How Teachers Can Help

    by Milana, Athena’s student

    Milana has some words of wisdom for teachers working with students who might be reluctant to speak.

    Many of Athena’s philosophies are mirrored in this post.

    Thank you, Milana!

    Hi. I’m Milana. I have always struggled to speak in public settings for as long as I can remember. Everyone always thought I was just VERY shy and that exposure would help me get over it. They did not understand that it was more than that. It was only when I turned eight that we realized that I was not just shy; I had selective mutism, a severe form of anxiety (or SM). I started a blog, so I could share my experiences and how I handled them. I also started it because I know there are other kids who are struggling with anxiety, and I think it helps them to know that they are not alone. I also wanted to help make people aware of SM, even though there is such a small number of people who suffer from it. My blog’s name is My Mutism Journey. A lot of my reflections on how teachers can help kids in class can help not only kids with SM or anxiety but also apply to kids who are just plain shy or nervous about speaking up in a classroom. 

    With a new year and a new semester of school, I’ve been thinking about all the things that make me nervous and anxious in a classroom and the things that teachers do to help me feel more comfortable. So, I put together a list of a few things that teachers should and should not do when teaching an anxious student. Hopefully, in the future, this will help teachers to make SM and anxious kids more comfortable in a class. 

    Before I started online schooling, I was in a brick-and-mortar school. Besides being bored all the time because I wasn’t being challenged, school was a little scary. I had a lot to say and contribute, but the only way to share my thoughts was to be called on to speak in front of thirty other classmates. The idea of having to do that petrified me. Online schooling can be a big advantage to kids with anxiety if the instructor knows how to treat them. The ability to participate blog-style in an online classroom helps anxious kids feel more comfortable in school. Kids often feel more comfortable participating and speaking behind the security of a screen because they do not know what others are thinking about them and cannot see their facial expressions. If you do not know what someone else is thinking about you, you can forget them and focus on what you have to say. While some people think this is a bad thing because they are “hiding,” in reality, it is an entry point that can launch the student into more active participation. Further, even if that is as far as that student is ready to go, it is better than no participation. If instructors can focus on the positives and find the best ways to deal with students with anxiety, they can really contribute to those kids’ academic experiences in a helpful way. However, online webinars can be very stressful if the instructor does not know how to treat them. 

    Here are some of my thoughts about how teachers can help kids with anxiety feel more comfortable in a classroom. First, they should encourage kids to participate and speak while not making them feel pressured and uncomfortable. One good way to do this is to split students up into small groups or breakout rooms to work on a project together. Then, an anxious child might feel more comfortable speaking to two or three, or even four other kids rather than fifteen or twenty. Another good way is to give kids a heads up about what you will talk about in class, so they can already think about what they have to say before arriving in class. That helps kids with anxiety talk a little more because they feel more comfortable speaking about something that they have thought about beforehand. Also, when teaching an anxious kid, there are some things you should always do. First, when a nervous student raises their hand to participate, you should prioritize them. This prioritization is because if another person is often saying an anxious student’s ideas before that student gets the chance to give their thoughts, then the anxious student will not be inclined to speak at all because they will feel that their contributions won’t matter or be as fresh. Also, it is important not to let one kid ‘hog’ the entire conversation. If one kid is doing all the talking and not letting anyone else have a chance to contribute, a nervous kid will be discouraged from engaging. 

    However, there are also a few behaviors that instructors should avoid. First, for an anxious kid, being cold-called is the worst thing to happen in a classroom. That is because when a teacher cold-calls a student, they would have gotten called to speak when they might not have felt comfortable doing it. However, you should not ignore a nervous child, even if you think it is doing them a favor by not making them participate. This is because if you ignore them, it makes them feel invisible, like no one notices them, or like they are not a part of the class. Additionally, you should not make a big deal about a student speaking in class to the entire classroom, but it is good to send a private message to the student about your pleasure with them engaging. Lastly, you should never force conversation or participation out of a student, but you can encourage it. 

    Additionally, participation points can be either good or bad, depending on the student. For some kids, participation points are helpful because it gives them motivation that is greater than their anxiety. However, for others, it is very stressful because it pretty much forces them to speak against their will. It’s helpful to run a poll at the beginning of the semester to gather students’ thoughts on this subject and personalize teaching to the specific group of kids and what makes them tick.

    To conclude, many teachers are unsure how to handle students with anxiety who do not openly want to participate. They might be inclined to either ignore students who seem anxious, thinking they are helping, or try the opposite: forcing them into participating in a specific way. However, if these teachers are aware of how to make kids feel more comfortable, then both the student and the teacher can be happier and more relaxed, and the student will be able to contribute more to the discussion. This is a benefit to kids and instructors alike, as well as other kids in the class, and if everyone is comfortable, then we can create a tighter-knit community.

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