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 – and ultimately lead to me moving up to secondary – to see the sorry impact of exam pressure on endless numbers of 9 to 11 year olds, not to mention those in the year groups below who weren’t much better off. Failed by a broken system of inaccurate, inconsistent and even fixed tests; farcical target grades that were completely detached from actual abilities; and desperate teachers and school leaders (whose pay, position and school standard are directly linked to these results) who fill every part of the school day (and pre/post-school) with panicky SATs booster sessions; the kids are the ones who really suffer. I can’t tell you how many children I saw having physical symptoms of anxiety, including issues of self-harm and panic attacks.
Though I don’t think we can blame this lack of ‘willingness’ and resilience entirely on our exam culture in the UK. 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.
Now, for many, the alternative is quite cosy. 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 if you coach them and their classmates coach them, they have extra time to practise, they’ve been made aware of speaking techniques to help with nerves and confidence, they’re promised 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.
This is a situation that I’ve actually been in this year. 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’m proud to say that I didn’t back down, and that this boy has presented on three occasions now and is seemingly much more confident when speaking to the class than they were at the beginning of the year.
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 (a lot more at secondary level) 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, especially when we end up realising we might have even enjoyed the thing we were so worried about?
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.
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 ‘hunky dory’ and 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. And it’s given me a bit of an idea – why not try something similar with our students?
Next September, when I meet our new up-and-comers, I’m going to show them some of the challenges Michelle faced and set them a homework project with a twist – to do something that scares them either in or outside of school, and document their feelings before, during and afterwards.
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 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?
I’ll keep you posted on the results.