I started taking Zumba classes second semester of my junior year in college. For the first few months of classes, I only went because my friends wanted to go. I would feel anxious a few hours before the class and spend time thinking about how my feet tripped over one another and how hard I had to try not to fall down while others were spinning in pretty circles. I was so nervous that I was not enjoying myself at all and I certainly was not growing to be a better dancer.
“You’re a good dancer,” my friend Ally casually said to me over dinner after class one day.
What a monumental thing to say! And hearing her say it made me realize the thought that I’d been holding at the forefront of my mind this whole time was “I am a terrible dancer. Everyone will find out and then I will surely be humiliated.” No wonder Zumba class was such an excruciating experience! The truth about this world is that we are what believe ourselves to be. I believed that I was a terrible dancer, so I made sure with all of my actions and my anxiety that this would be true. At this time in my life, I realized how much my self-perception and anxiety were holding me back, not just in dance, but in all areas of life. I decided that I could believe something different about myself.
Other than anecdotal evidence from our own lives, research shows more of the same. In a 2003 study out of Pace University, Dr. Staci Beth Friedman found that a “significant negative correlation exists between anxiety and self-perceived competence, with no significant gender differences”. (Source) The inverse relationship is also true – when children’s self-perceived competence is lacking, their anxiety tends to be high. In a comparative study of adolescents in the United States and England, researchers found a strong positive correlation between self-confidence and academic achievement.
We, as parents and teachers, have the opportunity to minimize opportunities for student anxiety and make confidence and resilience a habit in the lives of our children.
Strategies for Reducing Student Anxiety
In a subject that students are pre-dispositioned to have anxiety about, make sure that there are as many predictable factors as possible. Math-U-See Student Workbooks, for example, uses the same set of pages structured in the same way for each lesson. The pages are also simple and uncluttered. The manipulatives are the same for multiple years. This provides an environment that the student’s mind can rest knowing that the only thing that will be new is the concept being presented – they do not have to waste their precious mental energy worrying about any other aspect of the lesson.
Build routine into your child’s day. This applies to teaching and learning as well as the rest of your daily activities. When children can depend on a schedule and consistent people involved in that schedule, they are more able to settle their minds and take risks in other areas of their lives. Create a routine, inform your child about that routine, then review it with some regularity.
Strategies for Increasing Student Confidence
Give students small challenges that they perceive as impossible so that once they accomplish it, their self-perceived ability to accomplish tasks in general is increased. Give aid where necessary, but be wary of performing the task for your child or student because of your own impatience. Know that though the task of learning a dance step may seem small to you, the actual task is changing pathways in the brain that have been so ingrained so that your child is able to think differently about themselves.
Give appropriate, ample, and timely praise. This praise should be two kinds – both love that is unconditional and praise for effort exerted. Avoid encouraging perfection; instead, praise your child or student for confronting a challenge, not giving up, and learning from both the failure and the success wrapped up in each experience. Remember that what we say to children becomes the soundtracks of what they say to themselves for the rest of their lives.
The future belongs to our children, and we want them to be people who can see themselves as capable and resilient people. The building of this attitude starts with us now.