Over our Spring Break last week, I had lunch with a friend who spent a day previous to our meeting at a symposium on anxiety, a topic that has lately made it onto my radar through people that I personally know who suffer with the condition. Recently I also read the article “Surviving Anxiety” by Scott Stossel (1) , editor of The Atlantic and was very moved by its content. I additionally learned that 18% of the adult U.S. population is affected by an anxiety disorder (2). I’ve had students that are plagued with different levels of anxiety and wonder how I can best meet their needs.
My friend described how it is important for people with anxiety to face their anxiety to the point that they feel they can’t take it any more and then back off. Gradually they will learn that they survive the event and can survive feelings of anxiety.
She gave the example of a student who has anxiety about a certain type of assignment. Parents will often talk to the teachers and get the assignment somehow removed “for the child’s sake” and that, of course, makes things easier on everyone. Most importantly, it seems better for the child because the anxiety drops as he/she realizes “Whew, I’ve dodged that bullet”. However, at this symposium, the professional advice was to allow students to experience the anxiety to maximum tolerance levels, pushing them to complete assignments or give presentations. Then, in the end, they realize they have survived and it will give them confidence to continue to challenge themselves.
As a teacher, I feel it is not my place to determine the upper acceptable anxiety limit. I am willing to work with parents and professionals to build modifications for any student with an anxiety disorder. However, I do want to create an environment that lowers anxiety levels for all students. Here are some practices that hopefully lower anxiety levels in my classroom.
- There is no time limit for tests, especially in grades 6-10 (IB, as always, is it’s own beast). In the beginning, I try to give at least a 20-minute buffer time on all exams. I make it very clear that all students can take as long as they need on an exam. If, later in the year, I realize some students need even more time, I build it in to the schedule. And yes, sometimes this means allocating an entire block of class-time for an assessment.
- No noise towards end of an exam. Once a student is finished with a test, they are to turn over the page and quietly work on the next assignment, reading, or homework for another class. I do not want anyone to feel pressure because the rest of the class is finishing up and he/she is still only partway through the assessment. There is no scraping of chairs and shoving of desks as students attempt to turn in exams, rather, the room remains still and quiet until everyone is finished.
- Consult students on assignment schedule. When scheduling assessments and projects for a given unit, I check with the class and tweak the schedule as necessary, dependent on assignments or sport games/tournaments they already have scheduled.
- Ease students into solo presentations. Standing in front of a class to give a presentation can be very stressful for students, even those without anxiety disorders. In the beginning of the year, I pair students to present from their seats, for example, to report on some research they’ve done together to further the class’s understanding on a given topic. Later, different pairs will actually stand before the class to present a digital presentation of choice (Keynote, Prezi, etc.). It isn’t until students have been exposed to these types of scenarios several times before I expect them to stand solo before the class.
- Establish rapport. Before each class I ask the students how they are doing. They all relax and some students share stories from their morning, day, recess, or lunch. This seems especially important after weekends or vacations. I am genuinely interested in how they are doing and I hope they feel that. Furthermore, this practice hopefully makes me more approachable to them.
- Greet students. When we pass in the hallways I always say, with a smile, “good morning” or “hello” to students, using their name, even if they initially duck their heads in that teenage awkwardness clearly hoping to not be seen. 100% of the time they return a smile and greeting. My hope is that the students become more and more comfortable at school and interacting with teachers.
- Attend sporting events. As often as possible I try to watch them when they play sports at home games, even if it is only for half the game. Again, I’m sending the message that I care about them, including parts of their lives that aren’t connected to my classroom.
- Love the job. I genuinely love teenagers. Furthermore, I honestly love what I do. With purpose I chose to teach middle and high school. I’m not afraid to show my enthusiasm, sometimes resulting in shared laughter with the students.
It is my desire, that taken together, these practices minimize the “scary teacher” relationship with students. I want students to feel comfortable. I desire to optimize the learning experience by diminishing opportunities for anxiety in the classroom. Do you have additional suggestions for lowering anxiety in the classroom? Please share below.
(1) Stossel, Scott. "Surviving Anxiety." The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 22 Dec. 2013. Web. 28 Apr. 2014. <http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/01/surviving_anxiety/355741/4/>.
(2) "Facts & Statistics | Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA." Facts & Statistics | Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Apr. 2014. <http://www.adaa.org/about-adaa/press-
(3) Image from "Anxiety treatment with a computer just as good as therapy, study says." ZME Science. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Apr. 2014. <http://www.zmescience.com/research/studies/anxiety-treatment-with-a-computer-just-as-good-as-therapy-study-says/#!GbcnB>. room/facts-statistics>.