7 tips for reducing student anxiety in the classroom

By Eliescha Bazley

Understanding Anxiety: A Teacher's Guide: Generalised Anxiety

1. Building strong connections

It’s easy to cut our losses with difficult students and focus on the students who are easy to manage in our classrooms. However, those challenging students can be the ones who would benefit the most from developing strong connections with their teachers. These students may be used to people giving up on them and even act out to avoid situations that they feel uncomfortable in or make them feel dumb. Taking proactive steps to reduce student anxiety can be beneficial. This could be calling home to discuss how to provide the support their child needs, being mindful to treat all students with equal respect and warmth in your classroom, and making sure that your interactions with challenging students are not limited to dealing with their difficult behaviour. Extra effort will be required, but when you consider the long-term gains, your efforts will be worthwhile.

2. Assigning classwork

For some students, seeing all the work that needs to be done can make them feel overwhelmed and unsure of where to begin. Anxious students will also be reluctant to ask for help, and we can mistake this for laziness and disruptive behaviour. When planning lessons, consider ways to breakdown activities into smaller parts and how to provide instruction and structure for your students who are struggling. If they have trouble completing an entire worksheet, cut it into smaller components and have them complete one or two items at a time or have them attempt only the odd or even-numbered items. Discuss realistic goals with your students for the lesson. If they can’t read just yet, have them circle 10 words they know, and then level up by attempting 5 more. Try to assist them as soon as you can to make sure that they understand the instructions and to help counter any negative ideas about their inability to do the work before it takes hold of them. Encourage their achievements and build on them.

3. Providing advanced warning

Knowing what to expect can really help to reduce a student’s anxiety. You’re probably using a schedule in any case, so adapt it for your students to give them a clear idea of what will be happening over a unit of work, when tests are scheduled, and what dates work is due. You could create a visual activity board that you take your class through every morning. An anxious student could assist you in putting each daily activity card in its scheduled timeslot on the board so that they know exactly what is happening throughout the day. You may also consider briefly talking students through what you will be looking at during tomorrow’s lesson for each subject. For example, if the topic was “past tense verbs,” show your students a couple of examples (ran, jumped, climbed) and maybe work through a quick exercise together (e.g. The boy ( ) in a relay race). This can help your students to prepare for transitions and relieve uncertainty about what they’re meant to be doing when the actual lesson takes place the next day.

4. Reducing fear of failure

Fear of failure and looking stupid can be paralysing. So much so that our students will do anything to avoid it. Unfortunately, our education system is test-driven and focused on limited skillsets, and this can set students up to fail. It is important to teach students that failure is something that is inevitable in our lives, but it offers us the chance to grow and do better. We should aim to reframe the idea of success as setting achievable goals, learning from our mistakes, seeing improvements, making a good effort, and not giving up. If our students are doing these things in our classroom, they are succeeding—or more importantly, not failing. Teachers are responsible for driving this narrative and providing the necessary support and encouragement that the students need to believe in themselves and lessen their anxiety about test results. Parents should be encouraging the efforts that their child makes in your class beyond the standard academic grades.

Understanding Anxiety – Exam Stress

5. Asking for help

Your goal should be to eventually remove any anxiety that your student has about asking for help during class. You could meet with the student and discuss using a nonverbal cue to signal that they need help with something. This could be placing a certain item on the corner of their desk or using a tissue. They could write you a note or meet with you in the staffroom at a designated time to discuss any further problems. Your student should be told to consider what they need help with and why. This means that they can’t simply tell you, “I can’t do this.” Rather, “I need help with reading this page because this word is difficult. Here, you can commend them on their efforts and help them to sound out the difficult word until they get it. Your assistance should aim towards showing them how they can learn to resolve their problems independently. Do they remember where the example was in the book? Did they re-read the instructions? Could they ask a classmate to help them? When your student can solve problems on their own, give them plenty of positive reinforcement to build their confidence and independence.

6. Reframing misperceptions

Statements like “I hate art” often reflect a student’s difficulty with an aspect of the work overtaking their perception of the entire subject and their approach to it. Try to help your student identify what they are having difficulty with while showing them they are capable of so many other things. Maybe they are great at painting and making models, but they have trouble drawing. That’s okay because you can teach them how to draw. There is a strategy that asks your students to rate how difficult a task seems before they attempt it and then rating the actual difficulty when it has been completed. Students will likely find that their perception is different from reality. Another strategy involves breaking a unit of work into individual components and having your student place each component into “I like it,” “It’s OK,” and “I don’t like it” categories. This demonstrates to the student that they don’t actually hate everything about a subject and allows them to see the areas that they need help with. Now you can help them to develop the skills that they need to do better instead of constantly battling the “I hate this” mentality.

7. Promoting persistence

Students need to feel motivated to keep trying even when they aren’t achieving the best results. This can be problematic. You could try implementing an appropriate reward system for effort such as having free time, allowing them to listen to music while they work, or watching a class movie for collective effort. Their effort should also be fairly reflected in their grades. If possible, negotiate with your head of department to allocate part of total achievable grades to effort and make success in this area achievable. Some indicators could be if your student is attempting more difficult questions, if they have corrected their mistakes, or if they are making progress. These will count towards their grades. Teaching them to push outside of their comfort zones helps them to grow and become more capable. Just like skills in basketball or football are learned and practiced, their skills in completing classwork and taking exams must be developed over time with plenty of practice.

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