In today’s world, it is easy to feel fear. This first week of school, with all of its excitement and challenges, was colored by events in our local community and in the nation that fostered fear. As an educator AND mother, the events happening make me fearful for other people’s children I have been entrusted to keep safe and for my own babies in the care of another teacher. We have much to do as a nation to begin creating a safer world for the next generation. However, as teachers, we have the ability to create a fear free classroom which fosters learning.
Why is a fear free classroom essential? Children will not learn when they are afraid. It is that simple. I have over the years done an exercise with my students at our class meetings where I put up Maslow’s hierarchy and ask them to rate which level they are operating on most of the time. When a student is at the bottom, attempting to get their most basic safety needs met, you have a true barrier in the way of their learning. When a child is on the next level, seeking the approval of peers and not receiving it, learning will not happen. Only when a student reaches emotional, physical, and social safety will they be open and willing to learn. This is the true secret of why schools are “performing” or not according to whatever standardized scale used. FEAR – the biggest roadblock to learning and the underlying cause of the most significant behavioral, social, and emotional needs. So, how can you foster a fear free classroom? Read on to see some of the most common types of student fears and how you can address them. My favorite communication tools for students to share their concerns and fears is my weekly class meeting and my weekly reflection both of which are available on Authentic Teaching TPT. https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Weekly-Reflection-4750316 https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Weekly-Class-Meeting-Lesson-Plan-Template-4837084
Children whose fear is based on missing basic needs – These children often enter our classrooms with the most challenges. There is much research being done today on creating a trauma sensitive classroom. If I am not sure where my next meal is coming from, where I might sleep, or experience violence regularly…how can I focus on learning? This child needs a teacher who first seeks out ways to support the child using every resource at their disposal. They reach out to the school counselor, psychologist, social worker, other teachers, cafeteria staff, community organizations, etc. They need a teacher who is advocating on behalf of them loudly and consistently. Even with this, a teacher may not be able to change the child’s circumstances. This is where a classroom should become a safe haven with consistency, routine, whatever basic needs the teacher or school can provide available, and where the child is explicitly taught ways to cope and overcome adversity. Here is an excellent starter article about ways to help as a trauma informed teacher. https://www.edutopia.org/article/how-and-why-trauma-informed-teaching
Children whose fear is based on a history of academic failure – These children come in all forms… quietly detached, outwardly obnoxious, or openly uninterested in learning. I have seen dozens of students enter my room with the weight of being a “bad reader”, “dumb student”, “in the low group” on their shoulders. My goal is to foster a new sense of purpose in their learning by 3 specific actions. (1) Openly discussing the growth mindset and how I believe anybody can learn anything. (2) Teaching passionately about subjects that kids will be interested in (3) Looking for ways for that child to shine beyond the traditional modes of learning (check out guided reading on Authentic Teaching TPT for the way this model fosters this excitement in learning). https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Small-Group-Novel-Study-Guided-Reading-4836948 If you consistently and authentically do these 3 things, even the most reluctant learner can overcome their fear of failure and that is why we should all teach…for those moments.
Children whose fear is based on socialization issues – Kids who do not receive the support of their peers, only seek the praise of their peers, and/or are mistreated by their peers will not learn. Why? Because if I am at risk of being mocked, laughed at, made fun of, or ostracized, what are the chances I am going to take an academic risk? The truth is, the learning will not happen at all or will happen to a very limited amount. This is where your classroom community, procedures, and expectations are essential. Take a look at an earlier post “You won’t get the WOW’s if you don’t know the HOW’s” to address these issues. https://authenticteaching.blog/2019/08/02/you-wont-get-the-wows-if-you-dont-know-the-hows/
Children whose fear is based on a special need – As a 5th grade teacher, I have seen several students make it through all of elementary school with a special need that is not diagnosed, misdiagnosed, or not addressed. Frequently these students are labeled as “serious behavior problems” who enter your classroom with a reputation of concern. If you have a child with a special need (anything that would qualify for an IEP or 504 Plan – Anxiety, ADHD, ODD, Autism Spectrum disorders, Sensory needs, etc.) and you do not actively create and implement ways to address their unique needs, you are fostering a climate of fear for that child and because of that child in your classroom. Simple things that meet that child’s needs can often stop many of the most serious fear based behaviors (like written, visual schedules or verbal cues before changes/escalation). Children with special needs frequently have the highest levels of fears THAT DO NOT LOOK LIKE FEAR. Their fear often looks like anger, tantrums, withdrawal, or disruption. Here is a great resource from Authentic Teaching TPT that can help you identify, address, and implement systems to minimize the fears of these students. https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Student-Behavior-Motivation-Educator-Plan-4800920
Fear…it is an essential emotion that is genetically designed to keep us safe. Flight or fight – the response that stopped our neanderthal ancestors from being eaten by a saber tooth tiger. In today’s modern world, we often forget that fear is still consistently a part of our lives. We like to act as though we are impervious or oblivious to fear. As teachers, helping students face their fears and learn to use fear for positive outcomes, is our most essential and underlying goal. Seek out a fear free classroom so that in today’s world your room becomes the calm in the storm for every child!