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Anxiety in the Classroom: Teacher Language Matters

This will be the first of MANY posts on our use of language with students... so bear with me!

When we think of mental health, we think of the typical tools we can employ to support mental health in our classrooms, whether we're teachers or school counselors. (In fact, I've posted about some previously!)

We may talk about box breathing, taking breaks, etc. but we rarely talk about the importance placed on how we refer to anxious experiences and how we, as educators, respond to students experiencing anxiety.

Some of the most common terms I hear in the classroom are:

"Mental Illness"

Ex. "I have a mental illness - Social Anxiety Disorder - and I can't participate in that activity."


Ex. "This student has a mental illness, and therefore is unable to engage in this activity."

"To 'HAVE' anxiety/depression"

Ex. "This student has depression, and has been unable to attend classes reliably."


Ex. "This student is easily triggered by conversations around gender and sexuality."


Ex. "It's important to set boundaries with your friends so that they don't take advantage."


Ex. "This student struggles to set and maintain their boundaries."


Ex. "This student is resisting support in class."


Ex. "Because this student has panic attacks, they are unable to do class presentations."

These expressions, though not inherently problematic, often serve to remove agency from the student and assume that all students experiencing anxiety will experience it the same way, or that their expressions of anxiety demonstrate a life-long, insurmountable challenge that require specific adaptations, most of which are made for all students who struggle with similar concerns.

I'm certainly not implying that we stop making adaptations for our students when they need them, in fact, quite the opposite! I'm merely highlighting the necessity of individualizing these responses and demonstrating to students that they do have choice in how they respond to given circumstances - odds are, with a little probing, you'll identify a host of situations in which the student responded differently to a similar stimuli!

Let's revisit these phrases, paying close attention to the subtext associated with this terminology.

"Mental Illness" and "To 'HAVE' anxiety/depression"

* Internalized, uncontrollable, cannot be changed. Much like any other illness, it implies that responses are out of the individual's control, and treatment models are often a "one size fits all" approach. This approach disregards context in which someone is experiencing the crisis.

* Disclaimer - I'm not claiming that mental illness isn't real, and I acknowledge it can be extremely debilitating! I'm highlighting the moments in which students overcome these challenges and find ways to support their health. This is a teacher's approach, as opposed to a therapist's approach, when it's not the teacher's role to provide mental health support.


* Removes individual agency in response patterns. This is problematic, because it implies that certain "triggers" will be challenging in every context and that the student will respond in the same way in every context; however, this is rarely the case. People have the agency to control their responses, and it doesn't mean that situations don't arise in which the student feels overwhelmed, or their experience of anxiety is heightened, it merely removes agency on how that young person chooses to respond to that feeling, thus negating all of the ways in which they've responded differently in the past and sought safety for themselves.


* Often implies that the individual is somehow at fault for their experiences "Ex. If you had better boundaries..."

This term is not always problematic (and I'll get to that in a sec...)! However, the whole reason a young person feels uncomfortable or upset after an incident is BECAUSE they have boundaries and they know they've been breached! It's not about LACK of boundaries, it's about someone else not responding to the young person's articulation of their boundaries.


* Often used to describe resistance to treatment, or lack of compliance. I'm actually a huge fan of this word - used in the right way, and the right context.


* This is again problematic because it sets up a sort of "formula" for how someone will respond. Take the Jimmy Kimmel Halloween Candy scenario; same inciting incident; however, very different responses - therefore, one does not automatically lead to the other when it comes to mental health.

So what does this mean for us as educators? How do we begin to include more agency based language in our classrooms and ensure that we are not problematizing behaviours that are in response to something contextual that we're not seeing?

First of all, instead of saying "Mental Illness," we can support the idea of mental health. I'm not suggesting that we begin to ignore student's psychiatrist or psychological diagnoses, but what I am suggesting is that we start to empower our students to make alternative choices, and acknowledge the times when they are not experiencing their diagnosis.

Again, mental illness is very real and very serious! However, it's not the teacher's job to diagnose and treat (which is what I'm highlighting in this reframe!) What I am suggesting is that we can empower our students to notice moments of reprieve or exceptions to their behaviours and emotional responses!

For example, when a student says "I can't do that because of my mental illness..." we can respond with "I am so glad that you made it here today! That's really supporting your mental health!" Or "Is there a way that you can do it differently that supports your mental health?"

This way, we start to highlight the areas the student is finding success and allowing them to find more. We begin to externalize the diagnosis and allow students to find strategies that support moving forward, rather than feeling shackled by their diagnosis. Of course there will be times when a diagnosis does stand in the way of a student being able to participate in certain activities, however, engaging them in the conversation around what they can do well will allow them to feel a sense of agency and begin to view their challenges differently. Furthermore, this approach shows the students strengths, while still acknowledging and respecting their stretches.

Second, instead of saying "this student is triggered by loud noises" try saying "when this student hears loud noises, they often respond by leaving the room quickly." Then try to identify times when there were loud noises that the student didn't leave the room! This will give you an opportunity to address this with the student and brainstorm ways they can feel in charge of their response. So even if they still leave the room, at least they did so consciously and can identify that it was a strategy not a "trigger."

Third, instead of saying "Remember, it's important to set boundaries with your friends" try saying "Which boundaries of yours do you feel your friend breached? What helps you to feel safe with your friends?" Do you see the difference? People aren't uncomfortable in a situation until their boundaries have been infringed upon - which means they already had boundaries in the first place! We run dangerously close to the territory of victim blaming when we start to tell our students to have "better" boundaries. We should be teaching our students how to verbalize and understand their own boundaries, and pay attention to cues about other people's boundaries too!

Finally, let's make resistance a good word in school! A powerful word! It's already used for some powerful movements and resistance in those instances is seen as a positive; however, we often see students being labelled as resistant to learning, resistant to therapy, etc. What would happen if we started seeing that resistance as a student taking a powerful stand to support their safety, well-being, and, you guessed it, BOUNDARIES?! Well then, we start to honour our student's acts of resistance, understanding that they deserve the agency to resist!

For example, instead of saying "this student is resistant to all group work in class," try saying "this student is uncomfortable with group which, and they resist by trying to work independently instead." Better yet, ask the student what they are resisting with certain responses. Perhaps they have a very clear reason why they are "resistant" to your lesson, and by identifying what that resistance is a response to, you can start to appreciate the behaviour as a student's brave, bold, and ingenious effort to feel safe and assert their clear boundaries with you.

This is far from a comprehensive list of problematic language (stay tuned for a future post on operations of language in education and the inherent biases in our supposedly "unbiased" terminology). But I hope this gives you somewhere to start and something to think about!

I've said it before and I'll say it again - mental health doesn't occur in a vacuum. It is a response to contextual stimuli, that given the right environment, we can begin to understand, normalize, and even appreciate in our students. Our seemingly simple change in language can do wonders for helping a student navigate the complexities of their own mental health, allow them agency, and above all, acknowledge the incredible skills they have to find safety and support for themselves!

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