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Reducing Anxiety in the Classroom

February 1, 2016

This week I’ve been cogitating about the role that anxiety plays on students and their learning. I spend my days working in small tutorial groups where there is no question that for many children, anxiety as it relates to school and anxiety in general are serious issues. However, I don’t tend to think of the role anxiety plays and how it can affect learning, so I thought I would blog about it to get my thoughts down on paper to better delve into the topic and think of ways I can better support my students.

Here’s a short list of the major causes of anxiety in students:

  • previous academic struggles
  • poor self-confidence
  • internal pressure – “I need to ace this test” or “I’ve got to learn this!”
  • external pressure – both parent and teacher
  • lack of sleep or hunger
  • Lack of trust or poor relationship with teacher

There is no question that stress impacts and impedes learning. Not only does anxiety make it harder to focus, but it also makes directions more difficult to understand. An article in this month’s ADDitude Magazine summed it up this way:

“We are equipped with the ability to perceive threatening events in our environment (stressors ), and to respond in ways that keep us safe. A saber-tooth tiger at the mouth of the cave meant trouble for our ancestors” just like a difficult and seemingly impossible math problem can for our students. “Faced with real or perceived fear, we respond by fighting or fleeing.” It’s that fight or flight response that can lead to irritability which impacts group work and may damage vital relationships with students. If all a student wants to do is get out of class, there is no way he can learn or memorize anything well.

Luckily, there are several strategies we can utilize as teachers to help our students deal with the stress they face during the school day. Perhaps the most important is placing an emphasis on building positive, constructive, and safe relationships between teachers and students: The more a student trusts a teacher and knows that he or she is respected, the less students will worry in class and the more accepting they will be of calming feedback. It’s also vital for teachers to create a safe learning environment where the members of the class and the teacher respect each other and their learning styles because students will feel more comfortable and experience less anxiety. As a result, they are better able to attend and process instruction, assignments, and feedback. Additionally, it’s helpful to allow students to utilize their strongest learning modality: If a student learns best by participating in class discussion or drawing or writing ideas down, then opportunities for multimodal instruction should be given to all students to process information in a variety of ways. Conversely, expecting students to learn in unfamiliar ways will only heighten anxiety and make learning more difficult.

A recent article in Landmark School’s Spotlight on Language-based Teaching provided other fantastic ideas for reducing anxiety. They instructed teachers to create rituals and impose structure: I take this to mean – be predictable. If students know what to expect and if class seems familiar to him/her, anxiety will decrease. Also, having practiced a certain way of completing an assignment will make homework and in-class projects less stressful.

Furthermore, providing checklists will make students more confidence and will lessen the stress that they will leave something important out. As Atul Gawande made wonderful clear in his bestselling book The Checklist Manifesto, even doctors use checklists to make sure they have completed all of their tasks during surgery. While writing a paragraph can seem to some like an easy task, to others it can be like brain surgery. Telling them exactly what you expect and providing them with examples of how to do it will not only help them to produce high-caliber work, but it will also give them the confidence to do it.


One Comment
  1. Amy permalink

    Many of the techniques mentioned in this insightful blog would have helped me during my classroom years. I suffered from a great deal of anxiety, My academic performance was impacted by many of the stressors you touched upon here. Fear of failure, running out of time on certain tasks, and feelings of intimation by some of my teachers impacted me greatly. As a student with a physical disability, I wasn’t aware that a diagnosis of cerebral palsy – in my experience – also meant slower processing, a poor organizational skills. This caused ample self criticism and frustration because I just thought I wasn’t as smart as my
    peers. which only increased my anxiety.

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