Anxiety Safe Learning Environments

Would you like to create a safe math learning environment free from anxiety? What would that look like? Let’s first peek at what it doesn’t look like:

Adapted from image by Marshall Astor – Food Fetishist | Flickr.com | CC BY-SA

Okay class, what’s the answer to number 12?

I think it’s 75, Mr. Jones.

No, Emma. That’s wrong. Have you been paying attention?

Unintentionally or not, this is often taken as ridicule by Emma and her classmates.

They quickly learn to avoid this verbal punishment and the anxiety it causes.

And the easiest way to avoid it is by not trying.

There is a power-dynamic, a vulnerability, that goes along with any instructor-student relationship. In these situations, students must feel safe to engage. Encouragement and support are ideal. But more importantly, the learning environment must be free of criticism, shame, or overwhelming frustration.

If a student feels that there is threat of criticism, shame and frustration in a math class, it’s curtains. Even if forced to “stay in that chair and listen,” they won’t mentally stick around to learn much of anything.

So how do you get your learning environment safe from anxiety?

Praise the “wrong.”

Being wrong means the student’s trying. Trying means they are engaged. Engagement gives an opportunity to learn.

Without the opportunity, learning can’t happen.

When you praise the incorrect answers, you praise the trying. When you praise the trying, the students are more engaged in math class. They have an opportunity to learn.

So when they’re “wrong” – praise them.

Exercise patience

You may say, “But they didn’t give the right answer!”

Got it.

But before performance, or getting the right answer, a student must take in and process information at a pace where they can retain it. Getting the right answer is only an indicator of understanding and effective learning of math. A confirmation. It’s not the learning itself.

by flequi | Flickr.com | CC BY

Letting them be wrong and process how they got the wrong answer is part of the process of learning. And sometimes this can be slow.

But giving a student time to think about and mull over questions and answers is more effective for learning in the long run, than requiring the right answer.

Yup – you’ve got things to do, kids to teach. So it might leave you feeling frustrated when you allow wrong answers and give them time to ponder it.

So when your patience is running thin, step away. Adults need breaks, too. Take one to avoid a damaging experience.

Learn from the “wrong”

When an incorrect math answer is given, ask them how they got there. Get them thinking about it. There are more learning opportunities in the wrong than the right.

Right answer given. Say: Good job! Let’s move on to the next one.

Incorrect answer given. Say: Excellent. Let’s talk about how you got there…

We can praise the attempt and find something in the incorrect answer to build on and learn from.

by hoyasmeg | Flickr.com | CC BY

Think about the teaching implications of this. How many more folks would be willing to try something if being wrong is okay?  How many more kids will you engage if there’s no criticism or humiliation to avoid?

Be ready, don’t force it

Your students might have been trained to avoid verbal punishment by not trying. Remember Mr. Jones from above? Mr. Jones is everywhere. So take it easy when creating this “anxiety safe” environment.

When the more vocal students get wrong answers, praise like crazy, be patient and help them learn from the wrong answers. The rest of the students will follow.

And whatever you do, don’t be Mr. Jones.

Your turn…

How do you create a learning environment safe from anxiety? Have I missed anything? Share your thoughts in the comments or post them on Twitter.


William DevineWilliam Devine is a licensed professional counselor in private practice. He has joined the MathFour.com team as the Director of Research. Connect with him in the comments, on the contact page or via twitter @MathPsych.




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