A stressed-out student is taking a test, showing how school avoidance is actually anxiety.

3 strategies to reduce school avoidance

School avoidance in students is a form of anxiety--here's how educators can help reduce it

Procrastination is something we all experience. Whether it’s studying for an exam, completing a college essay, or finishing a social studies project, all students will inevitably find themselves procrastinating at some point in their academic careers. Delaying the completion of work because you’d rather go outside and play, or because you have writer’s block, or because you’d rather engage in social media, are not feelings that require intense intervention. Families may need to give gentle reminders about the importance of completing work, but when does procrastination go from a simple academic growing pain, to school avoidance?

Avoidance and procrastination, on the surface, may appear to be one in the same. Procrastination always plays hand-in-hand with the understanding that whatever the task may be, it will get done, eventually, and usually, on time. Avoidance is more of a commitment, a stubbornness that the work won’t be done now, or later. A school-avoidant student will continue to miss classes indefinitely and assignments will remain incomplete until term’s end.

School avoidance is a symptom of anxiety. It’s the inability to face school triggers that makes anxious students unable to go to class or complete work. Triggers may include social interactions, academic pressures, or fears of failure. Regardless, it can be overwhelming for some students to face any one, or all of these things, that avoidance becomes a coping strategy. But with school avoidance comes lost instruction, poor grades, and exacerbated symptoms. Anxiety has become so prominent in schools, that educators often find themselves establishing singular, concurrent expectations for each and every student in their classroom.

Due dates and traditional numerical grades have begun to lose their stronghold in education as we enter into the age of standards-based grading. Couple this with managing student anxiety, and teachers are simultaneously grading work from any part of the curriculum at any given time. The need to individualize expectations for students has teachers so overwhelmed, that the quality of their feedback is negatively impacted. “Late work” piles up and teachers go through the motions of grading “just to get it done.”

But that’s the thing: the anxiety that grading has created for teachers creates impossible expectations for so many students: perfection. Knowing that they will only have “one shot” to do well, students resort to avoiding the work all together. It’s as if they rather “fail” on their own terms. But there are things that teachers can do to reduce anxiety in their students and hence, school avoidance.

Three strategies to address school avoidance

1. Replace major deadlines with manageable checkpoints. Long term deadlines are overwhelming for adults; they scream procrastination. But as adults, we have the experience and discipline to chunk up work as needed and meet expectations. Not all students have these skills, especially not those with anxiety. As discussed in a previous eSchool News article on the 5 things to say to students suffering from anxiety, “when a student is suffering from anxiety, he/she is overwhelmed and unable to create simple, clear, and manageable goals…the more overwhelmed they get, the more avoidant they are.” Don’t give final due dates for major assignments. Rather, assign an assessment and then schedule checkpoints. Each checkpoint should require the submission of a draft or piece of the assessment. The checkpoints work best when assigned weeks apart and the time between is used to provide detailed feedback, not numerical grades. Part of each successive checkpoint should be for students to make the changes suggested at the previous checkpoint. By the time the assignment is “due,” it will have already been “graded.” The product will be the best the student has to offer. This strategy will open the door for communication with home should you be concerned about student progress. The assignment isn’t as overwhelming for the students or for you as the teacher and assessor.

2. Engage students in group conferences. To fully understand where your students are, you must ask them questions, but students with anxiety won’t necessarily be comfortable with one-on-one teacher conferences. So rather than put them on the spot, engage students in group conferences. Whether it’s a group assignment being worked on in class, one assigned for completion outside of school, or an individual assignment, set aside class time to sit and talk to groups of students about their work; where are they, what are they struggling with, etc. Set a timer and dedicate an equal amount of time to each group. The collaboration born from discussions like this will help students with anxiety feel less isolated, it may even create and environment in which they feel comfortable contributing.

3. Allow for assignment corrections; we learn from our mistakes. Rarely, do we ever meet all the standards and expectations placed on us the first time. The first time a child gets on a bike, he/she meets the standard 0 percent of the time. If learning how to ride a bike followed the learning expectations of traditional classrooms, children would never get back on a second time; they would fail and move on to the next standard. If this were realistic, no one would ever learn how to ride a bike. Similarly, humans would have never taken flight or learned how to swim. Students learn from their mistakes and we must make them comfortable with this. Anxiety is an illness of perfection. Students suffering from anxiety don’t feel comfortable with anything less than that. Provide feedback and let students have an opportunity to try again. Maybe you learned to ride a bike at five, maybe you were eight. Years later no one will talk about when you learned to ride, they’ll just talk about if you learned to ride.

Procrastination is an inevitable part of all students’ lives. Whether struggling with mental illness or not, students will fight to find the motivation when trying to apply themselves to complete work, especially those assignments that are long term. Similarly, teachers find themselves inundated with high stakes assessments, large class sizes and exceptional students requiring individualized planning. Many of the accommodations teachers make for students with special needs are good practices for all students. Schooling isn’t just about curriculum, it’s about teaching skills and coping mechanisms for the inevitable challenges students will be faced with later in life. Teach anxious students to create small, manageable goals by establishing assignment checkpoints rather than due dates. Make them understand that perfection might not be attainable, but it’s also relative. Talk to students, ask them where they are, and/or how they are feeling. None of these teacher strategies constitute “grades,” but they’re all examples of authentic feedback and second chances; if not for both, no one would know the joy of riding a bike.

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