I wish you’d just leave me alone. You go away and then you come back, sometimes stronger than before. I’m hard enough on myself, I don’t need you beating me up too.”
If you’re wondering if I got that quote from a book, no I didn’t. I wrote it myself and it’s probably taken from my personal journal. I don’t say I suffer from anxiety, because it’s been with me too long for me to view it as a disease. I live with anxiety, it’s just part of my reality. A disorder? Yes. Can it be treated? Yes. Can it be cured? Well, after twenty years, I’m still not sure.
My experience of anxiety is that it flares up when I’m under stress or overwhelmed. My mind blanks out, I operate on autopilot and if it’s particularly bad, I withdraw from my social circles. Basically, my brain goes into self-preservation mode and shuts itself down. Yet my body is left jittery and restless…I’m tired but wired.
I’m now facing down the barrel of anxiety as the term draws to a close. It’s manifesting in constant worry about the details: Did I set my assessments right? Am I keeping on top of my marking? Did I prep my classes enough for the exams? Can I get it all done before the Christmas party? The constant worry isn’t allowing me to rest properly, so now, my immune system is compromised. I’ve been fighting a throat infection for more than a month, constantly being put on antibiotics, my iron levels are low…and I’m basically dragging myself through the remaining weeks.
This is me…the teacher. So can you imagine how students must be feeling around this time? As a society, we have a culture of expecting high performance and perfection, messing up isn’t permitted without a reasonable excuse. And even then, we stand ready to wag our fingers and say: “You should have known better. Don’t let it happen again.” A veiled threat that we often overlook, is made.
And you see, that’s exactly how anxiety starts- from feeling threatened. Something is perceived as ‘dangerous’ and you go on high alert. Imagine the child whose parent has been saying: “You have to do well in exams! You have to be in the upper percentile! Peter’s scoring 95%, why are you getting 90%?” This child may then come to school and hear their teacher say, “You have to do well on this test. The whole class has to pass, because we have to match the other class’ excellent performance. 1B got an overall average of 80%, we have to get higher than that.” For this child, when does the pressure stop?
I’m well aware that this isn’t every child, but it is, at least ONE child in your class. It could be the one who asks you what’s coming on the test for the 20th time, or the one who comes up after an introductory lesson and asks when you’re giving a test on the topic. But guess what? It can also be the silent one who zones out from the time you say the word ‘test’ or ‘exam’. It’s not that he/she doesn’t care, it might be that they care too much.
Now, I’m not saying that tests and exams aren’t important, but I am saying that they should not be the sole determinant of student success. As educators, we know this. But how many of us actually believe it? If you don’t, just know that it’s not your fault. You grew up in a world where high scores led to better opportunities and more possibilities. You grew up in a world that, unfortunately, attached academic success to self-worth.
Our task therefore, as 21st Century educators/ parents, is to ‘dissociate’ the two. A child’s worth doesn’t lie in his/her academic success and we need to constantly remind ourselves, and our children/students, of this.
How do we start? Well, I’m glad you asked.
Redefine success: Success isn’t just about doing well in tests and standardized assessments. It means getting up after a fall, accepting failure and trying again. It means not giving up because it just feels too hard. Show the parts of success that we don’t glamorize- the athlete suffering from injuries, having to rehabilitate and build back up to a level of fitness. Effort over Outcome.
Introduce mindfulness practices into your classes: Currently included in classes around the world, mindfulness means awareness in and of the present moment. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction credited to Jon Kabat-Zinn, has been helping both adults and children alike. We need to understand that this is not a religious practice, it is a scientifically proven stress reduction technique. You don’t have to make your students meditate in class, you can simply help them focus on the present moment and the sensations therein. What are the noises they are hearing? As they hold their pencil, what does that feel like? Mindfulness helps them to focus on ONE thing at a time.
This practice can be taught to children in both primary and secondary school. One of the easiest ways to implement it is through colouring. Print out some affirmations or mandalas for your students to color (there are many available online for free),let them sit down quietly, and just tap into that quiet time, when they can just focus on bringing down the noise around them, and more importantly, within them.
Talk to your students about test anxiety: Maybe this means you have to do some research first. Maybe it means YOU have to accept that anxiety is a real thing and not just something in your head/ in your students’ heads. The APA defines test anxiety as “tension and apprehensiveness associated with taking a test, frequently resulting in a decrease in test performance.” It’s in the psychologists’ dictionary. It’s not fictional. Research it and talk about it.
Let your students share how they feel about taking a test. Put them at ease by letting them know that it’s perfectly okay to feel worried/ stressed. DO NOT tell them that they have no right to feel that way because they should have learnt the work; or that they “should have studied harder” or even, “If they’d prepared better/ longer/harder, they wouldn’t have to worry about their results.” They’re already beating themselves up in their heads, not add to the narrative.
Acknowledge the presence of anxiety, don’t tell them ‘just relax’: In my 20 plus years of struggling with an anxiety disorder, it has NEVER helped when someone has told me, ‘just relax.’ Gee, if I could have, don’t you think I would have? Discuss the symptoms with them: are they nauseous? Is their brain racing or blank? Does it feel like tightness in the chest? Tingling fingers, like their heart is going to explode? I even have a student who compulsively runs his hands through his hair during a test, shedding strands all over the desk and his paper.
Anxiety manifests in a MYRIAD of ways. It isn’t always the tell-tale panic attack, it can be the picking of skin, the biting of nails, the restless shaking of a leg or even drumming on the desk. Your job is to recognize what’s happening and engage the child in some form of calming activity. I have a colleague who has adopted taking 10 abdominal breaths (balloon breathing) with her students, before they take a test. She knows her students are anxious and she has incorporated a technique to help. Point is, don’t skim over it, just hand out papers and ‘get on with it’.
Reassure and then do it some more: Remind your class that they are capable of doing what’s on the test. Use language like, “I know you can do well on this, it’s just like we practiced in class.” “You’re intelligent and you can figure it out.” Give them gentle reminders without standing over any particular student. Sometimes we walk by during a test, and see a student’s script with an error on it. Don’t voice the reminder as soon as you see it. That only causes further anxiety. Let some time pass, move away from the student in question and back to the front of the room, keeping your striding pace consistent. Then in a soothing voice, say, for example “ So guys, remember to check over for spelling, accents/ show all working.” DO NOT attach a penalty to that by saying “ Guys remember to draw lines to scale or you’ll lose marks.” Including a penalty will increase anxiety. Just remind them of the first part, i.e. what you expect.
Liaise with parents and guidance counselors: If you recognize there may be a child who does well in class, but when you give a test, his score doesn’t match what you see in the classroom, get vigilant. Track his/ her performance for a while and then get in contact with his/ her parents. Let them know you suspect test anxiety might be at play and present them with the data. Show them the formative assessments he aces AND the summatives that he doesn’t. Suggest he/ she sees the counselor.
Now, some parents may not always be receptive to what you have to say. They may say “he/ she just needs to study harder”. Or what I consider worse, they lapse into the sibling comparison. The “I don’t know why he can’t focus. His brother/ sister isn’t like that at all.”
Remember, all you can do is your part. Be patient, direct them to the school’s guidance counselor and send the data forward. Let it not be said that you didn’t identify an issue and back it up with stats. But you’re not trained to diagnose, so don’t. Ultimately, parents have the final say, so don’t overstep your role…just make sure you exercise due diligence.
I hope these points help to inform you about a very real threat in our classrooms and society- the need to constantly get good grades and perform well academically. Like any threat that keeps us on constant alert, it is draining and self-diminishing. If I were to write in my journal today, it’ll probably go something like this:
I live with you. And maybe that’s for a reason: I won’t let you get at my students/ children the way you got at me. You see, when you entered my life, I didn’t have all the information I needed or even an inclination of the damage you could cause. But now, I’m much more informed. I will manage you and as long as I’m in this game of Life, I’ll teach the younger ones how to do the same.