt so concerned. How could he be anxious when he's doing well? Is there a problem with him? Even though I know better. As a parent, all that goes out the window at these moments, right? Something really mattered to me about this. I even told him, you know, I should just push you off the bike. And then you'd know that it wasn't that big of a deal. Like literally I was threatening him, shaming him. I couldn't believe that I'd said these things. So it was a real, as you kind of said, I don't know, it was a gift or a good thing. It was a gift from the universe, because it allowed me then to understand my approach, what I'd actually done and said. And I called him downstairs and I played the recording for him.

And it was hard because it was, it was rough. It was rough. And I transcribe it in my book. I was a guest on another podcast called The Hidden Brain and they played the whole darn thing. Whew. I don't know. I gave it to them. I kind of thought they’d play it like a delicate snippet. They played the whole, it's painful. It's, it's rough.

But he and I were able to work through it. And when I said to him at the end, you know, you're taking one from, you know, really from Mr. Rogers in a sense, you know, I was like, you know, bud, this was, this was about me. This wasn't about you. You had every right to feel nervous, to feel anxious, to be scared. You know, I love you exactly the way you are. I really understand why you felt that way. And I would have too. And I'm really, I'm really sorry. 

Tim Fish: Well, I love your authenticity and I love your vulnerability and your ability to share that with others. There's so many people, me included, probably would’ve just deleted it and said, man, I hope no one ever hears me doing that. And your willingness to share, it's incredible. 

And you know, one of the things I'm wondering, Tracy, from a parent's perspective is sort of, there are two things that are in my mind as you're describing that. One is maybe the, when I think about my own anxiety of teaching my child to ride a bike, and the story that I play about what that experience is going to be like. And in my head, I played this movie where this is some amazing parent, father-daughter experience, and she's riding the bike and I'm next to her and she turns around and she says, thank you, Dad, you taught me to ride a bike. And like, we hug and there's this great thing. And then when they're frustrated and they're angry and they're not getting it, the movie's not playing the way I thought the movie was going to play.

And it creates that frustration for me, right? Is that, do you think that's there for a lot of parents when we think about, when parents go to that place, either when they're talking to a school or they're talking to their child or they're talking with their spouse?

Tracy Dennis-Tiwary: That is a fantastic point. I think that's 100% what's happening. And part of the reason we have these expectations and these movies playing through our head, I think, is because, you know, I don't know, I grew up in the 70s and 80s. And I feel like back then, yeah, I mean, parents had standards. We all, you know, parents tried to be great parents, but they kind of, you know, they let us figure out stuff. 

Tim Fish: Yeah, they didn't care. I would, they didn't care. My mother didn't care what I did. 

Tracy Dennis-Tiwary: I know, right? I was like playing with the glass. I was taking off on my bike, my bike, like going somewhere. So, yeah. 

Tim Fish: Out in the woods for days at a time, doing whatever we were doing in the woods.

Tracy Dennis-Tiwary: But we parents today, it's a different parenting world. And part of, I think, the gift and the problem of the parenting space right now, if I may say, is that we have this sort of parenting advice industrial complex, right? Where I feel that, as wonderful as the advice out there is, it's created this culture in which we feel like we have to check off 100 out of 100 boxes on the good parenting checklist. And if we don't, we're a bad parent, we're letting down our kid. 

This is a very, really uncertain world, and we feel like we’re almost in a scarcity mindset. If we're not bringing 100% to our kids, they're getting in the right school, having the right emotional support, having the right, and you know how we parents can really like lean into all the right things, we feel that we're not setting them up for success in this scary new, brave world. 

So I think that, but I think your movie, kind of metaphor there and what's running through our head is exactly spot on. And I think, and this is why I'm so glad you started with this question of how do we help our kids succeed? How do we support them? Because what I've started to realize is that we have to, like the biggest piece of parenting advice I want to give parents is, if you forget everything else, just remember to let your kids jump in and figure out stuff. And you can finish the rest of that sentence with whatever word you like. Because honestly, that's the greatest gift we can give them.

Because otherwise we are, if we're snow plowing, if we're helicoptering, we know these terms, we are preventing them from developing what I like to think of as moxie, if you know that old fashioned term. What moxie is, is this, it's curiosity, it's knowing that you have to make mistakes and can pick yourself back up again, it's learning to live with uncertainty and discomfort, and that is the 21st century superpower.

Right? Knowing you need to do these things and focusing on purpose more than passion, because passion is going to leave you one day. And understanding that you don't have to change the world, but you can have a sense of what your place in the universe is that meets up with your goals and your North Star and who you are as a person.

Tim Fish: I love it. I love the development of Moxie in kids and, and trying to get to that place. And what does that look like as a teacher? You know, I've, I've quoted before this guy, Jeff Sandifur, who created this network of schools called Acton Academies. There's now over 200 of them around the world. And the big, big part, one of the things he talks about as an educator, our job needs to be to step back.

Right? So when kids are working on a project and it all starts to go haywire, right? His message is you gotta step back and not get in and fix it, right? One of the big things I did as a teacher is I thought it was my job to, whenever a child began to struggle, to relieve that struggle, to help them give the answer, to help them figure it out, to help do the work, to help whatever. 

And what I'm curious about is in a school environment, right? There's this one school I was working with recently, the faculty had spent a whole lot of time talking about what it looks like to care for a student. What is care? What does it mean to be nurturing? And where do we cross that line, right? To where we're caring so much that we're not allowing them to experience that struggle, that productive struggle we talked about.

And I think that's a real, 'cause I think we want to be, as teachers and educators, we want to care, we want to be helpful, but do we walk over the line? When did we walk over the line? What does it look like to walk over the line, right? I know when I was teaching math, that was hard for me. Allowing kids to sit in the angst, the ambiguity of a new mathematical concept was hard for me. So I wonder about that notion, because I think you're right. And what Sandifur says is you gotta step back. But then he says, when it starts to fall apart even more, you've gotta step back again. Like that's the part where I'm like, what? Step back again and really let it fall apart. Because that's when kids figure it out.

Tracy Dennis-Tiwary: Right. And this is for learning and this is for their emotional figuring it out, because the two are, I don't need to tell any teacher that, that the emotional figuring out and the intellectual figuring it out go hand in hand. I agree 100%. I think, and this is the same question with parenting. Like what's the line after, where we support, let struggle, but don't let them fall.

I think there's two key things to think about there. One is, whatever we're thinking to do to help them in the moment, and we can be like, oh my gosh, in the moment you just do what you can do, but stop and say, OK, am I trying to take away their feeling? And if what you're doing, if whatever it is you've chosen to do is serving to take away the feeling, stop.

Because this is where the curiosity, the engaging, and knowing that you have to allow, you have to honor this person, this young person enough, to allow them the dignity and the confidence to experience that emotion, and to believe that they can survive it and figure out what to do with it and what to do about it.

So I think that's the very first thing, am I trying to take away the emotion? And then the second thing is, am I telling them what the solution is? Right? So, and so, you know, we all know this as educators. It's like, you don't want to tell them the answer to the question. It's in the struggle that we figure out anything. And that's why we, I think as educators too, we think about AI as not just, you know, cheating. It's really, are kids actually going to go around the process of learning, which means you have to sit in not knowing. And then try something and it's not going to work again, and then try something and it's not going to work again. Thomas Edison, who said—and I think of him as someone who was an excellence-ist, right, someone who didn't get stopped by perfectionism—he said I haven't failed, I've just found 10,000 ways that don't work. 

We have to let our kids be Thomas Edison, and again, not just to achieve or to solve, but to also to gain the emotional confidence and dignity and belief that they can do it. Because I think kids today don't believe they can handle their anxiety and their sadness. They feel that they're going to spiral and lose control and it will destroy them. And we have to allow them to know that 99% of the time, they will be able to handle it.

Tim Fish: I'm with you and I think that's so spot on. And yet, as you said in the beginning of this, that while anxiety is good and needed, anxiety disorder is real. And we have to be on the lookout for things that tell us, this child, this individual has maybe turned a corner a little bit. What are those things as a teacher, or as a parent, back to my seventh grade classroom, that I should be looking out for? That tell me maybe this isn't a student journeying with productive anxiety, but in fact, this has maybe turned a corner?

Tracy Dennis-Tiwary: I'm so glad you brought that question up, Tim. It really is important. It's really hard, because we can see kids struggling in school and really experiencing significant anxiety every day. Now, that doesn't mean they shouldn't get support. That doesn't mean we don't like really, you know, and maybe, you know, talking to a counselor, talking to someone, never hesitate to suggest that because all of us can benefit, right? But that can actually be part of that productive struggle, right, that anxiety.

But when we should really kind of amp up our concern is when we see three things about the child's anxiety. It's that the anxiety is starting to be out of context to where it really should be. So, you know, it's normal to get really anxious about a pop quiz. Like, we can see that, right? But if they're getting anxious with every performance demand, or having to go talk to a new teacher that they haven't met before, and it's not just a little anxiety. It's pretty intense and it's starting to get in their way, like, that contextualization is important. So we want it to be in context, not out of context too often. 

Then there's, is it disproportional? So maybe it makes sense to get really, you know, get anxious around a pop quiz, but do they shut down? It makes sense to get anxious when a teacher gives you some tough feedback, but do they completely cut off and stop communicating? So the disproportion as well. So context, is it proportionate? And then I think the third thing is really the hallmark of an experience that's starting to veer towards an anxiety disorder. The hallmark is avoidance and functional impairment. Meaning, when you're diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, it's not that you have a lot of anxiety. That's not enough. It's that the ways you're coping with that anxiety are getting in the way of living your life well.

And it's, so we call that functional impairment. So you're not turning in your homework anymore. You're starting to skip school. You're cutting off from your friends. You're not seeing your family. You can see that, and a lot of those symptoms are actually just ineffective coping strategies for this experience of anxiety. So if we're starting to see them falling off what they need to do, even if they're, you know, struggle’s one thing, but if they're really, if this is getting in the way, that's another red flag.

Tim Fish: That was so helpful. So helpful though, as a way of thinking about that, as we design for that environment. I also love what you said, Tracy, that this is the superpower, this moxie, this ability to sort of go through it, to persist with something, is that superpower. And I think it also involves this thing that I always think about as executive function, right?

That if you have that ability to plan and execute and make and sort of move things forward in your own life. I think, I look at my sort of times where I've not been, had that, and that was really debilitating, when I feel like I've been lost that way. 

So I'm curious, as you think about school, and we talk about the reality of the world we're in today with students, what are some of your hopes for where we might go with schools? What would be some of the hopes that you have for where teachers and schools go in order to learn your lessons, and how might school evolve?

Tracy Dennis-Tiwary: You know, I really, and there's, this is not a new idea to teachers, but I think that teachers, we do so much.

We know that the burden of, you know, there are a lot of teachers, whether you have resources in your school, lots of resources or not a lot of resources, you know, people want to make changes in the school and it really, the burden sometimes can be so heavy on teachers' shoulders. So that now you're expected to do more and you're already, like, the superhero, right? So there are wonderful curricula and you know, around emotional intelligence, emotional health, how to integrate. And I think all of those are incredible.

And I know teachers, because people who become teachers, I mean, I don't have to tell you. I mean, these are people who are purpose-driven people. So there's always this curiosity and openness and wanting to change. So I think that there are great resources out there. Keep availing yourselves of them and understanding that emotional intelligence and academic intelligence, as we know, go hand in hand. So I think that's one thing that schools need to continue to do and support teachers in finding ways to integrate that.

The other thing is, you know, one thing I think a lot about is how do we do more of this design, this kind of learning design, not just for, you know, independent schools that tend to have more resources than others, but for all of our schools? How do we help teachers think through and give them techniques and resources to actually create more learning experiences where we empower and kind of allow kids to, you know, to have more of almost like a lab, you know, a lab-based experimental experience. Like, how can we, with all the expectations and burdens and all of this sort of, and assessments, and how do we still put cultivating curiosity and taking chances, intellectual chances, at the center of education and pedagogy?

I think it's not, you know, when we think about how do we create citizens of the future and successful people of the future and people with well-being in the future, it's not going to be credentials, it's not going to be book smarts. I don't even think it's going to be the typical 21st century skills like collaboration or critical thinking. And those are all important.

You know, but I think what's really going to distinguish people who can succeed and thrive from those who struggle is this ability to innovate and figure out stuff and tolerate uncertainty and ambiguity. And so I think, center to our educational efforts needs to be opportunities, more opportunities, because it's a world in which those opportunities are being taken away from kids mostly for the best of intentions, because we're in this protection mode instead of preparation mode.

Tim Fish: Well, it makes me think about this whole notion of sort of the pursuit of wellbeing, right? And how in order to get to wellbeing, we have to design an environment that involves some productive struggle in the right context, in the right way, et cetera. And that we don't protect our way to wellbeing. We don't shelter our way to wellbeing, right?

And so... Again, it's all this design challenge. It's all the way we sort of do it. And there's a right, and there's a good way and bad ways and all kinds of things. I happen to not think that my pop quiz example is a very good way to do it. Right. I think there's a lot of other ways to design the environment. And I think that there's, the imperative is on us to do that. Because our students need that ability more than ever. 

I'll tell you, Tracy, wow, what a great conversation. I knew this was going to be something. 

Tracy Dennis-Tiwary: Ah, same Tim, I felt the same going in, that you and I would hit it off. 

Tim Fish: You’re so fun to talk to. And you know, I think our listeners are really going to appreciate this. So thank you, thank you, thank you. Any closing comments, any closing thoughts before we head out?

Tracy Dennis-Tiwary: Just to say, and thank you, Tim, this was such a wonderful conversation, and I feel so productive and so many great thoughts. And thank you for the inspiration.

I do want to say, just building off your last point, that we have to, we mental health professionals and educators need to change the conversation about mental health to say, mental health is not the absence of anxiety and sadness and struggle. And you know, it's not the absence of falling down sometimes. It is the presence of the ability to productively struggle. That is mental health. And once we shift that definition, I think we will be primed to do many more of the helpful, more supportive things for our kids, for ourselves, and for designing these learning environments, as you've been speaking about.

Tim Fish: That's a powerful concept, Tracy, that mental health is not the absence of struggle. Mental health is the ability to struggle. And as you've said from the very beginning, to go through it. It's that notion that's so, so powerful. Thank you, thank you, thank you. What a great conversation.

Tracy Dennis-Tiwary: Thank you, Tim.