There are adults entering the education arena in order to stay relevant in today’s ever-changing work environment. While there are those adults who enjoy and even thrive as they study, another group of students in our classrooms are terrified the moment they walk in the door (or log into their on-line course). In fact, according to Perry (2006), close to one third of the adult population “bring to their classroom a history of abuse, neglect, developmental chaos, or violence that influences their capacity to learn, as well as those who, in response to stress-inducing pedagogical methods, have acquired cumulative educational trauma leading to fear conditioning.”
What does this mean to us as educators? Fundamentally, a significant subset of our students are operating at an elevated level of fear before we even open our mouths. Fear changes how students think, how they feel and how they behave. As educators, our role is to create a climate of safety in our classrooms for all students and particularly those who operate in a heightened state of fear. We can do this by:
- learning to recognize some of ways fear manifests itself (the faces of fear),
- gaining an understanding of why students traumatized by fear respond as they do (what’s going on?), and
- creating strategies where we can, as Perry says, “furnish the structure, predictability and sense of safety that can help them to feel safe enough to learn” (how can we help?).
#1 – The Faces of Fear
One of the most significant takeaways for me while conducting this research was learning some of the ways I can recognize fear, both in myself as a student and in those I facilitate. Just a few of the signs may be, according to Bledsoe and Baskin (2014): shortness of breath, lack of focus, excessive nervousness and frustration, inappropriate behavior in the classroom, poorly completed assignments, frequent absences. Kerka (2002) adds, in addition to the signs above, the following clues your student may be experiencing fear: reactions to class discussions which are disproportionate to the topic being discussed, spacing out, avoiding assessments such as exams, and poor concentration. Perry (2006) refers to the “increased reactivity” in those who are struggling with their fear response which results in “dramatic changes in behavior in the face of seemingly minor provocative cues.”
#2 – What’s Going On?
Our bodies are amazing creations but unfortunately, when a response typically created for a specific reason is hijacked by something like trauma-based fear, the results create problems for us. Perry (2006) talks about the “baseline state of the traumatized learner” and explains that the level arousal one typically has in situations of extreme danger or threat becomes the standard operating level for those who have experience trauma or persistent fear (whatever the cause). The parts of the brain we use for learning (frontal and related cortical areas) are not the same that operate when a person is feeling under significant threat (the amygdala spends a lot more time in the forefront). Situations such as writing an exam or considering the possibility someone may laugh at them in class, events which would cause mild anxiety in many, becomes magnified exponentially by those whose bodies have adapted to persistent levels of fear-based stress. One of the best books I’ve read on the impact of stress on our bodies and our memory is Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert Sapolsky. (Don’t let the dancing zebras on the front of the book fool you; it’s a dense read.)
#3 – How Can We Help?
One of the most practical articles I found on this topic was by Bledsoe and Baskin (2014), Recognizing student fear: The elephant in the classroom. Quoted below are the six strategies they suggest for helping our students move past their fear:
• Educate yourself about fear and its impact on students.
• Recognize that some student fears may be associated with factors outside of the classroom.
• Help students become aware of their feels of anxiety when they occur.
• Create a nurturing environment for your students.
• Be proactive in communicating with students outside the classroom.
• Be aware of campus resources to help students.
Perry (2006) postulates that as an educator, the key to mitigating a student’s fear is to become attuned to what is being experienced by your student. This is accomplished through developing a level of trust between you, the student, and whenever possible, fellow learners. “In sum, the necessary sense of safety to encourage adult learning comes from consistent, nurturing, and sensitive attention to the learner’s state of mind.”