Wrangling a Cougar: Working with Highly Anxious Students

Published on Apr 19, 2017.
“Courage is not the absence of fear, it’s what you do in the face of it. “

Working with a student with anxiety is a bit like trying to rescue an injured, cornered, wild cat. How you approach him or her directly impacts not only the potential success of the cat but how many injuries you both sustain in the process of the rescue.

I tend to be a fairly direct counselor. I believe in accountability and responsibility and I trust students’ ability to cope with difficult messages if they are delivered directly and with compassion. However, this approach can fall apart with a student with anxiety. They often see it as an attack, resulting in withdrawal or sometimes acting out. Both of these responses can result in a nightmare for classroom management.

There is a group of simple techniques I use which I affectionately call “side-stepping” that may be helpful to you in the classroom. “Side-stepping” allows you to deliver the same information in a way anxious students can hear it without triggering their anxiety. Here are four “side-step” methods for you to consider.

Positioning: When needing to redirect a student, pay attention to your body positioning. Hunker down or sit in a chair when talking to a student. Doing so puts your body on the same level as theirs. It feels less intimidating and overwhelming for anxious students. (Incidentally, if you have a student who is constantly trying to challenge your authority, don’t sit when talking to them, stand up and tell them to sit down while you talk.)

Privacy: Remember when I said anxious students view your direction as an attack? Well, this is exacerbated if your direction happens publicly. With an anxious student, you’ll be more effective if you redirect that student privately. Pull them to your desk, whisper so others don’t hear, and allow the student to turn their face away from their peers so when they turn red their peers don’t see. For an anxious student, this is far more effective than my traditional, “Hey, Joe, I need you to raise your hand before you can talk.”

Gender: I’ll admit, I’m generalizing on this one. But it’s called “generalizing” because in “general” it works! Females, when we talk we face off. Meaning, we square our shoulders up to each other. Males, when you talk you don’t square your shoulders do you? You place one foot behind the other, allowing you to face your partner at an angle. Women, if you try to talk to a male and square off, you’ll notice them becoming more defensive. Try angling or sitting side by side instead of directly in front of male students (and maybe even your female students). If you angle your shoulders away, you’ll notice less defensiveness in your male students (try it with your husbands even… it’s amazing!)

Messaging: There are two helpful messages I use to help students with anxiety. The first is to shift their perspective about failure. The underlying belief of a student with anxiety is usually “I’m a failure, I’m not good enough,” so helping them to understand that “smart” is not a static condition, but rather a process, is helpful. I often tell my clients, “You know that feeling where your head hurts because you’re working on a problem that’s extremely challenging? That’s what learning feels like. Not knowing the answer and failing at multiple attempts is part of the process of learning!” On the walls of Facebook’s offices, there lives a quote, “Move fast, and break things.” That seems to accurately underscore the process of learning and ingenuity. “As you work to figure something out, mistakes are a MUST, successful people have simply learned to welcome them.”

The second message is to help them understand they can move through anxiety rather than letting it paralyze them. Often people view anxiety as a wall that keeps them trapped when it’s simply a feeling they don’t need to allow to impact their behavior. The analogy I use is called “high-siding.” I am a river rafter. Although I’m new to the sport, I’ve learned something called “high-siding” which means when you’re going into a really big wave, the safe way through it is to jump toward the wave, not away from it. That’s right, directly toward the part of the boat that is tipping over. Doing so allows the boat to pull you safely through the rapid. The same is true for anxiety. It’s only a feeling. It won’t actually kill you (it only feels like it will). So leaning in, and doing that thing that makes you feel anxious anyway goes a long way toward proving to yourself that your worst fears about the epic failure you think you may be are rarely realized. For those of you working with little kids, I message this to my 6-year old like this, “You can be so proud of yourself right now! Because even though you felt scared, you did it anyway. What courage!” High-side it and you might make it. If you don’t you’ll surely sink.

Learning and using these skills will not only help alleviate students’ anxiety and open doors to increased learning, it’ll also make your job easier. You’ll find you’re doing less “management” in the long run because the management you are doing is far more effective.

Kim Keys
Owner of Keys Counseling Solutions

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