Monday, March 24, 2014

Does School Cause Anxiety?

Most of the young people I see suffer in one way or another from school anxiety.

Whether they actually perceive themselves to be anxious, or have headache, stomach ache, or hives, many school-aged children are nervous about school.

In the language of Rational Emotive Therapy, it is not an external thing or event that causes anxiety, as anxiety arises from how we THINK about that external thing or event. However, in the case of the modern classroom, a case can be made that the way in which classes are managed is so stressful for the average young person, that it is rather difficult to avoid school-driven anxiety. Whether your student is scared of tests, a given teacher, big projects, group projects, or speaking in front of the class, there are things about modern education that essentially create situations too stressful for the average young person to manage easily. And, even more unfortunately, parents are often made into unwilling assistants in the creation of school anxiety.

Let's begin with a question: What is the root cause of school anxiety? In short, the basic assumption of intellectual education that all children ought to learn on the same schedule. Granted, we now have gifted classrooms and special education classrooms to accommodate variations from the average, but the basic premise remains that the mind can be educated on a fixed schedule, a schedule that is determined by bureaucrats.

Really, this ought to give us all pause. We send our children for swimming lessons and karate lessons and ice skating lessons, all of which operate based upon skills testing. A child works on a set of skills as long as she needs to, and when she passes them, she may proceed to another set of skills. Why does the mind of your child get less consideration than the body? Perhaps it is a social issue. Is it better for children of the same age to sit together in classrooms? Again, in physical training other than that offered within the school system, ages are grouped more loosely--6,7, and 8-year-olds might all be working on that orange belt or that breaststroke together. We might not include adults or even 15-year-olds, but we do not insist that all 8-yeasr-olds must learn a skill at the same time in the same number of weeks.

So here we have a first potential cause for anxiety--a child feeling inadequate who perhaps was not able to complete a unit as fast as or as well as his peers. And his poor parents, overcome with concern, and given little choice, push him to catch up, and hire tutors to compensate for his perceived inadequacy. No one comes forth and says,"Well, perhaps he is not ready for this material yet. Next term will be soon enough. We have created a fixed and rigid schedule for the education of the mind that belies individual differences as well as individual interests.

A second, and related, cause is the examination. It is necessary to examine students for progress and understanding. What is not necessary is to compare them to one another rather than to a fixed standard. What is not necessary is to grade their speed rather than their mastery. And what we fail to realize is that a given child's failure to do well on a given examination might be the result of failed instruction if the teaching method is not compatible with the student's learning style, or it might be the result of the child needing more time to master the material, or even of a given child simply not being the right person to master this particular unit. Do we expect every child to become a black belt? Some children are simply not equipped to master certain intellectual skills just as some are not equipped to master karate. We used to offer aptitude testing to help to sort children based upon their potential to master certain skills, but modern schools insist upon a more egalitarian model, that has the unfortunate effect of leaving more and more children behind.

An additional cause of distress involves modern concepts of education--things such as class speeches and group projects. While it is nice to be able to speak in front of a group, terrorizing students while doing so is hardly good preparation for being a comfortable speaker as an adult. And forcing children to work in group on graded projects is a recipe for disaster. If learning social skills is the point, how is this achieved when one kid can go home and refuse to work and force the others to do his part? And we disapprove of the student who reports this behavior to the teacher.

Then comes my favorite; getting into college. All of this education is directed at "getting into college." It is assumed that each student ought to be aimed at college. The following is not a bias against less skilled students. Not all children benefit from college. I have many successful adult friends and acquaintances who never finished college. They are self-educated in one way or another, and have the requisite skills for their chosen careers. What we fail to do is to provide every young person with a marketable skill that does not require a bachelor's degree in order to both reduce the pressure on obtaining that degree and help the student to pay for it. The focus on getting into college makes every grade seem too important, adding to the stress on our children as well as on their poor parents, who feel obligated to push and push more.

I submit that if we totally revamp our model of intellectual education, we can very nearly eliminate school anxiety. If children are allowed to work at their own pace, avoid classes that they will not need in later life that they might find too difficult or not interesting, give talks and join groups volitionally and not by force, and be trained with a marketable skill early in life, many of the basic things that cause our children to make themselves anxious will vanish.

In the meantime, what's a parent to do with that stressed-out student? First, if you agree with my points, share them. Your child deserves to feel NORMAL, rather than inadequate. Second, step away from the party line about how important grades are, and focus on learning. Learning IS important. And certain skills are more important than others. Reading and math basics are vital to all other learnings, and thus ought to be stressed, reinforced, and built upon yearly. With the ability to read and calculate, we can always learn more. Beyond the basics, a student should be encouraged to enhance his interests and strengths, developing the ability to follow his heart and mind in formulating a career path. This does not mean never do things that are difficult, but accept them for what they are--a discipline with potential benefits in later life.

Returning to the language of Rational Emotive Therapy, offer these sorts of concepts to your child: "School is stressful at times, but as long as you know you are okay, you can handle it." "I know you feel anxious about that test, but remember, a test does not determine your value as a person; it just determines how well you have mastered this material in a short amount of time." "Apparently your stomach wishes you could stay home today, but since you have a test, it would probably be better to go and get it behind you. What do you think?" "Not doing well on that test does not make you a failure; it just means you need more time with that unit. Would you like to practice more with me?" "I know it seems that if you fail, you will never go to college, but that is not true. You will have many options for future learning in the way that best suits your style."

Most of all, love and accept your child and support him when he feels overwhelmed. He is NOT off, but modern schools certainly are.

If you or your child need help implementing strategies to reduce school-driven anxiety, please call for your free consultation. Perhaps I can help.

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