Anxiety, Learning, and … the Magic Ingredient

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


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Follow Hey Sigmund on Instagram

Lead with warmth and confidence: ‘Yes I know this feels big, and yes I know you can handle it.’ 

We’re not saying they’ll handle it well, and we’re not dismissing their anxiety. What we’re saying is ‘I know you can handle the discomfort of anxiety.’ 

It’s not our job to relive this discomfort. We’ll want to, but we don’t have to. Our job is to give them the experiences they need (when it’s safe) to let them see that they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. 

This is important, because there will  always be anxiety when they do something brave, new, important, growthful. 

They can feel anxious and do brave. Leading with warmth and confidence is about, ‘Yes, I believe you that this feels bad, and yes, I believe in you.’ When we believe in them, they will follow. So often though, it will start with us.♥️
There are things we do because we love them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel loved because of those things.

Of course our kids know we love them, and we know they love us. But sometimes, they might feel disconnected from that feeling of being ‘loved by’. As parents, we might feel disconnected from the feeling of being ‘appreciated by’.

It’s no coincidence that sometimes their need to feel loved, and our need to feel appreciated collide. This collision won’t sound like crashing metal or breaking concrete. It will sound like anger, frustration, demanding, nagging. 

It will feel like not mattering, resentment, disconnection. It can burst through us like meteors of anger, frustration, irritation, defiance. It can be this way for us and our young ones. (And our adult relationships too.)

We humans have funny ways of saying, ‘I miss you.’

Our ‘I miss you’ might sound like nagging, annoyance, anger. It might feel like resentment, rage, being taken for granted, sadness, loneliness. It might look like being less playful, less delighting in their presence.

Their ‘I miss you’ might look like tantrums, aggression, tears, ignoring, defiant indifference, attention-seeking (attention-needing). It might sound like demands, anger, frustration.

The point is, there are things we do because we love them - cleaning, the laundry, the groceries, cooking. And yes, we want them to be grateful, but feeling grateful and feeling loved are different things. 

Sometimes the things that make them feel loved are so surprising and simple and unexpected - seeking them out for play, micro-connections, the way you touch their hair at bedtime, the sound of your laugh at their jokes, when you delight in their presence (‘Gosh I’ve missed you today!’ Or, ‘I love being your mum so much. I love it better than everything. Even chips. If someone said you can be queen of the universe or Molly’s mum, I’d say ‘Pfft don’t annoy me with your offers of a crown. I’m Molly’s mum and I’ll never love being anything more.’’)

So ask them, ‘What do I do that makes you feel loved?’ If they say ‘When you buy me Lego’, gently guide them away from bought things, and towards what you do for them or with them.♥️
We don’t have to protect them from the discomfort of anxiety. We’ll want to, but we don’t have to.

OAnxiety often feels bigger than them, but it isn’t. This is a wisdom that only comes from experience. The more they sit with their anxiety, the more they will see that they can feel anxious and do brave anyway. Sometimes brave means moving forward. Sometimes it means standing still while the feeling washes away. 

It’s about sharing the space, not getting pushed out of it.

Our job as their adults isn’t to fix the discomfort of anxiety, but to help them recognise that they can handle that discomfort - because it’s going to be there whenever they do something brave, hard , important. When we move them to avoid anxiety, we potentially, inadvertently, also move them to avoid brave, hard, growthful things. 

‘Brave’ rarely feels brave. It will feel jagged and raw. Sometimes fragile and threadbare. Sometimes it will as though it’s breathing fire. But that’s how brave feels sometimes. 

The more they sit with the discomfort of anxiety, the more they will see that anxiety isn’t an enemy. They don’t have to be scared of it. It’s a faithful ally, a protector, and it’s telling them, ‘Brave lives here. Stay with me. Let me show you.’♥️
#parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinkids #teenanxiety
We have to stop treating anxiety as a disorder. Even for kids who have seismic levels of anxiety, pathologising anxiety will not serve them at all. All it will do is add to their need to avoid the thing that’s driving anxiety, which will most often be something brave, hard, important. (Of course if they are in front of an actual danger, we help anxiety do its job and get them out of the way of that danger, but that’s not the anxiety we’re talking about here.)

The key to anxiety isn’t in the ‘getting rid of’ anxiety, but in the ‘moving with’ anxiety. 

The story they (or we) put to their anxiety will determine their response. ‘You have anxiety. We need to fix it or avoid the thing that’s causing it,’ will drive a different response to, ‘Of course you have anxiety. You’re about to do something brave. What’s one little step you can take towards it?’

This doesn’t mean they will be able to ‘move with’ their anxiety straight away. The point is, the way we talk to them about anxiety matters. 

We don’t want them to be scared of anxiety, because we don’t want them to be scared of the brave, important, new, hard things that drive anxiety. Instead, we want to validate and normalise their anxiety, and attach it to a story that opens the way for brave: 

‘Yes you feel anxious - that’s because you’re about to do something brave. Sometimes it feels like it happens for no reason at all. That’s because we don’t always know what your brain is thinking. Maybe it’s thinking about doing something brave. Maybe it’s thinking about something that happened last week or last year. We don’t always know, and that’s okay. It can feel scary, and you’re safe. I would never let you do something unsafe, or something I didn’t think you could handle. Yes you feel anxious, and yes you can do this. You mightn’t feel brave, but you can do brave. What can I do to help you be brave right now?’♥️

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This