Student Well-Being Opinion

Meeting Students Where They Are--Emotionally

By David Ginsburg — November 23, 2012 2 min read
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“You’re going to get a 0 if you don’t do a presentation.”

I’ve heard many teachers say something like this to students who were reluctant to give presentations in class. I’ve also heard them try to convince students to present because “it’s important to develop public speaking skills.”

And yet I’ve never seen these motivational efforts work. Granted, some students will slink to the front of the class just to salvage their grades. But they never even look at their audience. Instead, they read--often inaudibly--their presentations word for word. No “0" for these students, but no public speaking skills either.

Other kids, meanwhile, would rather accept their fates and move on. They’re so afraid to speak in front of the class that they’ll avoid doing so at any cost, including a failing grade. Further prodding from teachers--and parents when teachers involve them--is not only ineffective but often counterproductive because it makes kids feel more self-conscious or ashamed.

The reason I’m bringing this up isn’t about public speaking, but rather speaks to students’ fears and feelings in general. Whether it’s math phobia, anxiety over working in groups, or any other emotional blocks students may have, we as educators (parents too) need to help students alleviate those blocks rather than admonish students when they experience those blocks.

Sure it’s important for students to learn math, collaborate with others, and yes, develop public speaking skills. But just as we need to scaffold students’ academic understanding, we also need to scaffold their non-academic growth. We shouldn’t, for example, ignore students’ fear of presenting in class. We should validate their fear and help them overcome it.

A few years ago I was talking to a teacher (“Ms. Thompson”) about a student (“Gerald”) who was unwilling to present in class. Ms. Thompson felt she had no choice but to give Gerald a 0, even citing my belief that students need to experience natural consequences of their choices. I replied that in Gerald’s case, however, his action (or inaction) may have been a result of fear rather than a choice. Ms. Thompson agreed, so we came up with a plan for her to approach Gerald the following day.

She began by asking Gerald if he was afraid to present in front of the class. When Gerald confirmed his fear, Ms. Thompson decided to console him rather than cajole him. She told him he wasn’t alone, and that many people--kids and adults--are afraid of public speaking. She then suggested they devise a plan that would allow him to address his fear at his own pace, in his own way. After a few minutes of brainstorming with Ms. Thompson, Gerald resolved to give his presentation to three students. He would then move up to 5 students, 10 students, etc. until he felt confident enough to present in front of the whole class.

It’s widely accepted that we should meet students where they are academically. And often (not always--see Spiraled Instruction, Stifled Learning) this makes sense. We would never, for example, teach Calculus to students who’ve yet to learn Algebra. Yet it’s just as unreasonable and unfair to insist students do something they’re not ready to do for non-academic reasons--and even worse, penalize them for not doing it. .

Let’s provide students the support they need to address whatever may be keeping them from reaching their potential. Let’s not just meet kids where they are academically. Let’s also meet them where they are emotionally.

Image by Willeecole, provided by Dreamstime license

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