Avalanche of Anxiety

Sometimes the most difficult sets are those that are one up from the bottom.

Sophie had one of those.avalanche of anxiety 2

A few of the students worked quietly and industriously but the class felt chaotic.  The problem with handling the disruption was that the students concerned did not see their actions as disruptive.  And the irony was that the most disruptive ones were convinced that they were the victims of noisiness from the rest of the class.

What was going on?

  1.  Red Herrings – Questions that are connected to the topic in hand but are not core to that topic.
  2. Hand waving – Persistent (and insistent!) raising of hands during whole-class teaching
  3. Interruptions – Blurting out of questions during an explanation; whether to the whole class, to a small group, or even to an individual.

These behaviours are excellent examples of what John Holt was referring to when he wrote, “Children use the strategies they do because of the way they feel, the expectations they have of the universe, the way they evaluate themselves, the classroom, and the demands made on them.”  They are all characteristics of Sixes (Questioner), for whom Fear is the driver.  The survival strategy of a Six is to be aware of everything that could possibly go wrong, so that they feel prepared.  So what is the dynamic driving those three disruptive behaviours?

  1.  Red Herrings – The Six mind goes into overdrive when facing a new situation.  It is finding all the angles to it and then exploring them.  If the student feels that the teacher is ignoring them then they instantly become more threatening.  The red hering needs to be gently parried in such a way as it is recognised but firmly put to one side.  Saying something like “Good question.”  But then something like, “Can you find out and tell us next lesson?” or “That’s far more advanced than you need at this stage”.  And finally a statement drawing a line under any questions at all until you have finished your explanation.
  2. Hand waving and Interruptions – These may be red herrings or they may be genuine questions.  In the case of Six behaviour they are very often questions about something that you are about to explain.  This is because the Six mind analyses things so quickly they are often several steps ahead of you.  Added to this is the inherent insecurity of Sixes that creates a doom-laden background in which they are certain they will not understand anything.

Teachers who are ‘Gut’ or ‘Heart’ people will find this mindset very alien.  The Head types are preoccupied by dealing with an inherent mistrust of those around them.  They are constantly scanning for pitfalls and information that may prove useful.  All of this is arranged in a mental landscape so escape routes can be planned.  It is easy to see how this has helped humans survive over the millennia!

‘Gut’ people are not so preoccupied by the multiple possibilities.  Their strategy is more crisis management when the crunch comes.  So ‘Gut’ classmates will find the above behaviours intensely irritating as they will see them as time-wasting and maybe even as a challenge to the person in the classroom who is supposed to be in charge, the teacher.

As ‘Heart’ people are focused on building relationships as a survival strategy, they may feel torn loyalties.  Both teacher and classmates will want the Six student to feel valued as part of the group but at the same time be frustrated by their interruptions to the flow of the lesson.  Classmates are likely to be particularly frustrated as they will have seen the Six do the same in many other lessons in the school!

The overall need is for clear but compassionate boundaries to be drawn.  The ‘Gut’ teacher (especially 8’s and 1’s, but not so much 9’s) will need to resist the instinct that the student needs to be put in his/her place.  The ‘Heart’ teachers will need to resist the temptation to be overly accommodating.

If the behaviours are not stopped this can lead to an Avalanche of Anxiety amongst the ‘Head’ types as it will give them more time to dwell on their fears.




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