© 2021 Think Social Publishing, Inc.
We’ve learned throughout the years from our clients and students that no matter how they may appear and act, they desire and appreciate interaction with us. They may be, however, inhibited by social anxiety in combination with an inability to initiate communication.
It’s human nature to want to socialize and connect with people who make us feel comfortable and good about ourselves—and conversely, we tend to steer clear of folks who don’t seem friendly, who make us feel awkward or uncomfortable, or who don’t react and respond in ways we expect or desire. Unfortunately, some of our students are among the latter. Even though we may be consummate professionals and strive to overcome this aversion, when a student looks and acts unapproachable or unresponsive, we may avoid interaction on some basic level of which we aren’t even aware. What can we do to reach these kids?
Kids who can’t ask for help
Envision the student who you know is struggling with content in your classroom. He or she may have an IEP or is on a 504 plan, but not necessarily. You check in often with the student during classwork time and see that, while other students are working on the task or assignment, this student is either off-task or simply hasn’t started—or, perhaps doesn’t even seem aware that he’s supposed to be doing something—and you know that what doesn’t get done in class by this student will not be completed as homework. Despite your daily entreaties to “just ask for help,” and even though the student attends your and others’ tutorials, he makes no progress. In fact, the student often attends tutorials—and still does absolutely nothing! An entirely natural, even understandable reaction to his lack of response to your efforts would be confusion, frustration, and resignation. But what you may perceive as apathy or lack of effort is, in all likelihood, nothing of the kind. This student—who may be highly verbal and intelligent—does not feel capable of initiating communication with you, the teacher or tutor, and thus, literally cannot plan, organize, and formulate the words to ask for help, even though that’s what he most wants. Simultaneously, he may also be flooded with social anxiety.
What to do when “being available" just isn’t enough
As a classroom teacher, you cannot be expected to teach your students how to ask for help in addition to myriad demands placed on you, but here’s a step-by-step strategy for giving you and your students a boost over their anxiety-initiation wall.
- Avoid the assumption that quiet students are fine being by themselves, that this is their choice and they don’t want to problem solve or communicate with you.
- Seek out and approach the struggling student. Remember that he or she really does want to engage with you but is prevented by anxiety and/or doesn’t know how to initiate communication around asking for help. Even if the student appears unapproachable, approach anyway! These students and clients don’t choose for this to be so difficult for them and they don’t intend to send this negative message to others.
- Rather than ask, “Do you need help?” instead ask, “How may I help you?” But, don’t depend entirely on your student’s language to tell you where or how he or she needs help. Instead, ask the student to show you—physically point to—a specific example or where in a text or problem he or she is stuck or confused. Then, use your language to ask very specific questions about the student’s need for instruction or information. Whenever possible, supplement your language with visual aids and examples—text, picture, diagram, equation—as a joint reference or to illustrate your explanation.
- If your students and clients are benefiting from this approach, help them notice that communicating with you was helpful to them. Encourage them to contrast how anxious they were about the idea of talking to you versus how anxious they were after they began the discussion. You can do this by asking:
- “On a scale of 1-5, how anxious were you before we (or another teacher or coach) began talking?” (1 being a little anxious and 5 being very anxious)
- “How anxious were you on the 1-5 scale, during or after talking to me (or another teacher or coach)?”
Most of our students and clients will indicate that they were more anxious before they communicated and found the process of communication less stressful than they imagined. If this is true for your students, help them remember that they tend to imagine certain anxiety-producing tasks to be more difficult than they are.
- To prepare for future occasions when your students need to ask you for help or initiate communication for a different reason, meet with your students privately and individually to develop your own code or simple system for them to indicate when they need your assistance: e.g., sit near you during tutorial, show a colored card, stand near your desk, send an email or hand-written message, etc. Encourage and expect your students to use this code. When they use this code in the future, let them know how pleased you are that they sought to communicate with you.
- Recognize that you are not alone in helping these students deal with their challenges! Get help from your specialists and administrators: speech-language pathologist, case manager, reading specialist, school psychologist, counselor, resource teacher, special education teachers, etc. Inform the broader team that a student needs further assistance. Even though the student may not have an IEP or 504, let others know that your student is struggling functionally in one or more aspects of your class.
- Remind yourself and your student that the smallest steps are achievements. Don’t be discouraged when progress seems slow and big academic successes aren’t evident. Sometimes the most important breakthrough is the personal connection and trust you’ve established with your student.
Reaching out to guide people through their challenges in connecting with others when anxious, stressed, confused, or in need of any kind of assistance is a huge help to that person! Overcome your own awkwardness with the situation to help your students deal with what feels so incredibly awkward to them and teach them how they can ask for and receive the help they need.