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Tackling Classroom Fears

What educators can do to help students overcome their anxiety around math, oral presentations, and testing.

Found in: Classroom Management

For some students, speaking in front of the class brings on the familiar symptoms: sweaty palms, shaky hands, or quavering voice. For others, a math problem or big test makes the brain go blank. These students encounter their worst academic fears in the classroom every day, and for them, fear can seriously disrupt or inhibit learning.

“Fear can have a strong impact on a student’s achievement and rate of achievement, and can really be immobilizing,” says Ron Benner, a school psychologist in Bridgeport, New York. But good educators can sense when a student’s low performance is driven by fear, he says, and they have many tools to guide students through their anxiety.

Frank Clark, a school psychologist with Allegany County Maryland Public Schools, advises educators to first ensure that a child’s anxiety stems from class work and not bullying or other non-academic factors. If academics are to blame, he says, showing support for a student is often the first step toward a solution. “When teachers note any behavior associated with fear they can most effectively address this privately, offer their support and reassurance, and display confidence that the student can overcome their challenges.”

If a student’s fear becomes debilitating, teachers should speak to the student’s family and seek out support from a school counselor or psychologist, notes Benner. But for students’ fear of everyday academic situations, teachers can provide the guidance and boost of confidence needed to face their classroom demons.

Big Test, Big Anxiety

Through years of helping high school students prepare for the SAT and ACT, Connecticut teacher Christine Bonarrigo has built up an extensive toolkit for combating test anxieties. One memorable year, the school psychologist sent a desperate student to Bonarrigo for help. The student—a member of the honor roll who excelled in class—froze when confronted with the SAT, afraid that her poor scores would affect her college applications.

Bonarrigo worked with the student one-on-one, teaching her to break the exam into small, manageable parts and to recognize patterns in exam questions instead of trying to memorize lists of facts from SAT prep books.

“When a student has anxiety like this, it helps to give them information in small chunks, so they can go into the exam with a plan,” she says. “Chunks are more digestible than gigantic books.”

When counseling fearful test-takers, Bonarrigo also focuses on a less concrete but equally important skill: self confidence.

“I tell them to just listen to yourself; if you’re a good student, you know the material already,” she says.

While the SATs come only once or twice in a student’s career, for some, the smaller tests taken throughout the school year cause just as much apprehension. Lynn Cashell, a fourth-grade math teacher in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, teaches her test-apprehensive students a simple trick for boosting self-confidence before a test.

“Before any assessment, I have the students write a positive message on the back of their paper. For example, ‘I can do this’ before a timed multiplication test,” she says.

While many of the students think it’s silly at first, by the end of the year, they remind her if she forgets to set time aside for writing before a test, notes Cashell.

When Math = Fear

For many of Cashell’s students, math itself induces anxiety, whether it’s part of an exam or just a normal day in class. These students’ fear must be tackled in the classroom daily—and for students who are insecure about their math abilities, this can feel like a curse. Cashell helps her students see math differently before they learn a single sum.

“I begin each year talking about [students’] math experiences, fears, and confidence,” says Cashell. She uses picture books to enforce her mantra—that math is everywhere—and has her students maintain math journals. Dice, buttons, marbles, and even candy help bring difficult concepts home. Cashell also uses card games like WAR (students multiply the two numbers), board games, and Twister, for teaching probability.

By showing her students that math is already integrated into their favorite subjects, games, and activities, Cashell helps them feel more comfortable as they move into trickier material.

“Fun is also a key since these students never viewed math in that way,” said Cashell in an online discussion. “At the end of the year, the majority of my students who ‘hated’ math or were ‘not good at it’ tell me it is their favorite subject.”

Cashell also uses mistakes as learning opportunities. “I actually thank the student for demonstrating the error, as many of us make the same error, and it is a great teachable moment,” she said. “I work on building community, where it is safe to make an error, for we all learn from each other.”

Jittery About Speaking in Front of the Class

For many students, especially slow readers or English language learners, nothing brings on sweating and stuttering faster than speaking or reading in front of the class.

Gordon Lampley, a teacher with 34 years of experience in Stanly County Schools, North Carolina, found that it was important to recognize this fear and encourage a student to face it, instead of letting a nervous reader stay silent. “I tried to always accept the fear as genuine, never to 'poo poo' them,” he says. “When I asked for oral reading, everyone was expected to participate. Reluctant readers could opt out after one sentence if they chose.”'

In Christine Bonarrigo’s English classroom, she often reads aloud, allowing less proficient readers to hear how she pronounces difficult words. As much as possible, she lets her students choose what they want to read. And when her class reads a book together, gives lots of background information, helping her students integrate the work into their lives.

“This helps with any kind of subject one is frightened of,” she says. “Any background knowledge you can give ahead of time is imperative. It puts the kids at ease.”

To help students become more comfortable reading or speaking in front of others, Ron Benner advises that, as with any fear, small steps are essential. “Get students to speak in front of a friend they know, someone they trust, and gradually bring in more and more people until they can do it in front of the class,” he says. “Sometimes smaller steps get to the resolution a lot quicker than a more forceful approach.”

Whether tests or trigonometry make a student’s knees quake, teachers can be valuable allies in the fight to face up to classroom fears.

“Basically, it’s important to let the class know you’ve been afraid of stuff, too. The teacher is a human being, we have the same anxieties they have and have lived through these things. Putting yourself out there will make you more accessible to them, and they’ll in turn be more accessible to you,” says Bonarrigo.

Illustration by Dave Clark.

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