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Moving from Distress to ‘De-Stress’

  • 11 July 2016
  • Polly Schaverien

There is a strong link between learning disorders and anxiety – and when you think about how our brains are wired, it is no surprise.  One of the most important survival skills we have as humans is the ability to spot and rapidly respond to danger. We ‘automatically’ swing into action with a “fight or flight” response to make ourselves safe.  This is a brilliant system if you step off the footpath into the path of an oncoming car. If we are lucky, our brain hits the ‘flight’ switch and we are back on the kerb before we know it, adrenaline surging through our system.  However, this “fight or flight” system becomes problematic when the object of threat is not a fast moving vehicle, but reading aloud in class, handing in a piece of written work or sitting a spelling test.  A student’s experiences in the classroom can lead to their brain developing a fear response to school, school work, or specific classroom activities.  In turn that can lead to them avoiding (i.e. activating the flight response) or acting out (i.e. activating the fight response) when faced with tasks or situations that are threatening to well-being or their sense of self.

Take the example of a child we have worked with.  Bright, well behaved and dyslexic, he had never been in trouble in class.  His name had always stayed on ‘green’ on the school’s colour-coded behaviour chart. His teacher knew both his strengths and his challenges and they had systems in place, for example, so he could dictate a story when the words were flowing out of his mouth faster than he could get them onto the page.

Enter the relief teacher.  She didn’t know the children individually and set them their writing task for the morning.  She looked at this young lad’s piece of writing and exclaimed, “You have hardly written a thing! What a waste of your time and mine! Move your name to ‘blue’!”  Holding back the tears, embarrassed in front of his peers, he did what he was told, and moved his name to the first of the “naughty” colours, ‘blue’. He then tried to find the words to explain “But . . . but . . .”  Which was met with the response, “I don’t want to hear excuses, and for that, you can move your name to ‘yellow’.”

So, this young lad filed “relief teachers” alongside “fast moving vehicles” and “venomous snakes” in his knowledge store of objects to be feared.  For a number of years after this event, his mother would receive a phone call from the school office a couple of times a term to say that her child was feeling nauseous and needed to be collected.  The first question she would ask is, “Does his class have a relief teacher today?” – and more often than not, the answer was, “Yes”. He wasn’t sick with a disease; he was sick with fear.

As the parents, teachers, tutors and specialists working with children like this, it is important to remember that they are not being ‘naughty’ when they behave like this. They are trying to keep themselves safe from a situation they honestly perceive to be threatening to their well-being and their sense of self.  If we act skillfully in response to their fear, we can positively influence how they respond to stressors the next time they appear, and slowly retrain the fear response.

There are some great tips for helping young people who are experiencing stress or anxiety as a result of struggling at school.  For example, check out this link to a more thorough description of the relationship between dyslexia, stress and anxiety and how to move from distress to ‘DE-STRESS’ using a model developed by Dr Jerome Schultz at Harvard University Medical School.

Getting an educational assessment is a really important step in reducing a young person’s anxiety around school and certain school related tasks.  An assessment can help a person ‘make sense’ of why certain tasks feel scary.  The way we carry out assessments and feedback at How I Learn, also aims to empower people to advocate for themselves in their learning environments.