Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Interventions Can Salve Unseen Anxiety Barriers

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Interventions Can Salve Unseen Anxiety Barriers

Article excerpt

What may appear as a student's defiance or procrastination often is hidden anxiety or stress. Teachers can employ several strategies to help such students move forward in their learning.

Take a poll of teachers' greatest concerns. Most likely they'll put "troubling behaviors" at the top of the list. The National Education Association cites "problem behaviors" as one of the top five reasons teachers leave the profession prematurely (Kopkowski, 2008). Our recent literature search found multiple articles, similar in tone and content, promising to help teachers deal with negative classroom behaviors that interfere with teaching and learning. They focus on improving teacher-student relationships, creating behavioral expectations and consequences, establishing clear learning goals, outlining assertive behavior that leads to greater control, and establishing a positive, collaborative, and respectful classroom climate.

It's hard to find fault with these familiar building blocks of a well-managed classroom. But even seasoned, talented educators may not be sufficiently prepared to address the needs of students suffering from anxiety. Anxiety disorders are alarmingly prevalent among U.S. children and adolescents: 31.9% of teens have had an anxiety disorder during their school years (Merikangas et al., 2010). With other disabilities, including ADHD and autism also increasingly prevalent, overburdened teachers are overwhelmed.

Anxiety--and accompanying chronic worry--can result in an increasing variety of negative behaviors. These create major impediments to a student's learning, to the learning of others, and to a teacher's ability to teach effectively. Heroic teachers handle this challenge with little to no training in mental health and behavioral principles. School systems identify the need for social-emotional learning but put other professional development initiatives first, such as advancing the use of technology in the classroom. In short, an iPad is no substitute for iUnderstand Myself. Leaving teachers to learn by instinct on the job puts students with mental health or behavior issues at risk for negative outcomes that include leaving school, academic failure, poor social adjustment, and a disproportionate number of suspensions and detentions.

While the right dose of stress aids learning, intense and unrelenting stress or chronic anxiety depletes psychological energy. Cognition suffers and behavior worsens. To understand this, let's look at what's happening in the brain.

A neurobiological view

Linguist and education researcher Stephen Krashen conceived the "affective filter hypothesis" to explain how students can learn a second language more efficiently. The affective (or emotional) filter hypothesis holds that learners' ability to acquire language is constrained if they experience negative emotions such as fear or embarrassment, or when their "filter is up" (Krashen, 2003). In Krashen's view, many factors can activate the affective filter, including low self-confidence, low motivation, stress, and anxiety. The Krashen hypothesis can be applied to any student whose anxiety is impeding learning, and its use becomes obvious when we examine what's going on in the anxious brain.

Stress and excessive anxiety (here defined as worrying about something over which we believe we have little or no control) impairs the brain's ability to process, acquire and store new information. The part of the brain's limbic system known as the amygdala is generally regarded as a fear sensor. In the frightened brain, PET and fMRI scans reveal the physiological effect (increased radioactive glucose and oxygen use) of intense anxiety or stress. In this reactive state, new information is prevented from reaching the cerebral cortex (in particular, the prefrontal cortex) where higher-level processing and memory storage occur.

In the face of fear, the primitive part of the brain --the mid-brain--takes over to keep us safe from perceived threats. …

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