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Social Anxiety Disorder v Ashley

By Rick Ackerly, Ed.M.

student at conference

Recently, the mother of a fourth grader told me of the struggle her daughter, Ashley, had with social anxiety.

In first grade, for instance, she would freeze when it was her turn to speak to the class. The very thought of doing a book report in front of her classmates, would cause her to shake. Sometimes she would be so terrified that the teacher would have her sit outside the circle or in her own corner of the classroom.

It was a topic at parent-teacher conferences, of course, for several years. Often teachers would suggest diagnoses like “social anxiety disorder” and suggest plans for how to help her, like not looking at her classmates when she spoke in class, or inviting small groups of best friends to their home. Various kinds of behavior modification were suggested and tried, but nothing worked. In fact it seemed to get worse. If she were required to speak in front of her class, she froze in terror.

The mother wanted to diagnose the problem and come up with a plan to fix it. Her husband and her husband’s family all thought the appropriate adult response was not to make a big deal about it, and just wait for it go away, as in “She will grow out of it.” The situation caused a rift between the mother and her in-laws, and of course, this exacerbated marital challenges.

Then, in fourth grade Ashley wrote a great story. Her teacher praised her for a great piece of work, and also showed it to her former first grade teacher. They decided that the first grade teacher should ask Ashley if she would like to read it to the first graders.

She did, and Ashley agreed—flattered to have been asked. As the day of her presentation approached, Ashley showed no signs of her normal anxiety. On the day of her presentation, she walked proudly into the room like an actress, sat in the speaker’s chair with twenty first-graders at her feet and read her story with great articulation and even flare.

She was so successful at this that Ashley’s teacher arranged for other speaking engagements and Ashley even performed at an all school assembly—with no signs of stage fright, or even nervousness. Yet, Ashley still panics before making a presentation to her class.

It is, unfortunately, standard procedure for parents and teachers to try to diagnose a “problem.” Listening to adults talk about students who are experiencing challenges you would think there are only a handful of diseases: Dyslexia, ADHD, Sensory Motor Integration, Social Anxiety Disorder, and Autism Spectrum. Adults have a hard time seeing school from the child’s point of view, and rarely ask.

When parents and teachers talk about children, they often forget five obvious and critical things about humans:

  1. our uniqueness
  2. our nearly infinite complexity
  3. that we are not the same person today that we were yesterday,
  4. that we know things about our own problems, and
  5. that our brains are working on them in their own invisible way.

To say that Ashley has “social anxiety disorder” is about as helpful a diagnosis as telling a person who is shivering and too weak to get out of bed that he has “fever.” The medical model doesn’t work when it comes to education—in fact it is usually counter-productive. Naming a problem usually begs the question of what to do about it.

In the end what worked for Ashley was that her teachers noticed the details of Ashley’s experience in school and thought creatively about it. After her most recent speaking engagements one might say that Ashley’s difficulty speaking in groups is her own unique version of a normal human challenge: how to be your imperfect self and avoid embarrassment at the same time.

The need to measure up to your own standards and concern for what your peers will think about you, is actually a common challenge for those of us who are not perfect. At the age of 67 I am still working on it.

Each person’s challenge is unique to them. The best way to help is to gather data in the form of stories and anecdotes. Parents and teachers can keep a journal with descriptions, and share them at the parent teacher conference. Then we can scratch our heads and think creatively about what, if anything, we can do to help. But above all, don’t forget to ask the child for her description of her challenge, and remember: it’s not a problem to be solved, but a challenge to be faced. 

Posted on January 22, 2013 by Rick Ackerly, Ed.M.

Rick Ackerly is a nationally recognized educator and speaker with forty-five years of experience working in schools. He has served as head of four independent schools, speaks to parent and school groups across the country and presents at numerous education conferences. Rick is the author of The Genius in Every Child: Encouraging Character, Curiosity and Creativity in Children and lives in Decatur, Illinois. Visit his blog, The Genius in Children, or follow him on Facebook and  Twitter.

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