Miguel hunched over a blank page in his notebook, scowling and biting his lip. I approached him and whispered, “I see you’re having a hard time getting started. Is your writing gremlin acting up?” He nodded slightly, so I continued.

“Could you calmly tell your gremlin that even though writing can be hard for you, you’re trying your best, and you do not want to be insulted?” Miguel inhaled and nodded again, more vigorously this time. “How about letting it know that you need to get your work done, so it’s time for it to go?”

Miguel cracked a smile. “Okay,” he said. Then, using a strategy he’d thought of when we’d first talked about gremlins earlier in the year, he closed his eyes, took a few deep breaths, and silently dismissed his anxieties. Feeling calmer and refocused, he picked up his pencil and began writing.

For over twenty years, I’ve taught students to imagine creatures called “gremlins” as a possible cause for the ordinary anxieties everyone experiences sometimes. It’s an especially useful strategy for those times when a child—or even a whole class—gets stuck, even though they can do the task at hand. I teach the children to use self-calming techniques (which I call “anti-gremlin strategies”) to regain control and settle themselves down in such situations. I’ve used this technique successfully with children in rural, suburban, and urban schools.

How gremlins began
The gremlins idea came to me one wintry day in Vermont when my entire class suddenly lost it during a math pre-test on long division. Even though my students knew that pre-tests didn’t count, the anxiety in the room was palpable. Faces got red. Eyes got teary. No matter how I tried reassuring the children, they continued to writhe in discomfort. I felt horrible. It had
to stop.

“Okay,” I said, “pencils down.” The children eyed me suspiciously. I looked around conspiratorially and whispered: “There has been an invasion in our classroom. An invasion of math gremlins. They’re creatures that feed off people’s bad feelings about themselves. They whisper ‘You’re stupid’ and ‘You can’t do this’ into people’s ears. If we believe them, we feel bad, so the gremlins have more to eat. Then they get bigger and louder. Could that be what’s happening here?”

The children stared. On a roll, I continued, “When someone’s yelling in your ear, it’s hard to stay calm and do your work, isn’t it? I think we need to do something to get rid of our gremlins. Let’s take them outside and tell them to get out of here.”

And so, after donning coats, hats, mittens, and boots, twenty incredulous but joyful children exploded onto the snowy playground, whooping and hollering for a few minutes to chase their gremlins away.

Later, back inside, we talked about how in the future we might handle gremlins before things got so bad, and we listed ways to keep calm so gremlins would have fewer bad feelings to feed on. Finally, just before handing out fresh copies of the pre-test, I asked each child to choose the self-calming strategy he or she would use if the gremlins returned. Prepared in this way, the children moved smoothly through the test.

Afterwards, I thought about why my spur-of-the-moment idea had worked so well. I realized that calling the situation “a gremlin attack” helped the children see themselves as separate from the problem. Personifying the anxiety that was interfering with their learning made it into something we could handle as a team. Naming the problem “gremlins” helped shift the children’s perspective so they could focus on solutions, instead of feeling overwhelmed by frustration.

Introducing gremlins as an everyday tool
Nowadays, I don’t wait for an extraordinary situation to introduce gremlins. I keep an eye out during stressful times, such as tests, and if I see any signs of anxiety, I may initiate a conversation about gremlins. Depending on the circumstance and the level of trust we’ve developed, this conversation might be a class discussion or a private talk with one child.

A one-on-one introduction
To start a private conversation, I ask, “Have I ever told you about gremlins?” Then I explain what gremlins are and describe what the child had been doing to make me suspect gremlins were around. If the child agrees that gremlins could be causing the upset, we think about strategies she could use to calm herself.

In my experience, most children say “yes” when asked if a gremlin is around. If, however, a child says “no,” I suggest other possible explanations for the child’s behavior and also ask the child for ideas. We don’t discuss strategies until we’ve agreed on an explanation.

A whole-class introduction
If I feel confident that students will be respectful and supportive of each other, sometimes I introduce the gremlins concept to the whole class. Because establishing a caring community takes longer with some groups than others, I may have already had private chats about gremlins with several individual students. As a result, when I explain gremlins to the class, those children smile knowingly. They’re already “gremlin experts.”

In a whole-class introduction, I emphasize that all people have trouble with gremlins sometimes, and I explain that there are many kinds of gremlins: Math gremlins are a common type, but there are also reading gremlins, writing gremlins, and spelling gremlins. I also confide that when I was their age, a gym gremlin often attacked me during Phys Ed, telling me I’d never hit a softball or climb a rope. Because I believed my gremlin, I didn’t have fun in gym.

Although I never mention to the group what I already know about some of their classmates’ gremlins, at this point the gremlin experts often volunteer: “I have a read-aloud gremlin!” or “I have a test-taking gremlin!” Usually once they’ve heard this much, other children want to tell about their gremlins, too, and I might invite a few to share. I’ve also asked students to write about or draw pictures of their gremlins and then set a time later for optional sharing.

Tools for regaining composure
The most important step comes after we describe our gremlins: brainstorming and practicing strategies for handling them. Anti-gremlin strategies are tools children can use anytime they need to dissipate agitation, improve concentration, calm down, or regain self-control.

Students have fun thinking about “battling” an imaginary creature, and they usually have lots of ideas for how to do it. Brian smiled gleefully as he suggested that he could flush his gremlin down the toilet. “I could throw mine out the window!” offered the normally peaceful LaKeisha.

Students’ first ideas typically include these sorts of fun-but-aggressive, “cartoon violence” strategies. Once we’ve heard a few along those lines, I ask the class to think of ideas for handling gremlins firmly but quietly, without getting worked up or moving around. I remind them that to successfully deal with gremlins, we must remain calm so the gremlins have nothing to feed on. We list at-your-desk gremlin-management techniques, such as taking deep breaths and counting to ten. We add some active but calm strategies, too, since for many children, even a brief physical break (such as walking to the door to put a gremlin out in the hall) can really help. The key is working with students to think and plan ahead about matching strategies to different situations—What would you do if you had to deal with a gremlin during a test? How about during an independent work time? What if you were all by yourself?

Even with this much preparation, most children need guidance and practice before they can use anti-gremlin strategies independently. To help them work toward that goal, I watch carefully and offer suggestions. For example, if I see a child who seems stuck during a work period, I’ll mention that I’ve detected some gremlin activity and suggest a response: Maybe she could wipe the gremlin off her shoulders? Maybe he could give the gremlin a stern (but silent) talking-to?

How gremlins help
As time goes by, it’s thrilling to see students needing less prompting to use the self-calming techniques they’ve practiced. That, I think, is the deepest benefit of this strategy: It creates an opportunity to teach children how to use tools for regaining composure. Those tools will help them in all sorts of situations for the rest of their lives.

Gremlins have helped me, too. I’ve become a more observant teacher and gotten to know my students better by talking with them about their gremlins. Thinking about strategies that will work for each child has helped me focus more intensely on understanding their personalities and needs. That, combined with the pleasure of seeing the children learn to use their anti-gremlin strategies independently, has made this one of the most satisfying inventions of my teaching career. I hope it’s useful to you, too.

Leslie Schwartz Leff teaches at Wissahickon Charter School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She is a certified Responsive Classroom consulting teacher.

Tips for Teaching

  • Consider your students. I currently teach fifth grade, but, by adapting my presentation to match the children’s concerns and developmental needs, I’ve used this technique successfully with students of many ages and in a variety of settings.
  • Call “gremlins” something else if you’d like. If you think the idea of imaginary creatures called “gremlins” might frighten some children in your class, choose a different name. “Fretfuls” might be a less scary choice. Or simply call them “worries.”
  • Help children distinguish between gremlins and feelings. While I teach children to “dismiss their gremlins,” I’m careful not to imply that their feelings are invalid or unwarranted. Talking about gremlins is a way of helping children acknowledge and manage anxious feelings, not an attempt to deny them.
  • Use gremlins appropriately. I’ve found that this technique works best at times when all a student needs is a light, playful push to get back on track. For children who struggle chronically, consider other strategies and seek help from support services if necessary.
Tags: Encouragement, Independence, Redirecting Language