Common Practices that Trigger Fight, Flight, or Freeze Responses in the Classroom
March 4, 2021
The Invisible Barrier: Anxiety
Barriers that are often overlooked or dismissed are invisible emotional challenges such as anxiety. One reason for not recognizing or supporting students with this struggle is that anxiety often manifests itself in a student as either (1) perfectionistic (high functioning) or (2) apathetic (low functioning) tendencies. In the case of perfectionistic students, what teacher feels the need to give extra support to their overachievers, teachers’ pets, and go-getters? (Afterall, the negative consequences of being a perfectionist are often not manifested until later in life and thus not of immediate concern to the teacher.) In the case of apathetic students, most teachers would see this as either a lack of interest in the content, mischief, or rebellious behavior, rather than a coping method under stress.
Anxiety-Inducing Practices in the Classroom
Another way teachers may accidently overlook the needs of students with anxiety is that they may use deeply entrenched, commonly accepted teaching methods that aggravate anxiety. For example, many teachers give surprise pop quizzes. These exams trigger fight, flight, or freeze emotional responses in students; they inhibit even the most attentive students from being able to test well if they are in a trauma response (through no fault of their own). Another common practice is that teachers use true/false problems in their examinations which trigger OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) symptoms. Commonly, a true/false question is either completely true with one detail that is false or a completely false statement with one detail that is true to throw off a student’s assumptions. For students with anxiety or OCD tendencies, these problems may completely derail a student from their forward progress in an exam, always wondering if they missed a single detail in the earlier true/false questions. I see both of these practices to be “gotcha” testing. Like “gotcha journalism,” there is little value to either practice that more “authentic measures of assessment” could achieve (Armstrong, 2018, p.129).
Often Structure is the Greatest Barrier for a Student with Anxiety
I appreciated the clarifying statements made by Kent ISD (n-d). They reiterate that adaptation is not a “watered down curriculum” or “lowered standards,” saying that teachers should “keep the content but change the delivery” (p. 1). Is it that students with anxiety cannot learn math? No. Is it that students with anxiety are terrible at tests? Not always. More often than not, the assignment/examination structure and delivery method create the greatest barriers. Kent ISD (n-d) made this clear when they wrote that “In the area of worksheets and tests, some materials themselves add to a student’s other problems by the layout and design, the way the directions are written, the amount of content presented, and the testing format. Revising these materials effectively will help not only those students who struggle, but also the others in the classroom. Good teaching is good teaching and all students benefit from improved materials and strategies” (p. 1). Rather than using antiquated teaching methods or examination structures to try and “catch” students who did not prepare, all our students benefit from assignments that are more formative than summative, showing them that their teachers are on their team.
Armstrong, T. (2018). Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom (4th ed.). ASCD.
Kent Intermediate School District (n.d.). Classroom adaptations: Creating a climate of success. https://www.trimesters.org/uploads/3/4/7/1/34719762/classroomadaptations.pdf