With a new year and a new semester of school, I’ve been thinking about all the thinks that make me nervous and anxious in a classroom, and the things that teachers do to help me feel more comfortable. So, I put together a list of a few things that teachers should and should not do when teaching an anxious student. One of my favorite teachers Dr. Kirsten Stein had kindly agreed to let me do a guest blog post on her online school, Athena’s Advanced Academy. Hopefully, in the future, this will help teachers to make SM and anxious kids more comfortable in a class.
Before I started online schooling, I was in brick-and-mortar school. Besides being bored all the time because I wasn’t being challenged, school was a little scary. I had a lot to say and contribute, but the only way to share my thoughts was to be called on to speak in front of thirty other classmates. The idea of having to do that petrified me. Online schooling can be a big advantage to kids with anxiety if the instructor knows how to treat them. The ability to participate blog-style in an online classroom helps anxious kids feel more comfortable in school. Kids often feel more comfortable participating and speaking behind the security of a screen because they do not know what others are thinking about them and cannot see their facial expressions. If you do not know what someone else is thinking about you, you can forget them and focus on what you have to say. While some people think this is a bad thing because they are “hiding,” in reality it is an entry point which can launch the student into more active participation. Further, even if that is as far as that student is ready to go for now, it is better than no participation at all. If instructors can focus on the positives, and find the best ways to deal with students with anxiety, they can really contribute to those kids’ academic experiences in a helpful way. However, if the instructor does not know how to treat them, online webinars can be very stressful.
Here are some of my thoughts about how teachers can help kids with anxiety feel more comfortable in a classroom. First, they should encourage kids to participate and speak while not making a kid feel pressured and uncomfortable. One good way to do this is to split students up into small groups or breakout rooms to work on a project together. Then, an anxious child might feel more comfortable speaking to two or three, or even four other kids, rather than fifteen or twenty. Another good way is to give kids a heads up about what you will talk about in class, so kids can already be thinking about what they have to say before arriving in class. That helps kids with anxiety talk a little more because they feel more comfortable speaking about something that they have thought about before-hand. Also, when teaching an anxious kid, there are some things you should always do. First, when a nervous student raises their hand to participate, you should prioritize them. This prioritization is because if another person is often saying an anxious student’s ideas before that student gets the chance to give their thoughts, then the anxious student will not be inclined to speak at all because they will feel that their contributions won’t matter or be as fresh. Also, it is important to not let one kid ‘hog’ the entire conversation. If one kid is doing all the talking and not letting anyone else have a chance to contribute, a nervous kid will be discouraged from engaging.
However, there are also a few behaviors that instructors should avoid. First, for an anxious kid, the worst thing to happen in a classroom is being cold-called. That is because when a teacher cold-calls a student, they would have gotten called to speak when they might not have felt comfortable doing it. However, you should not ignore a child that is nervous, even if you think that it is doing them a favor by not making them participate. This is because if you do ignore them, it makes them feel invisible, or like no one notices them, or like they are not a part of the class. Additionally, you should not make a big deal about a student speaking in class to the entire classroom, but it is good to send a private message to the student about your pleasure with them engaging. Lastly, you should never force conversation or participation out of a student, but you can encourage it.
Additionally, participation points can be either good or bad, depending on the student. For some kids, participation points are helpful because it gives them motivation that is greater than their anxiety. However, for others, it is very stressful, because it pretty much forces them to speak against their will. It’s helpful to run a poll at the beginning of the semester to gather students’ thoughts on this subject, and personalize teaching to the specific group of kids and what makes them tick.
To conclude, many teachers are unsure how to handle students with anxiety who do not openly want to participate. They might be inclined to either ignore students who seem anxious thinking they are helping, or try the opposite: forcing them into participating in a specific way. However, if these teachers are aware of how to make kids feel more comfortable, then both the student and the teacher can be happier and more relaxed, and the student will be able to contribute more to the discussion. This is a benefit to kids and instructors alike, as well as other kids in the class, as if everyone is comfortable, then we can create a tighter-knit community.