Anxiety & Learning

by Heidi Nord July 31, 2016

Anxiety & Learning

Anxiety and Learning

Anxiety plays a huge role in our current world. Students in classrooms are not exempt. Students with dyslexia have an even higher chance of having an anxiety issue that needs to be addressed.


Let’s start with an example of an experience a student with dyslexia might have in a classroom.


Joe is in the third grade. His teacher is very strict. When he reads in front of the class, the teacher is constantly correcting him. So, whatever words he is misreading; she's constantly saying, “No, that’s not the word. Try again.”


Let's put our feet into Joe’s shoes. He more than likely gets nervous reading aloud in a classroom because he is dyslexic. Even before the teacher asked him to read aloud, Joe likely had anxiety. Therefore, when he started reading, he probably experienced a pain in his gut which put him into fight, flight or freeze mode.

Fight, flight and freeze mode is one reaction state that humans have when they encounter something challenging or really stressful in life. Thousands of years ago, we needed fight, flight or freeze mode in order to survive. 

Let’s pretend, a bear was going to attack a human and he or she chose to run really fast (flight) to get away.

Another person might have decided to stay and fight. A third person might have just frozen (freeze), not knowing what to do. Now, this action mode or this state of mind is great for the wild. Humans, thousands of years ago, needed these reaction modes to survive.

In today's society, however, we are triggered into these action modes of survival even if the threat is not real. For example, in scary movies, your heart might beat fast like you’re running. You might be so engrossed in the movie, that you trigger your body into a state that will flood your system with adrenaline. Yet, it’s all pretend.

Now, take cell phones ringing, billboards, cars, traffic, noise, blinking lights and over-activity in our environments. We are constantly putting ourselves into fight, flight or freeze mode and then wonder why we feel bad. When we continue to experience this state when it is not needed, eventually it turns into a case of anxiety.

Why do I care so much about the anxiety humans are experiencing?

Learning can't take place when students are in a state of anxiety.


Learning needs to take placed in a calm environment or in an environment filled with play. Additionally, learning environments that welcome mistakes and welcome kids trying things out are exceptional for learning. Occasionally, administrators want to see control in classroom.  

The problem is controlling environments exacerbate student challenges. 

Let's look at Joe's experiences again. 

In kindergarten, he was a pretty happy-go-lucky student. Overall, he liked school that year. Then first grade came, his anxiety begins where reading and writing gets very emphasized. 

In second grade, he stayed home from school often due to stomach aches.
By the time he entered third grade, he’s fed up, at the ripe age of eight. When the teacher asked him to read, he wanted to yell at her in every fiber of his being.

Therefore, we wonder, “Why is Joe so upset?”  To find out, we need immense compassion.

If Joe is going to learn to read and write, we must have both a calm and a mindful classroom. 

When working with dyslexic students, it's really great to let some errors slip in order to lessen anxiety.  Again, if a student has anxiety, learning cannot take place.
Every effort needs to be made to calm Joe’s system.  When he is calm and relaxed he will learn.  Also, if we reduce pressure about making reading mistakes, it will reduce the loop of anxiety.

Getting your brain to a calm brainwave state is the goal.

In a calm space, learning happens.  Every teacher I know wants students to succeed. The role that anxiety plays in the classroom must be considered if we want children to learn.


Remember to keep calm.  Building a positive learning environment, lessens anxiety AND more learning will happen.


-Heidi Nord




Heidi Nord
Heidi Nord

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