Motivating Anxious Students
- Mara Kalinoski

Sometimes, when a student isn’t engaging in class or coursework, it’s easy to think they aren’t trying because they don’t care. However, what appears to be laziness or disinterest can actually be anxiety manifesting through avoidant behaviors. Behavior analyst and consultant Jessica Minahan offers tips for addressing student anxiety and helping struggling students overcome their fear in her book, The Behavior Code Companion. Minahan covers strategies to improve student performance and confidence.

General avoidant behaviors to watch for include students putting their heads down on their desks, giving up halfway through an assignment, staring at the wall or into space, asking to be excused for the nurse’s office or bathroom, and not turning in homework.

Accurate thinking: When students have problems with accurate thinking, they can’t judge the difficulty of an assignment, the time it will take to complete, their ability to complete the task, or all three. One strategy Minahan suggests is having the student rate the difficulty of the task before and after they complete it; this way, the student can refer to it later and remember that they are capable of engaging in tasks that might seem overwhelming at first. Another strategy is to break the task into smaller parts, which helps the student identify what might be the hardest part for them, and makes the task seem more doable.

Initiation: Students might have a difficult time simply organizing their thoughts and starting an assignment. Breaking the work down into small segments, or “chunking”, can help students feel more motivated to complete a task. Using whiteboards is useful for students whose anxiety and perfectionism makes them feel too overwhelmed or fearful to begin.

Persistence: Some students struggle with maintaining their effort, especially in the face of mistakes or difficulty. Focusing on a growth mindset can be helpful for students who deal with persistence issues, since it will help them learn from their mistakes without punishing them. Reward persistence, so that even if the student tried and gave wrong answers, they are encouraged to keep trying and growing.

Help-seeking: Students find it difficult to ask for help when they begin to struggle. The Learning Commons tries to make it easier for the students by staying open and staffed from 7am-4:45pm Monday-Thursday, and from 7am-4pm Friday. Students can work privately or in groups, with tutors trained in mathematics, sciences, English, and the humanities. Encourage students to take advantage of the resources offered, where they can learn more strategies for identifying and pushing through their anxieties.

Students look to their teachers, parents, and mentors for guidance, so remember to lead by example when it comes to engaging, demonstrating a growth mindset, and taking work one step at a time.

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