Anxiety, Learning, and … the Magic Ingredient

Teacher and Student in Classroom for learning, anxiety and relationship

We have to change the way we think about education. For schools to be places of learning, they must first be places of relationship. 

An anxious brain can’t learn. The thinking brain (the prefrontal cortex) can only be ‘on’ when the whole brain feels safe: physically safe (free from hunger, pain, exhaustion, sensory overload/ underload) and relationally safe (seen, welcome, cared for, connected to).

Of course we want to support academic progression, but if we shortcut the opportunity or time for teachers to be able to build relational safety in the classroom, learning won’t happen. Without relational safety, there will be anxiety. It can be easy to overlook these kids or assume that they are giving everything they have to give, but too often, they will fall short of their potential.

Let’s not make the mistake of thinking we’ve seen everything these kids have to give or that we know what they’re capable of. They don’t even know what they’re capable of yet, but we know they can do hard things and surprising things – they just need to feel safe enough first. They need us to stay curious about their potential until they feel safe enough to let us uncover that potential.

Children can only learn when they feel relationally safe: when they feel cared for, connected to, and noticed by their teacher. When we talk about ‘safety’, we’re talking about what the brain perceives. Being safe doesn’t mean feeling safe. Children can have the world’s warmest, most loving teacher, and be a part of the safest, most caring school, but this doesn’t mean the brain will feel safe.

Relationships take time, and learning can’t happen without them. Yet, our teachers are under more pressure than ever (as are our children!) to show academic results. Some kids will excel no matter what’s happening in the room, but too many won’t. This isn’t because they aren’t capable, but because they don’t feel safe enough – yet.

Until children feel safe enough, we will only see the fringes of what they can do. We don’t need to change them – there is nothing wrong with them. What’s wrong is the world that thinks all children should feel safe with all adults, even ones they don’t know yet. This idea is ridiculous.

These kids don’t want to be ‘indulged’. They want to feel safe. We all need that, so we need to be kind to our teachers too. We need to give teachers more time and opportunity to build the relationships that let them do their jobs. Building relationships isn’t a distraction from teaching. It’s the vital foundation of teaching.

The teachers that get the importance of relationship are magic-makers – they change lives – but learning might take longer at first, while the relationship is building. When the relationship is there, these teachers have the most profound capacity to lead even the most anxious kids into learning, brave behaviour and discovering their rich potential.♥️


Solen AlNoaimi

I took my daughter at age 6 to start a school and decided to pull her out within 2 weeks because of what you’re talking about above. I worked as a teacher before and my intention was to go back to teaching at the same time as my daughter started the school and I completely changed my mind. My daughter was very opposed to the idea from the beginning and regardless of the many times we visited the school ( it was about a half h drive) knowing that she had no idea how to get there in foot and back or the schools whereabouts in relation to our house was a big red flag. Then when we were in class ( I was allowed to sit in with her first week due to my strong request) she started asking questions like “ why do we need to sit for so long? Why is the door closed? Why can’t we go outside? So many questions and if allowed and if they could all kids have a right to ask. And if they can’t we should be their voice.
Those moments inside the classroom of a big conventional school we stuff our kids in made me question this system. I was able to sit there and look through the eyes of my child and eyes if the other children – many took turns sitting on my lap. I decided that I don’t like this system but had no idea about what other possibilities were there. During this time and research I learned about the term: “ Human-Scale”: “.. it deals with the belief that there is a proper scale that defines its limits by the well-being of both the person and the planet and the ability of the person to seek wholeness. “ Parks School UK
It deals with everything from the size of the school to hours, to flexibility of time and space. Relationships at the forefront. So I started on a journey to start such a “ human scale school “ where i live. They also call these schools “ Democratic free schools” I hope that I will be able to open the doors of this school soon and many more to come for all children who will benefit.
“ Human Scale asserts that community institutions should be created with the person at the center in a way that enables real and authentic relationships and connections between people” another quote from Parks school – a democratic school in the UK


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The need to feel connected to, and seen by our people is instinctive. 

THE FIX: Add in micro-connections to let them feel you seeing them, loving them, connecting with them, enjoying them:

‘I love being your mum.’
‘I love being your dad.’
‘I missed you today.’
‘I can’t wait to hang out with you at bedtime 
and read a story together.’

Or smiling at them, playing with them, 
sharing something funny, noticing something about them, ‘remembering when...’ with them.

And our adult loves need the same, as we need the same from them.♥️
Our kids need the same thing we do: to feel safe and loved through all feelings not just the convenient ones.

Gosh it’s hard though. I’ve never lost my (thinking) mind as much at anyone as I have with the people I love most in this world.

We’re human, not bricks, and even though we’re parents we still feel it big sometimes. Sometimes these feelings make it hard for us to be the people we want to be for our loves.

That’s the truth of it, and that’s the duality of being a parent. We love and we fury. We want to connect and we want to pull away. We hold it all together and sometimes we can’t.

None of this is about perfection. It’s about being human, and the best humans feel, argue, fight, reconnect, own our ‘stuff’. We keep working on growing and being more of our everythingness, just in kinder ways.

If we get it wrong, which we will, that’s okay. What’s important is the repair - as soon as we can and not selling it as their fault. Our reaction is our responsibility, not theirs. This might sound like, ‘I’m really sorry I yelled. You didn’t deserve that. I really want to hear what you have to say. Can we try again?’

Of course, none of this means ‘no boundaries’. What it means is adding warmth to the boundary. One without the other will feel unsafe - for them, us, and others.

This means making sure that we’ve claimed responsibility- the ability to respond to what’s happening. It doesn’t mean blame. It means recognising that when a young person is feeling big, they don’t have the resources to lead out of the turmoil, so we have to lead them out - not push them out.

Rather than focusing on what we want them to do, shift the focus to what we can do to bring felt safety and calm back into the space.

THEN when they’re calm talk about what’s happened, the repair, and what to do next time.

Discipline means ‘to teach’, not to punish. They will learn best when they are connected to you. Maybe there is a need for consequences, but these must be about repair and restoration. Punishment is pointless, harmful, and outdated.

Hold the boundary, add warmth. Don’t ask them to do WHEN they can’t do. Wait until they can hear you and work on what’s needed. There’s no hurry.♥️
Recently I chatted with @rebeccasparrow72 , host of ABC Listen’s brilliant podcast, ‘Parental as Anything: Teens’. I loved this chat. Bec asked all the questions that let us crack the topic right open. Our conversation was in response to a listener’s question, that I expect will be familiar to many parents in many homes. Have a listen here:
School refusal is escalating. Something that’s troubling me is the use of the word ‘school can’t’ when talking about kids.

Stay with me.

First, let’s be clear: school refusal isn’t about won’t. It’s about can’t. Not truly can’t but felt can’t. It’s about anxiety making school feel so unsafe for a child, avoidance feels like the only option.

Here’s the problem. Language is powerful, and when we put ‘can’t’ onto a child, it tells a deficiency story about the child.

But school refusal isn’t about the child.
It’s about the environment not feeling safe enough right now, or separation from a parent not feeling safe enough right now. The ‘can’t’ isn’t about the child. It’s about an environment that can’t support the need for felt safety - yet.

This can happen in even the most loving, supportive schools. All schools are full of anxiety triggers. They need to be because anything new, hard, brave, growthful will always come with potential threats - maybe failure, judgement, shame. Even if these are so unlikely, the brain won’t care. All it will read is ‘danger’.

Of course sometimes school actually isn’t safe. Maybe peer relationships are tricky. Maybe teachers are shouty and still using outdated ways to manage behaviour. Maybe sensory needs aren’t met.

Most of the time though it’s not actual threat but ’felt threat’.

The deficiency isn’t with the child. It’s with the environment. The question isn’t how do we get rid of their anxiety. It’s how do we make the environment feel safe enough so they can feel supported enough to handle the discomfort of their anxiety.

We can throw all the resources we want at the child, but:

- if the parent doesn’t believe the child is safe enough, cared for enough, capable enough; or

- if school can’t provide enough felt safety for the child (sensory accommodations, safe peer relationships, at least one predictable adult the child feels safe with and cared for by),

that child will not feel safe enough.

To help kids feel safe and happy at school, we have to recognise that it’s the environment that needs changing, not the child. This doesn’t mean the environment is wrong. It’s about making it feel more right for this child.♥️
Such a beautiful 60 second wrap of my night with parents and carers in Hastings, New Zealand talking about building courage and resilience in young people. Because that’s how courage happens - it builds, little bit by little bit, and never feeling like ‘brave’ but as anxiety. Thank you @healhealthandwellbeing for bringing us together happen.♥️


Original post by @healhealthandwellbeing:
🌟 Thank You for Your Support! 🌟

A huge thank you to everyone who joined us for the "Building Courage and Resilience" talk with the amazing  Karen Young - Hey Sigmund. Your support for Heal, our new charity focused on community health and wellbeing, means the world to us!

It was incredible to see so many of you come together while at the same time being able to support this cause and help us build a stronger, more resilient community.

A special shoutout to Anna Catley from Anna Cudby Videography for creating some fantastic footage Your work has captured the essence of this event perfectly ! To the team Toitoi - Hawke's Bay Arts & Events Centre thank you for always making things so easy ❤️ 

Follow @healhealthandwellbeing for updates and news of events. Much more to come!

#Heal #CommunityHealth #CourageAndResilience #KarenYoung #ThankYou

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