I don´t know why, but fear has always played a major role in my life. Despite having a mostly happy childhood, I grew up feeling uncomfortable in my own skin. I blame a lot of this on my early school life. I hated school! I guess as a young boy I was quite wild, I liked nothing more than to be outside, exploring, building and getting myself caked in mud. Adults would often comment on my mischievous grin. I was very proud of this and would try and live up to it by doing something cheeky like shooting a water pistol in the general direction of their groin. This would either endear me to them even more or create a lifelong enemy. I had a simple approach to life, to play, explore and push the boundaries. I would have been quite happy to carry on with this for as long as I could, but much to my disappointment, at the age of 4 I was carted off to school. Things were about to change and not in a good way.
Does anxiety start at school?
Back then I didn´t want anything to do with school and was simply not ready for it. Some kids lap it up, school is perfect for them and they take full advantage of it. This is great for them, but for me it was a disaster. I disliked education so much that I developed a keen sense of smell for it, just so that I could avoid it. Sometimes the teachers would try and trick me into learning something by playing an educational game, but i´d be ready for them and would pretend to not understand or point-blank refuse to play. I´m sure it seemed that I was being a stubborn little ****, but in reality, it was a lot more than that. I couldn´t stand being stuck in a small, claustrophobic room with so many other children and being forced to learn to read and write.
Though I always had friends at school, I found it hard to be in big groups and would often zone out into my own little world. I think I was overwhelmed by the environment and day dreaming was a way for me to escape from it. This obviously had repercussions as I quickly fell behind everyone else and my teachers became impatient with me. My brother, three years my senior, had been to the same school and was doing very well, so the expectation was for me to follow suit. But I just didn´t seem to fit in. I remember feeling increasingly nervous about going to school and not being able to keep up with the work. All that my teachers and parents wanted was for me to learn to read and write, but I just wanted to play. Maybe I was stubborn, but I felt like I should be the one to decide when I wanted to learn. For me it was clear, anxiety definitely did start at school.
I seemed to intuitively understand that this type of school was not for me and although I wanted to fit in and make my parents happy, I just couldn’t focus on anything. However, being five, I wasn´t able to articulate this in any other way than “but mum, I don´t like school, it´s boring”. You can guess the reply to that. Looking back now, I know that this would have been causing me a lot of anxiety. I was eventually told that I had dyslexia and my parents decided to send me to a private school with much smaller class sizes and a different approach to pedagogy. I thrived in this environment and within a year I had overtaken many of my peers at reading.
The irony is, that despite my early dislike of all things to do with education, I ended up becoming a primary school teacher and after spending the last eight years teaching I am now very knowledgeable in the area. I often come across children who are just like I was when I was younger and seem to suffer from school anxiety and a lack of focus. In fact, my main reason for joining the profession (other than the holidays) was to try and help children like me have a better time by overcoming school anxiety.
However I felt that the British education system made it very hard for me to teach in the way that I wanted. I always tried to make my lessons as fun and engaging as possible, but with such a narrow focus on English and maths, an enormous workload and an increasing pressure to teach to the test, instead of the children´s needs, I sometimes became disillusioned with it. It felt like the children´s assessment and their progress in English and maths was often more important than their well-being and happiness.
ADD and Anxiety
As you may be aware, today children who struggle to pay attention like I did are often labeled with attention deficit disorder (ADD) and are given stimulant medication to help with their focus and behaviour. Although this can be helpful in getting children to sit still and listen, it always seemed ridiculous to me, that as a society we have created an education system where we have to medicate a large proportion of children just to get them to pay attention. According to the American Center for Disease Control, 15 percent of high school children in the States have been diagnosed with ADD. Incredibly, 3.5 million of them take stimulant medication, which is 600,000 more than two decades ago. Although it is perhaps true that today’s generation may be more easily distracted because of technology, it must also have something to do with our schools and the fact that the pharmaceutical industry are pushing medication onto children via doctors.
There are two major groups of ADD. The first is the better known type, where the child displays hyperactive behaviour (ADHD) and is unable to sit still. The second is where instead of being hyperactive the child is inattentive (ADD) and has a tendency to zone out. I was the latter and dealt with my difficulties in school by simply switching off. Gabor Mate, the ADHD expert, family clinician and self-diagnosed sufferer of ADHD claims in an interview for the article ´The Selling of Attention Deficit Disorder´ that schools are “an artificial environment, where human beings were never meant to sit for eight hours and behind a desk, and not be able to run around and play and not be able to create and express themselves and do art and be noisy. All the things that the human child naturally wants to be, and is, are suppressed”.
Sadly I couldn´t agree more with this and things don´t seem to be improving. On the contrary, we seem to be testing our children more than ever, creating high pressure environments and neglecting the importance of creative subjects. In my experience the curriculum is overly focused on knowledge acquisition and doesn’t do enough to help children to develop the analytical skills of learning. We have no idea what the jobs of the future will be, so rather than teaching them facts, that Google can easily give them the answer to anyway, we should be teaching children to develop a ´love of learning´. To do that we need to start making it more fun, more kinaesthetic and children need to be given more of a choice about what they learn. Surely this more than anything will help with overcoming school anxiety. I think all children and not just those that struggle with ADD would benefit from this type of schooling.
Whilst undoubtedly our current approach to education works for some children, for me it destroyed my natural curiosity and stunted my self-confidence. I compared myself to other children who seemed to thrive in school settings and the comparison was clearly not favorable. But could there be more to ADD than the clearly problematic education system? Interestingly, Mate has a different take on ADD from the traditional biological view. He thinks it may be true that there is a genetic predisposition, but that ADD is neither predetermined or irreversible. Both genes and environment are needed to cause the impairment. He believes that people with ADHD are more sensitive, especially children, and that the challenge of early childhood relationships with parents can sometimes be too much for them.
In a Podcast interview with Tim Ferris, Mate claims that “the more sensitive the child is, the more he or she feels the pain and stress of the environment. And the more affected they are.” Could it be that our modern 24 hour culture is causing so much stress in parents that they are passing this on to their children? The psychologist and parent educator Steve Biddulph comments in the Independent Newspaper that “Reducing stress on mothers and ensuring good attachment during the age of six months to one year may be crucial to preventing ADD in vulnerable children,”
How risk aversion can lead to more problems
It´s important to make clear that most parents are just trying their best, often under difficult circumstances. I had an incredible childhood in many ways, but my lack of focus in school and increasing anxiety were to have a big impact. Rather than naturally learning to stand up to anxiety and challenges, I ducked out of them altogether. This was my coping method and my legacy from my early days in school. How to be anxious and hide. I was lucky enough to have parents who helped me with this and I eventually learnt to take some risks, but I rarely pushed myself out of my comfort zone and was not fulfilling my potential. This only became more evident as I grew older.
I was very much stuck in what has been described by Carol Dwek a professor of psychology at Stanford University as a ´fixed mindset´. In her opinion a fixed mindset is when you believe whole heartedly that things can not improve, you are who you are and there is no point in trying to change that. The opposite of this though and something that certainly helps with overcoming school anxiety is having a ´growth mindset´. When you have a growth mindset you believe that through hard work you can always improve your situation. You take problems in your stride, push yourself out of your comfort zone and view setbacks in a positive light. This approach can be applied to anxiety, making it a little easier to deal with.
In her hugely popular book Mindset, Dwek comments that “Parents think they can hand children permanent confidence – like a gift – by praising their brains and talent. It doesn’t work, and in fact has the opposite effect. It makes children doubt themselves as soon as anything is hard or anything goes wrong. If parents want to give their children a gift the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning. That way, their children don’t have to be slaves of praise. They will have a lifelong way to build and repair their own confidence.” Today as a teacher I see this as an amazing approach, not just in helping children overcoming school anxiety, but also dealing with many of the problems children have with confidence and motivation.
Through the encouragement of my parents and teachers I started to gain more of a growth mindset and by the end of my time at the private school I was doing very well, so much so that my parents decided to send me to a comprehensive school in a neighbouring town (the one in our town had a bad reputation). A few friends from my primary school joined too. However, I´d gotten used to the small pond of my private school and the happy-go-lucky posh boys that went there.
This new school was a lot bigger and some of the kids were tough. Having a ‘nice boy’ middle class accent, I immediately stuck out like a sore thumb and started getting a hard time. I wasn´t ready for this at all and I soon became a regular target for verbal and physical bullying. The first three years were a torrid time. I didn´t know how to stick up for myself. My anxious way of being just seemed to make matters worse. As I know from my days as a student teacher, kids sense any sign of weakness and can be merciless. The school anxiety started to get worse and i blamed it on myself. As Dwek explains “Victims [of bullying] say that when they’re taunted and demeaned and no one comes to their defense, they start to believe they deserve it. They start to judge themselves and to think that they are inferior.”
I was pretty hard on myself about this. Every evening I would imagine myself standing up to the leader of the bullies. I would fight back, until, cowering in fright, the bully would back down and I would suddenly have a newfound respect. But each day would go by without me doing anything. Even now I feel ashamed at my lack of action, but all I´d learnt up until then was to shut down at the first sign of hostility. As the years progressed, so did I. I realised that by drinking and smoking I could fit in, quickly making friends with some of the cooler kids. Before I knew it, the bullies were leaving me alone and turning their attention to other targets and my school anxiety was in retreat. Although this was a relief at the time, it robbed me of the chance to learn to stand up for myself. Surely learning to take managed risks will help with overcoming school anxiety.
So there we have it, does anxiety start at school? For some like me, yes, but there are plenty of things we can do to help children who may be predisposed to anxiety, such as encouraging a growth mindset and being more aware of different learning styles and needs. Thankfully for me as I got older I learnt a set of key skills for how to manage my anxiety and put OCD back in its place. I rebuilt my confidence and learnt to accept myself. To find out more about how I could help you to, go to RobertJamesCoaching.com In part 2 of this blog, we discover how my anxiety steadily got worse at the hands of the very things that I thought might actually help me (drugs and alcohol).