Helping anxious students achieve more
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is a normal and healthy reaction to what a person perceives as a threat. It is a built-in alarm we all have as part of our ‘fight or flight’ response. Whether it is the tiger approaching a man in prehistoric times, or the day before the job interview in the 21st century, we have a physical reaction to that perceived threat. Cortisol and adrenalin are released, the heart rate rises and blood rushes to the muscles, giving a heightened awareness to help provide a quick and effective response to the threat.
This response is helpful as it can force us to study harder, work longer and keep us motivated when there is a deadline or an upcoming test which we are concerned about. However, if these physical symptoms persist or arise when the threat is no longer present, then the anxiety is not healthy and can have effects on many aspects of our ability to cope in school and in life.
The anxiety circle
Psychologists often refer to the circle of negative thoughts and feelings that perpetuate anxiety as the anxiety circle. Once caught in this circle, it is difficult to break out of it. The following diagram has been adapted from the Anxiety UK website.
In school, anxiety can have a huge effect on achievement when students are caught in the circle of negative thoughts and feelings. Looking at the effect of anxiety over failure and achievement, Lewis (1988) noted some characteristics. Here is a summary of some of his observations.
Child with the need for achievement
(not controlled by anxiety)
Child with a fear of failure
yet seeks to achieve
(anxiety limits achievement)
Child with fear of failure
who chooses to fail
(anxiety prevents achievement)
Breaking the circle of anxiety in the classroom
There are no simple answers to tackling anxiety in children in school. Students can present with different types and different degrees of anxiety, and it is important to note that seeking support from mental health professionals is sometimes necessary. However, one way to address anxiety in moderate to mild sufferers is to practice goal setting, and attempt to break the negative circle and create new positive thoughts and feelings about taking risks in learning.
Creating a goal-setting project
One way to address anxiety in moderate to mild sufferers is to practice goal setting, and attempt to break the negative circle and create new positive thoughts and feelings about taking risks in learning
- Get all students to set their own goal. This goal must be achievable but also have a degree of challenge involved. If it is too easy it will not motivate the student. Examples of goals include learning how to bake a cake, learning 10 facts about a topic, creating a website or doing an oral report. The goal should be something the student wants to achieve but may have concerns that they will struggle to complete the task.
- Use visualisation to help them imagine what the experience will bring, how it will make them feel and how it will change them. Highlight any feelings of anxiety they have when setting the task but contrast that with the feelings of success they will acquire when they achieve their goal.
- Explore how it will feel if the student makes a mistake or struggles to complete one of the steps. This will help prepare them for when they do have some difficulty. Having a plan or a script will make them feel armed and more confident to proceed with their task. It will also be helpful to hear their peers’ worries and anxieties, bringing to light that they are not alone in their fears.
- Use role models to motivate and inspire. Use successful figures to illustrate that great achievers make mistakes, which are an imperative part of the process.
- Choose a way to create a physical record of the experience. Whether it is a journal, a report, a collage or a video diary, ensure that there is a record of the process. Tell your students to use the experience as a record that they can achieve and they should refer to it when they have doubts about their abilities in the future.
- Celebrate their successes. Make sure the experience causes many positive reactions in their bodies and positive thoughts in their heads. Make the celebration grand by allowing them to present the goal to their peers and/or families. A highly positive experience is essential in helping them break that negative circle of anxiety.
Through setting their own goals and achieving them, students should discover
A highly positive experience is essential in helping them break that negative circle of anxiety
- a feeling of control over their actions and behaviour
- the power of using positive thoughts instead of negative thoughts
- knowledge about their strengths and limitations but with the idea that these are not finite and can be changed over time
- self-belief, self-esteem and the confidence to try new things.