• Destiny Yarbro

Four Commonly Used Classroom Procedures That Induce Anxiety in Students

Shared by Summers, 2019

Certain types of classroom rules and procedures inhibit rather than promote a positive classroom environment. Specifically in the case of students with disabilities or mental health disorders, inhibiting procedures can have a devastating effect on their education. This paper will examine four types of common rules and procedures, identify whether they have a positive or negative effect on the classroom, and analyze how a teacher can recognize which are more effective than others.

Common Type 1: Collective Punishment

Group punishment occurs when an entire class is punished for the actions of a few students. For example, a second grade class is kept inside during recess because several students were disruptive or the entire senior high school class is punished for a school prank committed by an unknown few. Collective punishment “appears to be immediately effective in promoting compliance” (Daley, 2019) and is mistakenly believed to “promote a stronger sense of cohesion” among the students (Thomas, 2019, para. 11). However, rather than encouraging students to come together for the common good, these types of punishments do not “hold the target of retaliation to be morally responsible” (Cushman, Durwin, & Lively, 2012, para. 1) and create a hostile environment where no matter how well-behaved some students are, they are consistently punished for the actions of others. A positive classroom environment holds individual students responsible for their own actions.

Common Type 2: Vague Rules

Many teachers, in their effort to create a positive classroom environment, mistakenly establish vague rules such as “make wise choices,” “be ready to learn,” “try new things,” “have good manners” or “help each other” (Linsin, 2019, para. 9) without specifying what they mean for each student. Instead, wording rules like “be at your seat with your notebook and pencil by the time the bell rings” or “turn off your phones during assessments” are more likely to “direct attention, mobilize effort, increase persistence, and motivate strategy development” (Locke, Shaw, Saari, & Latham, 1981). Some teachers may set too many rules thus trying to micromanage their students or write words that are too wordy, both resulting in students who cannot remember what the rules are. A positive classroom environment empowers students to make well-educated choices by setting clear expectations.

Common Type 3: ‘Gotcha’ Assignments

It is common for teachers to give anxiety-inducing pop quizzes and high-stakes summative tests with tricky true/false questions. For a student with anxiety, a surprise quiz triggers them into a fight, flight or freeze response (Yarbro, 2021, para. 2) which compromises their ability to do well, regardless of how much they know the content. True/false questions are often worded to trick test-takers (especially those with OCD or anxiety) as nearly all of the statement is correct with only a minor error that can easily go unnoticed. Similar to ‘gotcha journalism’, the author of this paper sees these forms of classroom procedures as attempts to catch students at their weakest. Rather than building a relationship of trust, these practices pit students against the teacher and students no longer see their teacher on their side and eager to help them succeed. Utilizing anxiety-inducing practices like these lead to “high absenteeism rates, difficulty processing and retrieving information, sleep deprivation, disruptive behaviors in class, fractured relationships with peers and teachers, irregular homework completion and classroom participation, complaints of physical ailments” all of which are too often labeled as “an attitude or behavioral problem” (Stack, n-d). A positive classroom is built on trust; where a teacher empowers a student by giving them ample and fair opportunities to succeed.

Common Type 4: Collective Group Projects

Effective group projects must contain enough individual responsibility to avoid becoming group punishments. (See Common Type 1). Unfortunately, rather than teaching vital skills, they are too often set up in a way that burns out conscientious students and gives a free ride to slacking students. 73% of students in a study conducted by California State University Northridge “felt group work was negative because of lack of participation, slackers, flakes, unequal work” (Scott, Taylor, Lemus, & Oh, 2008). Rather than the too common practice of weighing group projects heavily and grading them collectively, teachers must consider other practices to make group projects more fair, engaging, and positive for students. For example, teachers who have students fill out peer review forms, student reports, journals, or collaborative learning forms (Yost, 2011) promote individual responsibility and have a better understanding of the division of labor in a group when grading. Teachers can also assess the group collaboration process and not just the product (Carnegie Mellon University, n.d) or they can grade group projects individually or partially individually to ensure fairness. Too often, ill-constructed group projects lead to frustrated students, hostility between peers and towards the teacher, and a negative classroom environment for all.

How Can Teachers Assess What Procedures are Successful?

There are multiple ways a teacher can identify what rules and procedures are effective. A behaviorist would most likely see “success” as students who followed rules precisely, sat quietly, and other easy-to-measure indicators (Borich & Tombari, n-d). However, teachers may find other measurements of success more accurate and inclusive, such as:

  • Students feel safe enough to explore and try new things

  • Students actively seek out ways to help each other

  • Students are comfortable enough to discuss learning challenges with the teacher

  • Students are empowered to succeed because assignments and assessments are formative and nurture diversity and avoid traditional test formats (Armstrong, 2018, p. 136)

  • Trauma-informed classroom assignments avoid triggering students into fight, flight, or freeze mode; students seem open to new assignments

  • Students not only love learning in the classroom, they continue that learning by exploring on their own outside of the classroom

It is clear for the teacher that “effective classroom management procedures promote independent learning and success for all students” and create classrooms that are “productive, orderly, and pleasant” (Rademacher, Callahan, & Pederson-Seelye, 1998, para. 1).

In conclusion, teachers who want effective rules and procedures in the classroom opt for individualized punishment rather than group punishment, clear and concise rules rather than vague rules, formative and trust-building assignments rather than ‘gotcha’ assignments, and group projects built to be engaging and fair for students. Teachers will recognize the success of these types of procedures as students will feel safe, comfortable, empowered, and eager to explore self-propelled learning.


Armstrong, T. (2018). Multiple intelligences in the classroom (4th ed.). ASCD.

Borich, G. D. & Tombari, M. L. (n-d). Behaviorism in the Classroom. Lumen Educational Psychology. https://courses.lumenlearning.com/edpsy/chapter/behaviorism-in-the-classroom/

Carnegie Mellon University. (n.d.) How can I assess group work? https://www.cmu.edu/teaching/designteach/design/instructionalstrategies/groupprojects/assess.html

Cushman, F., Durwin, A. J., & Lively, C. (2012). Revenge without responsibility? Judgments about collective punishment in baseball. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(5), 1106–1110. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2012.03.011

Linsin, M. (2019, July 6). Are Your Class Rules Enforceable? Smart Classroom Management. https://www.smartclassroommanagement.com/2019/07/06/class-rules-enforceable/

Locke, E. A., Shaw, K. N., Saari, L. M., & Latham, G. P. (1981). Goal setting and task performance: 1969–1980. Psychological Bulletin, 90(1), 125–152. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.90.1.125

Scott, W., Taylor, A., Lemus, D., and Oh, J. (2008, April). Navigating Conflict in Student Teams. Symposium conducted at Faculty Development Series, California State University Northridge, California. http://www.csun.edu/afye/Six-Keys-to-Creating-Effective-Group-Assignments-and-Team-Projects.htm

Stack, D. E. (n-d). Managing anxiety in the classroom. Mental Health America. https://www.mhanational.org/blog/managing-anxiety-classroom

Summers, C. (2019, December 3). Group Work: It Does Not Have to be Torture! Leading Learning Matters. https://leadinglearningmatters.wordpress.com/2019/12/03/group-work-it-does-not-have-to-be-torture/comment-page-1/

Thomas, J. (2019, July 11). Group punishment doesn’t fix behaviour – it just makes kids hate school. https://theconversation.com/group-punishment-doesnt-fix-behaviour-it-just-makes-kids-hate-school-120219

Yarbro, D. (2021, March 4). Common Practices that Trigger Fight, Flight, or Freeze Responses in the Classroom. https://www.destinyyarbro.com/single-post/common-practices-that-trigger-fight-flight-or-freeze-responses-in-the-classroom

Yost, W. (2011). Before You Assign Another Group Project . . . . Six Keys to Creating Effective Group Assignments and Team Projects. CSUN. http://www.csun.edu/afye/Six-Keys-to-Creating-Effective-Group-Assignments-and-Team-Projects.htm

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