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Facilitating While Avoiding Panic Attacks

Photo by Siami Tan on Unsplash

It was the first day in Dr. John Tatum’s class. After class he was approached by Eddie Gibson, a freshman. “Professor, I get panic attacks whenever I’m in front of a group. I don’t think I can do the discussion facilitation that’s required. Can I be exempt from that part of the class?”

Tatum advised Eddie to visit the counseling center to see if whether they could help make a workable accommodation or whether they would formally exempt him from the facilitation. The counseling center denied the exemption–but referred Eddie to a counselor who had helped students with panic attacks.

The day for Eddie’s facilitation had arrived and Tatum was nervous to see how Eddie would do. To Tatum’s surprise, Eddie entered the room with a smile on his face. He placed the chairs in a semi-circle. Then he opened a bag he was carrying and placed something on each chair. His classmates entered the room and were surprised by what they saw.

“I made cherry-raspberry tarts for each of you to eat while you think about the questions I have on the chart.” The group dug into the tarts as a big smile spread across Eddie’s face. Once the tarts were eaten and the questions were written on paper, Eddie began his facilitation.

“I would like you to summarize what you have written. I’ll capture your thoughts on the charts. And I would like you to do one more thing for me. After you have given me your summaries, would you let me know one of your favorite dishes? I’ll write these on the chart over here.”

Tatum was amazed. There was no evidence of Eddie experiencing a panic attack. The group had a lot of fun also listing their favorite dishes.

At the end of class, Eddie looked to his classmates and said, “This is the first time I’ve ever been in front of a group and not had a panic attack. Professor Tatum sent me to the counseling center to get help with my panic management. They recommended that I envision something I enjoy doing when I’m in front of a group. I love to cook. That’s why I started with the tarts and then asked you to tell me a favorite dish. Each time you mentioned one of your favorite dishes, it brought back memories of when I fixed that dish for my family. Thank you very much for helping me overcome my panic.”

The group burst out in applause and each one of them hugged Eddie on the way out of the room. For Professor Tatum, this was one of the classes he would remember for the rest of his life.

We need to accept students for who they are and not what we idealize them to be. Finding ways to make meaningful accommodations is a way to accept students as they are–and it’s a way to more fully include them in educational activities. Eddie’s education would have been difficult if he had not had this experience. Since discussions are so critical to everything we do in life, it’s valuable for all students, no matter their situation, to learn to participate in and facilitate discussions if they can.

* * *

“It was ability that mattered, not disability, which is a word I’m not crazy about using.” – Marlee Matlin (Actress and activist for those with special needs)


This post is part of our “Think About” education series. These posts are based on composites of real-world experiences, with some details changed for the sake of anonymity. New posts appear Wednesday afternoons.