People often say that children are fearless.
They climb high trees; they rugby tackle each other with zero concern for body parts; they stand up for themselves and their friends in the face of authority; and often, to the distress of their parents, they say exactly what’s on their mind (or their parents minds!) with devastating honesty.
This is what people say.
And in many respects they’re right. Many children, especially younger children and possibly more so with boys, can be incredibly brave and courageous, free from the chains of responsibility, worries and often naïve to the risks.
From my experience though, and I’ve seen this at both primary and secondary level, the opposite is becoming increasingly true. Our young people are scared, anxious and increasingly, unwilling to even ‘try’.
When I taught year 6 students, it caused me a great deal of upset to see the negative impact of exam pressure on 9 to 11 year olds, not to mention those in the year groups below who weren’t much better off. These children have been failed. Failed by a broken system of inaccurate, inconsistent tests; farcical target grades that were completely detached from actual abilities; desperate teachers and school leaders forced to fill every part of the school day with panicky SATs booster sessions. I can’t count the number of children I saw having physical symptoms of anxiety, including issues of self-harm and panic attacks. And this only worsened at secondary when homework, hormones and social media really kick in.
I don’t think we can blame this lack of ‘willingness’ and resilience entirely on any one thing. I’m not even sure that this is a new thing really. Perhaps children have always been terrified to try new things, but discipline being much stricter from both school and home ‘way back when’, maybe children just did as they were told because the alternative was more terrifying.
Opting out just wasn’t an option whereas now, for many, it clearly is. In many schools and educational settings, we are accepting ‘I can’t’ or ‘I won’t’ far too often. I’m not advising that we throw shy children into isolation when they are too terrified to speak in a presentation, but there should be an expectation that they will try. Even with a child child who is incredibly shy/socially awkward (like I was); if you coach them and their classmates coach them; give them extra time to practise; make them aware of speaking techniques to help with nerves and confidence; promise individual rewards for trying something new; then I don’t think it’s unreasonable to demand that they at least say one sentence in their group presentation to their own form.
I have been in the exact situation described here. After several confrontations with the pupil in question and a letter from home demanding that this boy wasn’t made to present because he really didn’t want to, it was suggested to me by a member of senior staff that I “just let it go” because “we can’t force children to speak!” I’ll also add that the pupil in question didn’t appear to be especially anxious as he often answered questions in class and had no problem in back-chatting at any given opportunity.
It wasn’t about this boy getting away without doing something that he’d been asked to; it was about not letting him let fear stop him from doing something that I absolutely knew he was capable of, despite his parents and school leaders facilitating this avoidance. I’m proud to say that I didn’t back down, and this boy presented on three occasions following this one, ending the year with more confidence than he started.
What kind of teacher would I be if I just let children ‘wimp out’ of everything that scared them?
If I let them strengthen their fears and worries, taking them into their further studies and jobs after school, eventually instilling the same fears and worries in their own children?
Moreover, why aren’t some parents more willing to suffer the short-term upset of their children at home, in order to help them find long-term confidence and happiness?
While I do find the bulk of parents are incredibly supportive, and simply want the best for their offspring; I’ve also come across a growing number who will march angrily into school to demand that their child is allowed to sit next to their friend because they don’t like the person they’re with; that their child is excluded from a presentation/class assembly because they don’t like presentations; that their child isn’t expected to take part in Sport Day because they don’t like PE; that their child isn’t expected to wear a certain part of school uniform because they don’t like the way their legs look in their trousers. Seriously?
I know that many of these parents might have a battle on their hands at home, and often just don’t want to see their child upset and unhappy, but isn’t part of life sometimes doing things that you don’t want to do? Isn’t it true that so often once we’ve faced our fears, we can’t believe we were so worried in the first place? Aren’t these the richest experiences, when we often realise that we were stronger and braver than we ever believed?
If we always allow young people to ‘opt out’, then ultimately, the result is that they miss out.
For my part, I will continue to challenge the students in my care, to take those teeny tiny steps at first outside of their comfort zones until they are ready to take great, whopping leaps into adventure, challenge and success.
There’s nothing better as a teacher than seeing a child conquer something that they’re afraid of, and seeing the pride on their face when they’ve accomplished something that they thought near-impossible. They physically glow with self-belief. They step out of the shoes of who they were and into the shoes of who they can become. No child should be robbed of that opportunity just because it’s too hard or upsetting to deal with.
When I teach, I try to instil an ethos of just showing up; seeing where that mistake takes you in your work; just starting and seeing where momentum takes you; just trying. I also tell my students about anything that I’ve tried or done that’s scary either within or outside of school. We talk about nerves and anxiety, what the physical symptoms look and feel like that; what they can do to work with these nerves rather than against. I want them to know that they are not abnormal because their heart is beating out of their chest when they have to speak in front of their peers. No one ever did this for me when I was experiencing near-panic attacks at school, and the feeling that everyone else was calm as a cucumber while I was just a nervous ‘freak’ only worsened my problem and my will to avoid it.
Recently, I came across a great TED talk and ‘social movement’ based on facing your fears. Michelle Poler’s ‘100 Days without Fear’ does exactly what it says on the tin: she challenges herself in 100 different ways, to face things that terrify her. Why not try something similar with our students? I wonder what results we would get if we get if our homework tasks were about stepping out of your comfort zone (perhaps with adult supervision to avoid a lawsuit!)
For many of our young people in and out of school, the world can seem like a very scary place. There’s no wonder that many of them retreat into a bubble of X-Box or Netflix binges and social media, rather than forcing themselves to do horrible, scary things outside. It’s our duty though as educators, to move with the times and be innovative in the ways that we teach courage and resilience. Perhaps if we can incorporate some of the photo bragging that seems prevalent on social media sites, we might even encourage children to ‘brag’ about something really worthwhile?