Spiders in the classroom

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Spiders, Phobia, Aracnophobia, Aracnaphobia, aracno-phobia, aracno-phobic,

photo credit: Caroline Henri

If facing your fears is still on your 2016 resolution list, then autumn is definitely a good time to take the leap.

The stage is set with a new nip in the air, daylight hours fade to darkness by the dinner hour, and households like to unleash their inner witches, churning cauldron-like pots of thick chilis or soups designed to warm their every inch.

And if Halloween fever doesn’t find you spooking about with other ghoul-faced revelers seeking out creepy things of the vast unknown, then it certainly provides the perfect backdrop to get your spine tingled with a horror flick or three.

Shake it off? Not likely

But for some people, simply shaking off those niggly jitters head-on isn’t possible. Millions of adults suffer from some form of extreme phobia they just can’t fight — those anxiety-inducing fears that create lumps in chests and sweat on brows. They’re irrational fears, notes Athabasca University’s Dr. Robert Holmberg, listing off the array of phobias ranging from snakes, heights, airplanes, spiders and clowns that, in reality, aren’t likely going to signal the end of your earthly existence.

“Is a clown going to harm you? Not likely. It’s an irrational fear, but it’s a real fear,” says Holmberg. (Editor Note: this interview took place prior to the creepy clown-sighting saga in the United States that broke the internet circa the beginning of October).

Holmberg explains that such embedded terror can, in fact, be resistant to relinquish.

“Once a phobia is established in an adult, it’s very hard to get rid of,” he adds, citing psychology that indicates extreme phobias usually develop during childhood.

“Somewhere they’ve got a traumatic episode that made them very scared and it stuck with them,” he says, pointing to people with a pervasive fear of spiders.

Is a clown going to harm you? Not likely. It’s an irrational fear, but it’s a real fear. ~ Dr. Robert Holmberg, professor emeritus, Science Outreach Athabasca, Athabasca University

“A lot of people are afraid of spiders. Some people are so ‘aracno-phobic’ that they won’t go for a picnic because they might encounter a spider — and that can be debilitating. The only way they can overcome it is if they want to overcome it.”

And that can sometimes take months or years to manifest. In other words, if a person is terrified of ghosts, fat chance you’ll be able to talk them into spending the night in that legendarily haunted hotel.

So Holmberg, professor emeritus and co-founder of the 15-year-old Science Outreach Athabasca — which provides science awareness to the general public in Athabasca and the surrounding area — suggests trying a step-by-step technique to tackling those terrors.

He believes the fear of spiders is a learned behaviour and that his 45-minute, bit-by-bit approach among youngsters can instill wonderment over panic.

Itsy bitsy at a time

That graduated approach works best with children — the younger the better, according to Holmberg. In fact, he says it’s the three- and four-year olds that stand the best chance of avoiding arachnophobia at a later age.

“Pre-schoolers are like sponges in terms of picking up information,” he says.

Spider Talks with Dr. Robert Holmberg and a group of young students at Rochester School. [photo credit: Linda Lindballe]

Spider Talks with Dr. Robert Holmberg and a group of young students at Rochester School. [photo credit: Linda Lindballe]

For the past 35 years, Holmberg has been intermittently traveling to classrooms throughout Alberta (and Hawaii) to present his showstopping talk “Spiders in the Classroom,” aimed at easing kids in to the world of arachnids, hopefully untangling any future webs of worry.

“What I’m trying to do is get to people when they’re young so they’re interested rather than afraid — and hopefully they won’t get into that [phobia] stage.”

Millions of adults suffer from some form of extreme phobia they just can’t fight — those anxiety-inducing fears that create lumps in chests and sweat on brows. They’re irrational fears, notes Athabasca University’s Dr. Robert Holmberg.

spider-rings-1Insect de résistance

His technique? It’s pretty sneaky. He starts by passing around realistic-looking plastic models of spiders, emphasizing the fact  they’re toys; they can’t hurt. Once the kids realize they’re fake, he shows them slides of real spiders — harmless in their photo forms.

Next up, is a show-and-tell of dead spider specimens preserved in plastic or alcohol, before he graduates to the penultimate piece of the presentation: little live spiders in vials.

Finally, Holmberg’s insect de résistance ‎comes with the unveiling of a fuzzy live tarantula in a small cage.

“The children might ask ‘is she alive?’ and I say, ‘Yes, she’s alive — but she’s in a cage; she can’t hurt you.’ And we pass that around.”

The presentation wraps with Holmberg doling out coloured plastic spider rings — the kind that frequent the shelves of dollar stores and are popular at Halloween.

“Ninety-nine per cent of the kids will take a ring and put it on their finger. They, in effect, have a spider on their hand. They realize it’s plastic but it’s still [creepy] looking,” he says.

Arachno-foiled?

girls-tarantula-small

Not quite Charlotte. [photo credit: Linda Lindballe]

And while his scientific prowess can’t actually measure the success of his anti-scare tactics, Holmberg says his results seem pretty promising.

“With this graduated approach over three quarters of an hour, I can get the majority of kids interested in looking and learning about these things,” he affirms.

“Some kids will initially say ‘I don’t like spiders,’ but at the end of the talk, when they’re holding a cage with a tarantula inside, it’s clear they have overcome their fear.

“It doesn’t work 100 per cent of the time — and I don’t know if it’s a long-lasting effect — but at least I’m getting them interested.”

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