© 2020 Think Social Publishing, Inc.
What teachers frequently do not know is that the routinely “super quiet” or “unfriendly” student in their classroom likely struggles to initiate communication with the teacher because he or she is paralyzed by social anxiety and cannot ask for help, speak in class, or even communicate on a casual level. The reality is that these students who seem engagement-adverse actually want their teachers to speak with them, ask them whether they need help, and interact in a personal way; but their social anxiety, often combined with a lack of social competencies, prevents them from engaging in face-to-face communication and shuts them down.
A student-led strategy for socially anxious students and their teachers: write a note!
Here’s a simple strategy that interventionists—parents and specialists—and their students can use to help teachers see through a student’s anxiety barrier socially anxious students struggle with face-to-face communication, so why not help them create a written message that alerts their teachers to the anxiety problem of which they may be unaware? An email message makes that vital interpersonal connection while allowing students with social anxiety to stay in control of their message, rather than have their social anxiety drown out their voice. When we write emails, we can spend as much time as we need to decide what we want to say, how we want to say it, and to whom. Generally, anxiety does not have as much control over our fingertips as it does over our voice in those moments of face-to-face communication.
Help your students teach their teacher(s) about their social anxiety through an email message:
- In your role as a parent, clinician, or friend, help your students explore the possibility that their teachers (or other adult professionals or friends) may not be aware that the students are anxious and may struggle to know how to communicate their message in the moment of communication. For example, students don’t know how to get a teacher’s attention, are not sure what they should say, don’t want to make an error, and so on.
- Help teachers avoid the assumption that students either don’t like their teachers or are happy to be left alone. Show students how they can write a personal note explaining their point of view and experience with anxiety and social communication challenges, taking as much time as they need or want to develop the message. To encourage teachers to reach out and initiate communication, review with your students, prior to writing the note, what they want their teachers to know about them.
- Direct students to construct their notes. It can be any length they want. This is an important step because it gives students ownership of their message. Guide students in organizing their thoughts into a message to share with their teachers. It should be genuine and in their words, include a friendly message, and be as specific in the explanation and request as possible. Avoid writing this note for your students, both conceptually and physically.
- Review the message with the students’ permission. If they have written information in a manner that will be difficult for a teacher to understand, ask students to revisit and rewrite areas that may be confusing. If the message is “very good” or “good enough,” praise students for working on communicating their thoughts and ideas in a way that will be successful. Anxiety does not make one incapable, especially if students learn how to figure out workarounds while learning to manage it.
- Once written, decide how students are going to deliver it to their teachers. Will they send it via email or by having a helper slip a hand-written note into the teacher’s physical mailbox in the school office? If sending it by email, require students to research locating the teacher’s email address. Anxious students should be as responsible as possible in organizing and carrying out this task. Just because adults should help them realize that they can write this type of message does not mean the adult should take the lead in developing the message, unless it’s needed the first time it is being written or delivered.
- Confirm all aspects of the message before it is sent or delivered.
- Follow up with students to learn how teachers have responded to their request and discuss whether they and their teacher(s) are connecting more often–then consider what the next steps might look like. For instance, how and when should students acknowledge the teacher when entering the classroom, approach the teacher physically to show intention to communicate (even if not yet able to talk to the teacher), and write down what help is needed and pass the note to the teacher?
- Encourage students to use this strategy routinely as the first step toward learning that people want to help when they know a student needs help and how they can be of assistance.
Below is an example of a note that a socially anxious student sent to his teacher:
“Hi, I want to let you know that I think you are a good teacher. I have social anxiety and it makes it difficult for me to get your attention, ask for help, or talk in class. On occasion, in your class or when I attend your tutorial, could you approach me to ask if I need anything? I am working on developing strategies to say “hi” to you and approach you but I still need more time to learn how to do this.”
Empower students to manage their social anxiety
This strategy may be simple, but it’s a game changer for both students and their teachers. The email has the power to break down walls and foster a caring community for kids who struggle to establish themselves as active members within the classroom, let alone the larger school community. Here’s why. Most teachers teach because they love the connections they have with their students. But, they are humans after all, oftentimes with over thirty students in each of their classes, so when they have a student who appears unfriendly or to not want to engage with them or seems disinterested in the class, they tend to “honor” that and focus on the students who reciprocate. When they receive a message like the one above, it helps them overcome their own regrettable but natural reticence to “lean in” with their seemingly unapproachable students and sparks a greater awareness and insight into students who may not have been on their radar. As a result, teachers realize they have an opportunity for a breakthrough with a student and can make a difference when it wasn’t apparent before. This is the holy grail of teaching! Better still, it’s proactive. The student has revealed a pathway for how to develop this personal and learning connection. It teaches students how to be accountable for initiating a relationship with teachers in a way that triggers less anxiety and empowers students in learning about and managing their social anxiety.