Motivate Without Anxiety

How do you motivate students to do well without creating anxiety over performance? Many teachers I know report increasing anxiety in their students. I wrote about this briefly in an earlier blog, about the link between the 3Cs (commitment, control and challenge) and decreasing stress, and I will discuss this in more detail soon. But first, what is anxiety?


To understand what a student feels, place yourself in their position. Bring up in your mind a time you felt anxious, especially about learning, or not understanding something, or taking a test. What does anxiety feel like? Where do you feel it? Notice, for example, how your heart feels. Notice your belly, shoulders, hands, and your body temperature. Do you feel warm or cold? How fast or slow does your mind work? What images come to mind? What thoughts? And, what conclusions do you draw from these observations?


Many students report their hands clench; they sweat. Their heart and thoughts race. It is the flight-fight-freeze response. They replay scenarios of the future over and over again. They hear condemnation from others. They imagine that a situation is arising or will arise they can’t handle. Maybe they feel no control. Maybe they feel they are just not capable enough. They feel their understanding of self fading away. They think other people have an image of them that is bad or unlikable and feel weighed down by this seemingly imposed image. They feel like turning away but can’t.


Anxiety is about feeling disconnected and not in control. It is losing the sense of the present by looking to the future and fearing judgment. And it’s not just about school. All students, but especially those prone to anxiety, need support, maybe even need a refuge. Since they have a fragile sense of being present, they need lessons in more than academic skills.


Students, and all of us, need to feel control, commitment, and challenge. These 3Cs turn the energy that might go into stress into engagement. “Control” can have many meanings. For school, control means having some choice in what is studied and in how understanding is assessed, so the class feels meaningful and connected to their lives. Students can voice their own questions and concerns and see them addressed. They, of course, also need to learn the basic skills of reading, writing and thinking critically.


They need to learn how to monitor their feelings and thoughts moment-by-moment, as is done with mindfulness. This gives them the power to choose—do I listen to this idea, or act on that one? It provides the insight to know how and when to question facts to uncover bias, question thoughts to reveal distortions. It’s empowering to learn what a thought is, that thoughts tell stories but not always true or healthy ones. Thoughts are not necessarily revelations from an oracle, and don’t have to be believed. We can step back and let them go. This inner knowing helps students assess their work in a meaningful way and, thus, not be dependent on external sources of judgment, like what the teacher thinks of them.


Besides studying mind with mindfulness, study the basic working of the brain with neuroscience. For example, students in my classes were always engaged when we discussed neuroplasticity, or the fact that they, their brain, can change and strengthen throughout life. It is very empowering to learn that your brain is not set by the time you’re 15. Combining mindfulness and neuroscience allows students to study their mind and behavior and treat life itself as a vast school teaching them how to think and act most clearly, ethically and effectively.


Commitment is acting on what is chosen. It involves students getting immersed and engaged in what they do. They allow themselves to be present, aware of their thinking, acting and feeling. Challenge comes from feeling the task is important, that it tests and develops their ability, but is not so challenging that they can’t succeed. It involves trusting that the teacher will support, coach, assist when needed. A well-planned challenge leads the student to feel trust in their capabilities.


Which mindfulness practices work best when students are anxious? Since mindfulness educates attention, begin with learning to notice the first signs of anxiety, as we discussed earlier, and to let go of the thoughts generating that anxious response. However, anxiety can make it more difficult to just sit and notice what occurs in the body and mind. Here are a few alternative practices:

  1. Teach focus. Counting breaths or visualizing a natural scene, like a flower, mountain, tree, or gently moving stream, can calm and clear the mind.
  2. Practice empathy and compassion. The empathy for others can transfer to themselves. And empathy or care for another person or being can free them from incessant worry.
  3. Progressive relaxation and visualization. They learn how to relax the body, starting with the toes and working their way up. After relaxing the body, the teacher can have students visualize a scene in a novel or an historical incident, for example, or have them imagine how to face a difficult problem.


G. K. Chesterton said, “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered.” I love the quote, and so do my students, although in my mind I often substitute ‘understood’ for ‘considered.’ The quote helps me change how I look at all the unanticipated and possibly stressful events that arise each day. What story will I tell  myself about an event or challenge? Will I be a hero or heroine, fighter of injustice and bringer of light to the world? Or a villain? What I tell myself is of crucial importance. In many ways, it’s my choice, my story. So I need to do it with awareness.  And teachers, what better motivator can you find than allowing students the chance to hero their own stories?


For an updated source on thought distortions go to a site by Sam Thomas Davis.

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