Crick Software blog

Carol Allen

The Anxious Learner – The Reluctant Writer

12th December 2018

We have always had children in our classrooms that we understood to be ‘worriers’; those who were reluctant to engage, participate fully or show their feelings openly. Alternatively, they might present with avoidance behaviours during the school day, perhaps even to the extent of the child having poor or patchy attendance. It is often the case that robust behaviours that appear as aggressive, intentional and defiant also have at their root, when unpicked, anxiety. Many behaviour management protocols have as their baseline the need to ensure that children feel safe, secure, and have a shared, understood structure to work within.

As we move towards a greater understanding of the effects that anxiety can have on our physiological, psychological and social well-being, we see that many of the ‘difficult’ behaviours experienced in a busy classroom can have the same origin.

Ken Schuster, PsyD a neurologist and former teacher, offers this useful image: anxiety "tends to lock up the brain," making school hard for anxious kids.

The concept of the brain ‘locking up’ describes so clearly the difficulty faced by educators when trying to engage with children who have reached this point. Talking, explaining and questioning all fail as the brain is not in receive mode. The child reverts to basic fight or flight instincts and traditional techniques to unpick causes fail as they are usually language-based or reliant on rewards or consequences for actions which are not able to be dealt with whilst the brain is ‘locked up.’

Much of the school day is linguistically based as that is our major medium for communication and engagement with learning.  So, speaking, listening, reading and writing form our educational baseline. It is interesting to look at the relationship between these modes of learning and anxiety; in particular, how can we support the anxious learner who finds such activities intimidating in some way?

Children can be reluctant to write for many reasons. It may be the case that they have a diagnosed barrier to learning via traditional methods such as dyslexia or ADHD, with anxiety stemming from the impact they have on the child. However, a diagnosis is not necessarily needed for a concern to be identified and support made available. Acting early and providing effective support will inevitably reduce anxiety and allow the child to develop and learn with greater freedom and ease.

Many children feel that the very act of putting something on paper will lead to being judged.  They are correct, of course, as their work is marked and assessed once produced. Many children will avoid writing altogether using a wide range of tactics, and not always intentionally. Frequently these are just a learned response that they believe to be true:

“I can’t write…”

“I am thick…”

Some have immense difficulty holding a pen or pencil and creating writing that can be read back, by themselves or others. Rather than expose their difficulties, they worry and avoid. Some will always pick an easier word to use rather than the word or phrase they have in mind as they feel confident that the easier word will be spelled correctly. Some start well, but struggle with organisation of thought and quickly forget what they intended to include and in what order. Some start, but as soon as they hit a simple barrier, for example being unsure of what to write next or being unable to re-read their work to check what they have already covered, will stop abruptly.

I find that the layers of support and structure offered by Clicker can help in many cases where the anxiety about reading and writing causes a barrier for the child.

Worry?

Try...

Knowing where to start

Clicker Boards
Topic/task-based grid sequences
Clicker Books as stimulus

Spelling

Word predictor
Grids with core and fringe task vocabulary
Customisable spell checker

Organisation and sequencing ideas 

Clicker Boards
Voice Notes
Structured grids – topic or sequence

Checking work 

Text to Speech output
Adjustable font type/size

Illegible handwriting

Clear print handout

Restricted vocabulary

Grids populated with student’s personalised vocabulary
Picture/symbol support when learning new vocabulary

Unsure about range of task

Clear, structured working environment which is predictable and consistent

Inadequacy

Output is clear, easy to read and ‘looks good’ 

Accessibility

Multisensory
Physical access support – SuperKeys, switch, eye-gaze
Touch screen friendly

 

The anxious child/reluctant writer can present in so many ways; from the quiet child who hopes to pass unnoticed during the lesson by giving the appearance of working, to the overt, defiant and destructive behaviour of a child who challenges the very notion that they should engage with the task at all. Using effective technology that can be used by the child as they write means that many worries intrinsic to the writing process can be supported, thus causing a reduction in perceived pressure and an improved output and outlook. Pride in the work produced adds impetus to the next task as confidence can be steadily built up.

Surely everyone deserves to feel that their efforts are valued and valuable? 

Carol Allen is an Education Advisor specialising in ICT and Inclusion, having taught in both mainstream schools and schools for students with severe, profound and multiple learning difficulties.

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