Anxiety is probably the most common source of behavior and academic problems in the classroom. We are using “anxiety” here in the common sense of the term, not in the clinical sense as in a formal diagnosis of anxiety. Anxiety typically results from a sense of insecurity. In the case of a real danger, it is a good thing, causing us to pause, pay attention and flee if necessary. Children with an anxious temperament, however, tend to perceive danger or conflict even when there is none. They tend to be on the alert all the time, to be very reactive (hence some behavior issues), to be easily distractible (hence some academic issues), to avoid taking risks, and to cling to routines. Sometimes these children clearly “look” anxious; they appear overly shy, sensitive, or wide-eyed, but sometimes, on the contrary, they look defiant, argumentative and controlling. Anxiety is stressful, even at low levels, and affects judgment, memory, and learning in general. For those of you who attended Nicole Mercer's workshop on Conscious Discipline last Sunday, this is because anxiety keeps us in our lower brain, blocking access to our frontal lobes and thus to our executive function (see our Directors' Corner from April 9th). There may be various reasons for a child's difficult behavior or academic challenges, but assuming that anxiety plays a role, especially in the case of a defiant child, never hurts and often helps a lot, just as attributing positive intent in a conflict situation does.
The only way to fight anxiety is to work on safety, at the physical and emotional levels. Our teachers are good at that, lending an empathetic ear instead of judging, resolving conflicts respectfully, promoting tolerance and bonding among students, using rituals and visual schedules for comfort, all the while engineering successful risk-taking experiences to build resilience. We all need to keep in mind, however, that our setting and our educational approach, although structured, are more flexible than more traditional ones (we do, after all, change theme periodically), and may, in fact, be too flexible and anxiety causing for some students.