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Challenge encourages learning, anxiety kills it

One-room schoolhouse

Photo credit: Flickr/Nicholas_T

We pulled my son out of 4th grade because he wasn’t learning. Last Fall, he went back for 6th grade. Not only is he learning like crazy, he’s tackling material that would have sent him into an anxious frenzy just six months earlier. And he’s loving it.

What changed?

A number of factors contributed to his triumphant return to public school: maturity, brain development, and self-motivation among them. But I would bet the farm that the single, biggest reason my son is thriving is because we broke the chokehold anxiety had on his ability to learn.

Anxiety is the enemy of learning

Anxiety is running rampant among our children. If the stories I’m hearing from other parents are any indication, kids are more stressed than ever. I’ll skip listing the reasons I think this is happening (you’ve heard it all before, and the reasons differ across families), but the net result is this: kids are afraid to take risks.

Learning is, at its core, one’s willingness to risk not knowing something, and one’s readiness to find a path to an answer.

To illustrate this point, allow me to tell you a story about our odyssey through the education system.

My son’s flight from school, and his journey back

In January, 2010, my son was attending a private school for kids with learning “differences.” We couldn’t afford to send him there, but we didn’t know where else to turn — after disastrous years in two public schools, plus a myriad of therapies, interventions, medications, and parenting “adjustments,” he was still locked in a downward spiral of depression and rage.

But despite the small classes and understanding teachers, his descent continued. His mistrust of the school system was so entrenched that he spent most days crying fearful tears in the counselor’s office. This, from a kid who could probably stare down a charging rhino.

His “fight-or-flight” level of anxiety halted his development on every front: academic learning, social growth, and, most importantly, his self-image.

Something big had to change. So we pulled him out of school. As any parent would pull her kid out of the path of a speeding bus.

Home schooling was never part of my plan. But plans change fast when your kid’s in trouble. We spent the next year and a half cobbling together an education based on his interests and mine. It didn’t look much like school. But it did give my son the breathing room to feel safe again. He began to trust the world, as well as his ability to move through it. Once we removed the toxic anxiety from my son’s life, he was able to embrace the healthy discomfort that comes with learning.

Imperceptibly at first, and then, with increasing speed, he began to challenge himself. He’d try a new class, or strike up a conversation with the grocery checkout guy. His willingness to scale the slope of a learning curve increased. By the end of what would have been 5th grade, he was pressing me for more academic difficulty and variety, and his self-confidence was soaring. So much so, that he — the boy who wouldn’t set foot inside a school building a year earlier — decided to return to our local public school for 6th grade.

The sweet spot for learning: challenge without fear

What does this mean for you and your kids? I realize our story is extreme. I share our experience to illustrate the effect fear and anxiety can have on learning, and the massive shift that occurs as kids grow more willing to take risks.

Another example: the fear of getting bad grades keeps some kids from straying beyond the narrow path of learning anything that’s “not on the test.” Unlike my son, the kids most susceptible to this kind of anxiety are those who’ve enjoyed easy academic and social success, because they’ve never experienced the discomfort of having to work for it.

Am I suggesting we throw away grades? Absolutely not! Kids need a way to measure their achievements. While grades don’t measure intelligence or even predict adult success, when structured properly, they can reflect one’s effort and engagement with the material.

Our goal should be to provide kids with meaningful challenges while removing the fear of failure.

A conundrum on the face of it, because challenges, by definition, cause anxiety, and some challenges inevitably end in failure. The trick isn’t to eliminate anxiety by eliminating challenge, nor is it to eliminate challenge by removing the possibility of failure. The key is to teach kids that failure isn’t something to fear.

It’s not as complicated as it sounds as long as you recognize your child’s tolerance limit. You’re looking for those experiences that will push your child beyond his comfort zone (healthy anxiety), but stop short of his self-preservation zone (toxic anxiety).

Every chance you get, expose your kids to something new. Model willingness not to know the answer and eagerness to find it, even if you’re not certain you will. Give your kids opportunities to feel unsure of themselves — enough that they need to think, but not so much that they feel threatened. Give them responsibility, and stand with them as they struggle to uphold it. Encourage them to experience the discomfort of “hard,” and take pride in their effort no matter what the result.

They’ll eventually find their footing and embrace the adventure. And they’ll be ready to handle bigger risks in the future.

Failure isn’t getting an F (or, for overachievers, a B). It’s being too afraid to take the risk to learn.


Read more from me at

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More at The Accidental Expert:
♦ Are you seeing how much your kids have changed?
♦ Is study hall so bad?
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