Knowing Your Why and 6 Strategies for Connecting with Anxious Students

Anxiety is a curious illness. Because we have all felt anxious at some point, we think we understand clinical anxiety, but the two experiences are very different.

Before educators can understand what to do to support students with anxiety, they must understand why what they are already doing isn’t helping. 

Author Christine Ravesi-Weinstein outlines in her book, Anxious, how clinical anxiety differs and how we can respond helpfully to others. She shares stories and strategies to help you advocate for anxious students.

The variables educators face in the classrooms today are the students themselves. 

"Teachers are no longer expected to stand and deliver content the way our teachers did. Instead, we have to connect to our students. We need to let them know we care about them . . . while still selling our content." 

This is vitally important for teachers who handle anxious students. Students with anxiety fight every day to maintain control over their worlds. If we expect them to hand us the control, we better make sure they can buy into what we are selling.

Educators need to know why we are doing what we are doing, and communicate that why to our students with anxiety if we are going to connect with them and help them find success in today’s classrooms.

Educators need to do all they can to build trust and connect with students who have anxiety. Being an educator is similar to being in sales, where the goal is to get the consumer to buy the product or service.

The consumer can get the product anywhere, so why should they buy it from one particular salesperson? What makes the product irresistible, so the consumer believes in it and needs it?

The answer is often . . . the person selling it. Consumers aren't buying a product or service; they’re buying the salesperson and their story. Are they relatable? Believable? Trustworthy? If the consumer can answer yes to each of these questions, then they are more likely to buy from that salesperson.

In education, the consumers are the students and their parents. Sure, they are not "buying" a product from the teachers, but teachers are "selling" them the lessons. If the teacher is relatable, believable, and trustworthy, the student is more likely to learn from that teacher, i.e., "buy" their product.

These characteristics are not born from what a teacher is doing or how they are doing it. They are born from why they are doing it. All students have a better chance of succeeding when their teachers articulate the why, but this is even more true for students with anxiety. 

"Too often, educators encounter students experiencing the symptoms of mental illness, and immediately resort to how they can help the student. But instead of asking how you can help a student suffering from anxiety, instead ask why you need to help them." 

Why do you feel the need to see that student achieve success? No matter what your why is, the passion affixed to the answer will permeate your interaction and translate to the student. 

Follow these 6 strategies to help you and your anxious students know why you teach.

1. Show authenticity

Spending so much time in a world doctored to represent happiness and success through an unflawed lens allows students with anxiety to lose sight of reality and authenticity. Our job is to balance that increasing anxiety. Educators who are authentic and imperfect give that balance.

2. Have conversations

Students with anxiety need educators to give them that chance to express what they are feeling. Rather than going around the room and spot-checking student work, group students and get them talking about the work.

While this is going on, visit each group and talk with the students about their evening, when they did their work or why they couldn’t, and impress upon them that the idea is to perfect the skill, not necessarily to have done so on their own the night before.

Making homework conversations the norm will make talking feel more natural for students with anxiety, and help you communicate to them that imperfection is normal.

3. Trust your students

Building trust is at the core of every positive relationship an educator has with a student. When you engage in conversations with your students, keep your mind free from drafted, ready-to-go responses. Ask the question and listen, trusting them to tell you what you need to know. Ask what you need to know to clarify the situation, and then respond.

Trust that the students are telling you the truth, for those who are anxious will be more likely to see you as an advocate and less as a barrier or trigger.

4. Ask students what they think

When we ask a question, we may not know the answer, but we likely have thoughts as to what the answer might be. Tap into this potential whenever a student asks, “Why?” Instead of responding with your answer, ask them, “What do you think?” with equal curiosity. Use a supportive, friendly tone to move you closer to authenticity, conversation, and trust.

The two most important results of a conversation are that students walk away knowing why, as well as why they didn’t have all the information before. (To learn more about how to create a culture of inquiry in your classroom, see Connie Hamilton’s book Hacking Questions, also by Times 10.)

5. Be transparent

Although transparency is essential for all students, it’s essential for students with anxiety. They are the least likely to ask why, but they certainly want—and need—to know. Understand that the question is there and that you’re going to make an impact by answering it.

Let your why drive your actions in your classroom, including all your asks. If your objective is the why of a lesson, your why is the objective of the class. Remind students daily why you do what you do, whether through actions or words, and they’ll start to learn that they can trust you.

6. Participate in the class

Many teachers choose to spend time on the first few days of school breaking the ice with students. We need to get to know the students, and the students need to get to know each other.

Too often, teachers facilitate these activities but aren’t active participants. You are part of the classroom community, too, and arguably the most important part. Break the ice with your students. Let them learn about you and your why. 

If you are ready to face anxiety head-on, help all students achieve success and personal growth, and lead others as they, too, try to tackle this difficult illness, please join me as we Lead Forward in our fight to help our students feel less anxious.

To learn more, check out our webinar on Coping with Anxiety to learn powerful, practical ways to help students cope with anxiety, in school and at home. 


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