Care and Feeding

Speaking in Class Fills Me With a Particularly Awful Anxiety

A teenager stands anxiously up in front of her class.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email askateacher@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

I am a 16-year-old who just started tenth grade. I’m taking Spanish this year which seems exciting, all except for one thing: speaking. I have (and have had since kindergarten or before) bad social anxiety and some unfortunate coping habits such as skin and clothing picking and hair pulling. I’m trying to get better, and I finally started seeing a therapist on a regular basis a few months ago. However, the progress, while significant, is slow, and I plan to attend a university which requires foreign language credits.

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This comes back to speaking Spanish. I stutter and slur, especially on unfamiliar words, which is obviously a problem with a new language. I’m extremely self-conscious about this, and the first and last time I had to try to practice talking to a classmate in Spanish, I froze up, ripped out ¼-inch chunk of hair than grabbed a hall pass and hid in the bathroom for the rest of the period. I’m obviously working on this with my therapist, but as I said, it’s slow, and my Spanish class is graded partially on participation in speaking. Is there anything I can do short-term to not bomb out of the class before I can even get going? I’m not sure how helpful this is, but I’m not formally diagnosed with an anxiety disorder yet, and I’m otherwise a very good student not just in Spanish but in all my classes. I also can’t drop the class and wait until next year since my school has foreign languages required in tenth and eleventh grade.

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—Scared to Speak

Dear StS,

First of all, I’m very glad you’re in therapy. I encourage you to stay the course, as this is the best way to help you with your problem.

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In the short term, I suggest you tell your Spanish teacher what is going on and ask if they could accommodate you in some way. For example, is there a friend in the class with whom you would feel more comfortable speaking? Could you record yourself speaking, upload the audio to Google Drive or DropBox, and share the link with your teacher? Could you attend your teacher’s scheduled tutoring and practice speaking one-on-one with them? Would any of these ideas alleviate your anxiety enough to try speaking? If you’re uncomfortable talking about this with the teacher in person, you could email them and ask for a time to discuss the issue with them.

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In the medium-to-long term, your parents should investigate whether you qualify for 504 accommodations or potentially Special Education services. This will likely require an official diagnosis, but I advise them to consult the school now to begin the process.

Your Spanish grade aside, please prioritize your mental health. Obviously, speaking with other people is an important aspect of learning a new language. And learning a new language is a requirement for your postsecondary goals. But learning to cope with your social anxiety in healthier ways is what’s most important. In the long-term, your therapy should help you with this. Even if you do “bomb” Spanish, that’s insignificant if you can stop pulling your hair out. I realize that can be a hard pill to swallow, but know this: there are many paths to college. A low grade in tenth grade Spanish isn’t going to follow you around the rest of your life, but your anxiety will (as you already know).

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Take care of yourself, Scared to Speak, and good luck!

—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)

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A few weeks ago, when the rest of my 14-month-old daughter’s nursery school class transitioned to the toddler room, my daughter was kept in the infant room—she was the youngest kid by several months and the only one not walking. Literally days after the transition, she began not only walking but running, and her vocabulary grew from “Dada” to about 20 words. In short, she’s now bored silly in the infant room (her teacher agrees), but the daycare director says they can’t move her until January at the earliest. Slots have been filled, and my daughter graduating to the toddler room requires a toddler graduating to the 2-year-old room. I get the tricky math, and I know how strapped daycares are these days. But four months is a long time for a toddler, my kid is bored, and we’re paying through the nose for this place. Do you have any suggestions for how to advocate for my kid or make the best of this situation?

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—Twiddling Her Tiny Thumbs

Dear THTT,

Unfortunately, with daycare and preschool, classroom placement often comes down to the issue of legal staff ratios more than anything else. There’s a limit to how many kids per adult you can have in a daycare classroom because of things like fire safety. Yes, this is working against you at the moment, but I think it helps to know that often the administration and teachers at the school do want to accommodate you. It doesn’t help them to leave your daughter bored; it’s an issue of following state and local regulations.

Here are things you can do. You can ask the school if your daughter can visit in the toddler class. There may be times of day where there is space in the room (if, for example, Bobby always leaves early on Thursdays), even if there isn’t space to enroll her in the room full-time. When I worked in self-contained (i.e. all special ed) classrooms in preschool, if we had students we wanted to try in integrated classes to see if they would be able to thrive there, we would sometimes send our students to “visit” in those classrooms. Those rooms were at capacity, but we’d find a time of day where either they were short a student (such as when the special ed students in those classes had services) or when we could send an extra adult to the room along with our student. Those visits allowed our students to socialize with older kids, but also the safety of coming back to a familiar space.

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Likewise, you can see if there are times their schedules overlap and allow some shared time. At the preschool where I worked, we had two playgrounds next to each other. As long as we could see kids from our playground, we allowed them to go to the other to play with kids from other classes. If there’s any chance that their playground time or lunch time is shared, you can see if there are opportunities to “cross over” into the toddler room.

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Lastly, you can look for ways to differentiate her day in the infant room. If you have a good relationship with the teacher—and it sounds like you do—you can work with her to find ways of expanding activities to meet her developmental needs. There may even be other children in the infant room who would benefit from this differentiation!

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Kids at this age are funny. They develop in fits and starts, and, as you clearly know, they can change in the blink of an eye. It’s possible that one of the other children in the infant room is just on the cusp of the same changes your daughter just went through. I don’t mean to say that you should wait and let your child languish. However, I think these little options may make a bigger difference than they sound at face value.

—Ms. Sarnell (early childhood special education teacher, Colorado)

I’m the mom of a kindergartner, and it’s my first time navigating the public school system as a parent. People rave about this school and its teachers. I was excited, but now we’re a week into what feels like a disaster.

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First, it’s clear her teacher is going through something. My pretty reliable 5-year-old has daily stories of the teacher yelling at the class for not listening. One day the teacher started crying and another teacher had to take the class. I sent her an email saying I know teaching and life are hard and please let me know if I can be supportive. She replied saying she thinks “every day will get better.” That was Tuesday. She “yelled” (can’t confirm the extent or severity) every day after that, and the kids are watching TV during at least part of class.

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I know I can probably request a transfer to one of the other classrooms (or maybe I can’t??) but the school in general is giving me capital-A Anxiety. There was very little communication before or after school started, and I’ve had to cobble together the information I need. Drop off and pick up is chaotic and confusing. The district practices something called “assertive discipline,” which turns my stomach; the list goes on. I’ve spoken to some more seasoned parents, and they think this is all pretty normal, standard stuff.

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I guess my question is… IS this normal and standard? Is this what the next 12 years of my life will look and feel like? Is there anything I can do? I knew the bureaucracy and institutionalism of school would be a drag, but it’s worse than I thought possible. I’m longing for the days of my own elementary school, when my mom was the room parent and I took home informational flyers daily.

I’m very grateful for any perspective or input.

—Hard on My Ears

Dear HoME,

First, let’s take a collective deep breath. The start of kindergarten can be a stressful transition, but you have several options to ease your anxiety and ensure your daughter has a productive start to her formal educational experience. To answer your primary question, in some ways your experience is standard, but in the case of your daughter’s teacher and the district’s use of “assertive discipline” it is not.

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It is common for schools to give parents limited information at the beginning of the school year, especially if the school is going through a leadership transition or experiencing high levels of teacher turnover, as many districts are this year. In cases like these, the flow of information can vary depending on current circumstances. The school’s communication structure could also be playing a role. At my school, the first point of parent communication is the classroom teacher, who is responsible for relaying much of the operational information about the school to families. It does seem like your daughter’s teacher is experiencing some sort of hardship which could be impacting their capacity to relay the information in a timely fashion.

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However, some of your accounts do strike me as odd. Regardless of personal life events, it is never acceptable for an educator to yell at students, especially kindergarteners. All teachers are human, and we may occasionally lose our cool, but raising your voice as a regular means of classroom management does not yield a healthy, safe, or productive learning environment.

That said, it would be beneficial for you to try to get some more information about the classroom environment. Talk to other parents, or parents who’ve had this teacher before. An adage among teachers of young children is “If you only believe half of what your child tells you about school, I’ll only believe half of what your child tells me about home.” That’s not to say your child is lying, but I think you could use a bit more information.

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If you’re able to verify that this is the standard class environment, regular yelling would be reason enough to request a classroom reassignment. Also, while I’m not familiar with “Assertive Discipline” in practice, a quick google search leads me to believe that it is an outdated model that promotes a more authoritarian approach to classroom management and discipline. Some sources claim that it has become less so since its development in the 1970’s, but at its core it appears to go against most modern teaching best practices and pedagogy founded in Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS).

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While it is important to keep in mind that it has only been a week, with a bit more information you might consider requesting a classroom reassignment and perhaps even look into other school environments that align more with your family’s educational philosophy and values.

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—Mr. Hersey (elementary school teacher, Washington)

Our family is white, and my child attends our neighborhood elementary school. There is a history of white families in the neighborhood looking down on the school, and for a long time it was nearly 100 percent Black students. The principal, teachers, and staff are also majority Black. The demographics are changing a bit as more white families are sending their kids and we have been very happy at the school since my oldest was in kindergarten. My child is now in third grade, and, starting last spring, is in the gifted program, which, at least for third grade, is only white students (and possibly consists of all of the white students in the grade).

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I am aware that there is a rubric for determining which students are admitted to the gifted program, but I am very uncomfortable with my child being singled out for a special program that has no racial diversity. I don’t like the message it sends about the abilities of the white kids and the Black kids in the school and cannot believe that it’s truly accurate and that no Black kids deserve to be in the gifted program. I do not know how to discuss this when it’s all Black teachers and administrators in charge of the program. I respect them and their ability to do their jobs. I trust the work they are doing in all aspects of my kids’ education, but this one thing is something I can’t stop worrying about.

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I have considered taking my kid out of the program (the kids meet for an hour a day with the “gifted” teacher) but that doesn’t solve the problem and would be disruptive for my child who thrives in this group and has really connected with the other kids. But I do not want them (or anyone!) to keep looking around and thinking that all the “smartest” kids in the school are the handful of white students.

How do I have this conversation with school administration? What even might be the solution here? I do have good relationships with the teachers and staff involved, and I assume they are already aware of this, so what should my goal be in sharing my own thoughts? Thanks.

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—Sea Change

Dear Sea Change,

This issue is particularly complex and challenging, but you are not alone. Here in Seattle, our public school district and others across the state have been struggling with the inequities of gifted program delivery for several decades. For those new to the issue, traditionally across the country many students labeled as “gifted” have been disproportionately white. As a teacher I believe gifted programs, when delivered equitably and inclusively, serve as an effective means of differentiation for students who require an additional level of challenge to grow academically at a pace that makes sense for them. However, I think the key differentiator in an ideal program, and the one your child is in, is the clear failure of the school or more likely the district to deliver the program “equitably and inclusively.”

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If I were you, before pulling your son form the program, I’d ask a few questions of the gifted teacher or administration. Gathering information will ultimately help you make a more informed decision, and perhaps even inspire you to go further in trying to change the system. You could ask questions like, “What does the selection process entail? How closely does the program’s racial demographics align with the student body as a whole? If the demographics don’t align, is the school or district actively working to identify reasons why and remedy them?” As you mentioned, the school staff likely already know there’s an issue. Chances are they just don’t have the unilateral authority to change the district identification process.

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Once you’ve asked a few questions of the staff, you have a choice to make, which will depend on how far you want to take this. You could either pull your kid out of the program, or advocate to make the program more inclusive. If you opt for the latter, I would build a few relationships with other parents in and outside of the program or even from other school sites. Try to see if they notice or care enough about the issue to get involved in changing it. As a sitting school board member, I can speak firsthand to the efficacy of parental advocacy in the name of inclusivity and educational justice. To be clear, this path would require a significant commitment on your end. There’s also a chance that your advocacy may fall on deaf ears. However, if successful, your efforts may end up not only benefiting your son, but countless black and brown kids who would have otherwise been over looked.

—Mr. Hersey (elementary school teacher, Washington)

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