As educators struggle to understand anxiety and its implications for student success in schools, so too do the parents of these students. Whether it’s failing to complete work at home, not turning in assignments, or avoiding school altogether, students with anxiety display an affect often confused with disinterest and complacency. Anxiety, however, couldn’t be more different than the conclusions we often make about those students diagnosed. Anxiety is an illness associated with general fear and worry; it is not nervousness and it most certainly is not complacency.
For students with anxiety, the fear of the unknown, of potential judgement, and/or of failure is so intense that the solution is often to pull the pendulum as far back in the opposite direction as possible. Because there is so much an anxiety sufferer cannot control, he/she tries to control anything possible: the neatness of his/her notes, the direction of a conversation, his/her score on an English test. If perfection is not a possibility, then a student with anxiety doesn’t see the risk as worth taking. The anxiety that comes from messy notes, getting a wrong answer on a homework assignment, or not getting a 100 on a quiz is so debilitating that the next best option is to disengage.
The imprecision of labels
We have a tendency to identify ourselves with an “all or nothing” mentality. We are either smart or stupid, social or antisocial, funny or boring, athletic or uncoordinated. It’s very rare for us to pare down our abilities or inabilities with specificity. I’ve never heard an educator or parent describe a student in the top 5 percent as anything other than smart, but the story of that student goes much deeper. Perhaps math and science came easy; the time spent on those subjects was significantly less than his or her peers in the top half of the class. However, for the ease with which math and science came to him/her, English and history did not. The student had a tutor and put in countless hours of studying. Do we label this student as “stupid” or smart? We use labels on individual outcomes, rather than journeys. A student in the top 5 percent is smart no matter how he/she got there. Therefore, a student who avoids school is disinterested and complacent.
Students with anxiety fall victim to the societal labels we place on each other more so than students who do not. No one wants to be considered stupid or antisocial, but if certain subjects or situations lead a student toward such a label, it is easier to avoid than to submit. Avoidance is an effective strategy in some instances—a fear of heights is easy to manage by just keeping your feet on the ground. But avoidance exacerbates the mental illness we inevitably encounter on a daily basis. Similar to learning to deal with losing or disappointment, dealing with challenges and imperfections are lessons that come from experience and exposure.
How to help children with anxiety
For the parents of students with anxiety, the instinctual solution is to remove the triggers from their students’ lives; no parent wants to see their student in anguish. Whether it is to request a schedule change or to advocate on behalf of their student, parents often make decisions they think will eliminate student anxiety. In reality, they exaggerate the problem.
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