Academic Anxiety and Keeping Kids Safe at School

Feeling safe at school involves much more than providing a physically safe environment. Kids need to feel safe academically as well. Over the last decades, increased academic demands-particularly those that do not take into consideration the basic facts about child development-result in placing pressure on students to perform tasks that they are not yet ready to do. A prime example of this is the pressure kids and parents experience regarding the need to read in kindergarten. While some children are ready to read, others require the gift of time. Yet, being unable to read or read fluently sends up red flags that propel teachers to have children sent for extra help, to be evaluated, and, even more significantly, to reflect back to kids either verbally or nonverbally the sense of worry about them being unable to master the skill of reading. While some children could benefit from these interventions, others simply have not acquired the requisite cognitive processing skills to achieve to classroom expectations. Another example of this is giving kindergarten children a multi-step directive after a read aloud that asks them to return to their seats, and write a story with a beginning, middle, and an ending! This task is way beyond most students this age and developmental level.

When kids feel unable to achieve mastery, they do not feel safe. School becomes a place where they feel worried and feel less than the peers who have been able to do things that they are not yet able to do. Pressures placed on teachers to have their students score well on standardized tests add to the sense of worry and pressure as they, too, do not feel safe with regard to their own evaluation as educators. For kids, school is their job. Adults know what it is like to report to a job each day that they do not like or one in which they feel they are underachieving. This is the same kind of feeling induced in kids. Worrying about being unable to do the homework or complete a worksheet in class induces in children a feeling of vulnerability.

Many years ago, Dr. David Elkind, a Harvard psychologist, wrote a book entitled, “The Hurried Child,” warning of the dangers of exposing children to stimulation that they are not yet able to developmentally digest. Just like giving an infant solid food before they are ready, students who are pressured to perform tasks that they are not yet ready to do will “spit” it back at us in the form of a wide range of behaviors, including withdrawal, oppositional behavior, anxiety, or even school refusal. Feeling afraid to say or do something at school because the stimulation in the form of academic pressure for mastery is developmentally overwhelming turns kids off to school and learning, worries parents and teachers, and can lead to any one of a number of non-constructive consequences. Self-esteem dips and worry can morph into sadness or depression. The kind of excitement and curiosity school is supposed to foster in students gets lost in the dust of the push for achievement no matter the cost.

This situation leads to schools producing learning and behavioral problems in school instead of a sense of safety and enthusiasm for learning. Add to this exposure to environmental stimulation in the media (i.e. see the classic study from the American Psychological Association about the effect of viewing TV violence on children) and technology that brings all kinds of overstimulating material directly into our homes and schools, and it is easy to understand how young children are developing a sense of worry at greater rates than we have seen before.

As adults, our primary job is to monitor and filter the stimulation to which our children are exposed in order to keep them safe. Technology and the well-meaning push for academic achievement have added to the burden of fulfilling this task. Nevertheless, it is adult’s prime directive when it comes to the children in our care.

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