I have been teaching college and university students on the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis, for more than 10 years now. I have also noticed that as time passed, more and more students appeared to be struggling with stress and anxiety. How do I know this? Some of them are telling me, but I have also been approached by more students with requests for accommodations and deferred exams. As I began to speak with colleagues about this, I learned that I was not alone in this experience. College students are under a lot of pressure and in many cases they are separated from support networks or families for the very first time. This in conjunction with the frequency and difficulty of assignments can be very stressful for many students.
As a Behavior Analyst, I am very much a believer in the notion that “the student is always right” and feel that if my students are not learning what I am trying to teach then I need to revise how I am teaching it. Along those same lines, if there is something that I can do to support my students to maximize learning potential I will always try my best to do so. Toward that end there is a therapy that is based on the principles of Behavior Analysis called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). It is in fact part of the curriculum for some of the courses that I teach, but it is more of a conceptual review as opposed to a practical review. As I noticed more and more students suffering I decided to incorporate more experiential exercises to see if it would help some of my students cope with the anxious behavior that they were engaging in. I was fortunate enough to have the mentorship of Dr. Wanda Smith an expert in ACT and Dr. Heather Poole a colleague at the university where I teach. ACT helps people focus on engaging in behavior that produces outcomes that align with his/her values. One of the main premises of ACT is that sometimes anxious behavior may be an attempt to avoid some of the symptoms of stress, such as negative thoughts or bodily sensations. It teaches acceptance and mindfulness based exercises and metaphors to help a person notice the occurrence of these negative thoughts and/or sensations and to accept them without struggling with them.
We were able to develop 10 short ACT exercises (e.g., 10-15 minutes) that I incorporated into weekly lectures for my courses. The most exciting thing for me was that students reported that they really enjoyed the weekly exercises and felt that it made a difference in his/her quality of life. I will be presenting the results for the research that my colleagues and I conducted last fall on the use of ACT with college students at the annual Association for Contextual Behavior Science (ACBS) in Seattle this June. Come out and see our symposium if you would like to hear more about our results. You can also sign up to my newsletter for an update after the conference.