Psych Central

Helping Children Who Fear School

By Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

A kid can be just as phobic about school, or math class, or writing a sentence as another child might be about dogs. What can be done to help children who fear an aspect of schooling, if not school in general?

Deal With the Fear

Children and teens who fear school can be helped. But it usually requires either a collaborative effort between a mental health counselor and an educator or an educator who has been trained to manage anxiety disorders.

For a child to learn to master his fear about school, that fear must be addressed directly. It needs to be the focus of the lesson, not seen as a bothersome obstacle to the “real” stuff of school. As long as the child is phobic, lessons on dealing with the phobia are the real stuff. If the child can master the phobia, chances are he’ll be able to learn the curriculum as well as any other child.

Steps for Managing a Phobia

There are well-developed programs for helping people desensitize themselves to objects or situations they fear. Whether the phobia is a fear of flying, a fear of heights, a fear of dogs, or a fear of school, the steps are pretty much the same. Essentially, a counselor develops a highly individualized series of steps to help the person get closer and closer to the thing he fears and to tolerate it for longer and longer periods of time. Methods for managing anxiety are taught and reinforced. As the person gets practice in managing his fear, he learns that being in the feared situation is indeed manageable and that he won’t die. He learns ways to feel in control. And he learns that he is a person who can face a fear and get over it. These are life lessons that can lead to feelings of confidence and competence. And a confident, competent person can do just about anything—even school.

The Story of Jake

Jake had difficulty with fine motor skills in preschool that continued throughout most of his time in elementary school. Work with an occupational therapist helped him learn how to hold his pencil and how to write. Still, holding the pencil and making it go the way he wanted it to go was awkward at best and his handwriting was next to illegible.

As he grew older, the adults in his life became more and more impatient with his handwriting. It was true that he could produce legible work if he used a special rubber grip and was very, very careful. It was also true that writing so carefully made him the last kid to turn in the work, often holding up his group. Teachers sighed. Kids teased. Writing assignments made Jake anxious. Jake wanted to write less and less. Writing made him feel dumb. Writing made him the butt of jokes. Writing made him scared. His oral work showed him to be bright and capable, but he always did the bare minimum on papers and written tests.

By fifth grade, he was diagnosed as having a language-based learning disability; this let both his teachers and Jake off the hook a bit. Well-meaning teachers let him tape his work or answer test questions orally. They didn’t know they were helping Jake avoid a task that made him afraid. They didn’t understand that every day they let him “leave” the task of writing, they were contributing to his handicap.

How a Phobia Is Mastered

Fast-forward a few years for our friend Jake, described above. He is now 16, a sophomore in high school, and convinced that he can’t achieve in school. Any writing assignment makes him so upset and anxious that he can’t sit still for it. He horses around, sharpens his pencil, or teases the kids next to him. He has also started using marijuana regularly and often comes to school with a glazed look. Pot helps him to “mellow out,” he says. Of course it does. This kid is a nervous wreck. He is phobic about writing and he has to write every single day. For him, the physical act of handwriting has teeth, claws, and scales. For him, having to take up a pen and write something is as frightening as having to face a grizzly bear.

And yet, it doesn’t have to be this way. Phobias can be mastered, and doing so involves four basic steps. These include:

  1. Education;
  2. Learning self-soothing techniques;
  3. Developing a hierarchy of frightening events; and
  4. Confronting each item on the hierarchy, using self-soothing techniques to settle down.

Step 1—Education: Students who have developed phobias seldom know what it is. All they know is that they are upset about things that other people find ordinary. They feel weird. They often wonder what is wrong with them.

The first step in mastering a phobia is to help a child or teen understand what is going on. These kids need to know that, although their situation is painful, it isn’t weird. Rather, it is a normal reaction to a painful situation.

Step 2—Learning self-soothing techniques: Students with phobias have usually fallen on a number of ways to “leave” the situation. They “leave” because it is just too painful to stay. The counselor works with the student to help him understand all the various ways that he leaves the situation as well as the many ways the student already knows to calm himself. He also spends time on breathing techniques and self-assurance techniques so that the student can practice independently from the counselor.

Step 3—Developing a hierarchy of frightening events: Once the student and counselor have figured out what is frightening to the student, they must work together to make a list of things that are related to the situation but that have varying degrees of fear attached.

When first asked what about writing was “okay” for him, Jake said that even thinking about it made him want to run. But when pressed, he was able to come up with the following list. He was then asked to rank the degree of “scariness” from 0 to 100.

Degree of Scariness

  • Looking at a pencil: 10

  • Holding a pencil: 10
  • Being asked to write the alphabet: 30
  • Being asked to write his name: 30
  • Writing a list of things he wants to do that only he will see: 40
  • Writing a short note to a friend or family member: 50
  • Writing a paragraph-long assignment: 70
  • Writing a page-long assignment: 80
  • Writing an answer on the blackboard in front of the class: 90
  • Answering fill-in-the-blank questions on a test: 90
  • Answering essay questions on a test: 100

By doing this exercise, Jake and his counselor learned something important: The items at the top of the scale involved situations in which he felt that he was under pressure and would be judged by others. They decided to include some focus on these issues as well as the fears in the course of their work together.

Step 4—Confronting each item on the hierarchy, using self-soothing techniques to settle down: At this stage, the counselor systematically works with Jake to actually do each of the items on the hierarchy, from the task that has the lowest stress level to the task that has the highest. As they move up the hierarchy, they talk a lot about how Jake feels. They work on using the new soothing techniques. They take their time. As Jake settles himself down during each event, he gains confidence in his ability to do just that—calm himself down. He learns that the alternative to leaving is to stay and work it through. He learns that he can take charge of how he reacts and feels in the situation. He learns to trust himself again.

Getting Back on Track

Left untreated, school phobia can have negative consequences for a child’s present and future. A child who is anxious and scared about some aspect of school cannot and will not learn that piece of the curriculum. Equally worrisome is that the child also learns that he can’t learn. Self-esteem and motivation plummet. A bright, capable child grows into an adult who is limited by both gaps in knowledge and by his own fears. It’s an unnecessary outcome. Careful treatment designed specifically to address a particular child’s phobia can help such a child get back on track and fulfill his own potential.

Last reviewed:
On 3 Oct 2005
By John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

 

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2006). Helping Children Who Fear School. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 24, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/helping-children-who-fear-school/000294
Scientifically Reviewed
    Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Jan 2013
    Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.