For everyone Helping students get smart about anxiety

Anxiety can be a serious barrier to learning, but there are ways of helping these students develop their strengths, writes child psychologist ANDREW FULLER.

When young people are anxious, they tend to react in one of two ways. Some become ‘chatty and scatty’, while the other group become ‘broody and moody.’ 

When it comes to learning, these kids tend to panic about tests and exams, fear the enforced social interaction of schooling, or feel terrified at the idea of being called upon to speak in class. For some, the fears are so great they become school avoidant, and some also come to believe they are not clever and so cannot be successful. 

Helping these students identify and build upon their learning strengths can help them tackle their anxiety and increase their belief in their ability to succeed.

Anxiety, left unchecked, wreaks havoc with concentration and memory.

There is no failure, only feedback

Anxious kids can turn setbacks into catastrophic assaults on their self-esteem. Helping them to learn how they are smart, rather than whether they are smart, is a major advantage. As many of these kids are ruminative worriers, setting up a positive resilient mindset is the most important step.

Concentration and memory 

Anxiety, left unchecked, wreaks havoc with concentration and memory. As keen as some of these kids are to be accepted by friends, help them to view school as primarily about learning. Friendships can occur elsewhere.

For ‘chatty and scatty’ kids, urge them to pick out the most important aspects of a topic. For ‘moody and broody’ types, help them develop note-taking skills. Both groups can develop their memory to high levels with the right approach.

Spatial reasoning

Stress appears to be particularly inhibiting of language and words. Thinking in pictures and symbols is a strength worth developing in kids who suffer from anxiety. Being able to convert and convey information visually rather than verbally can help anxious kids communicate successfully.

Some anxious kids fail tests before they even take them.

Perceptual motor skills

Performance anxiety and embarrassment can stifle the development of perceptual motor skills. It’s important for anxious kids to develop and practice these skills away from the gaze and judgement of peers. Helping them attend to pleasant as well as fearful feelings is an important part of supporting them to develop confidence and motivation.

Planning and sequencing 

Some anxious kids fail tests before they even take them. They over-plan and anticipate every possible difficulty. Disasters loom large. Fears of failure hound them. 

Uncertainty and ambiguity amplify anxiety. Help students make systematic, realistic plans via small steps. Big goals can heighten anxiety for these kids; systems and rituals can calm them. Encourage them not to get ahead of themselves. When they are focusing on future results, gently direct them back to the next step in the plan.

Thinking and logic 

Helping anxious kids learn the ‘scientific method’ is a great advantage. Simply put, this is:
1. Gather together data; 2. Form a best idea (a hypothesis); 3. Test out your idea; 4. Decide if your hypothesis is still your best idea; 5. Make a conclusion. This circumvents endless repetitive thinking or decisions based on emotions.

Around 17% of people suffer high levels of anxiety related to maths.

People smarts 

Anxious kids often fear negative evaluations by others. Developing ‘people smarts’ can contribute greatly to their success. As they often view the world as potentially hostile, working out who can be trusted and who is a threat is a process of reading others well. It is also important to learn that feelings of anxiety can be useful signals, but they are not always accurate.

Language and word smarts 

Performance anxiety can leave even the most articulate among us stumbling and mumbling. Ideally, we begin overcoming this in childhood by providing opportunities to be involved in performances, perhaps via practical or non-speaking roles, and gradually increasing the level of participation. Learning to communicate ideas through writing, music, video or dance will help students who particularly struggle to ‘get their words out’.

Number smarts 

This area poses one of the largest barriers for anxious kids. Around 17% of people suffer high levels of anxiety related to maths. I try to change the way they view mathematics by, for example, relating maths to cooking (see at right). Some of us are more pragmatic in our understanding and recipe maths can be a very helpful approach for those who learn in a more hands-on way. 

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