Should Schools Push Kids Out Of Their Comfort Zones?

Earlier this month, The Atlantic ran a piece entitled, Teens Are Protesting In-Class Presentations.

Taylor Lorenz wrote:

“(S)tudents have started calling out in-class presentations as discriminatory to those with anxiety, demanding that teachers offer alternative options…. “Nobody should be forced to do something that makes them uncomfortable,” says Ula, a 14-year-old in eighth grade, who, like all students quoted, asked to be referred to only by her first name. “Even though speaking in front of class is supposed to build your confidence and it’s part of your schoolwork, I think if a student is really unsettled and anxious because of it you should probably make it something less stressful. School isn’t something a student should fear.”

The  question resonated with me. School (and other forms of) anxiety have been issues I’ve dealt with my entire life.

Many, many a morning was once spent with me in near-hysterics, to the point of making myself physically sick with hives, stomachaches, and vomiting because I didn’t want to go to school.

Armchair psychologists might posit this was because, when I was 7 years old, my family spent several months dashing from country to country across Europe as we were emigrating from the Soviet Union to the United States. I started second grade in the middle of the year, knowing no one, speaking no English, the only “foreigner” in the grade. Other kids teased me for talking funny and for wearing the same dress every day.

If only I’d had access to English as a Second Language classes and trauma therapy, all of this stress and school avoidance could have been ameliorated! (Mayor de Blasio would suggest his Universal Pre-K could have fixed it, too. What? He claimed UPK was the antidote to teenage suicide!)

Nope. My anxiety predated the stress of immigration. I was a high-strung child who, according to my mother, spent the first three years of my life neither eating nor sleeping — just screaming. When she dropped me off at nursery school, she reports that I would go into full hysterics. The teachers assured her I would stop after she left. All children stopped after their parents left. She would come back at the end of the day… and I would still be hysterical.

But my parents kept sending me back to school. And, eventually, I got used to it. That is, until I moved from a relatively small middle school, to a huge, screened San Francisco high school. (Hey, there, new NYC Chancellor Richard Carranza, I know what you did there!).

The physical plant was overcrowded, with over 2,000 students stuffed into a building constructed to fit several hundred fewer. I felt like I was being crushed, trying to move from one class to the next, especially on the stairways. I’d always been short and, in several classes where we were seated alphabetically, I ended up in the back. The school was an academic magnet with a reputation for being brutally competitive.

I freaked out.

I refused to go back to school after the first day.

My parents were supportive. They reached out to the school to see if my classes could be scheduled back to back, skipping lunch, so my day could end earlier. My mother actually came to school with me. The first day, we just sat in the courtyard, looking at the school from a safe distance. The next, we walked in the hallways during class time — so it wouldn’t be as crowded as a passing period. Within a week, I was attending for an entire day and, after the first semester, I didn’t even need a truncated schedule.

My parents were supportive of my anxiety. But at no point was avoiding school completely ever on the table.

And that seems to be the problem with excusing students who find it nerve-wracking from making oral presentations, or any other anxiety-provoking activity. The students calling for it aren’t asking for help dealing with their problems. They just want to avoid them altogether.

Supporters argue that not forcing students with anxiety to speak publicly in class is on par with not compelling a physically-disabled student to participate in physical education, or giving students with learning differences extra time on tests.

But the situations aren’t analogous. The family quoted here specifically wanted their physically disabled child to be treated like everybody else. They were actually upset that their child was being given dumbed-down assignments!

Extra time on tests doesn’t mean not taking the tests! I even wrote here how I didn’t want my qualified child to be given extra time for the simple reason that real life doesn’t offer extra time on its challenges! (You can read my son’s response to that, here.)

And that, I think, gets to the heart of the question: Is school supposed to prepare students for real life or is it supposed to shelter them from it for 13-plus years?

If it’s the former, then whom does allowing children to avoid mastering skills critical for success both inside and outside the classroom benefit?

Will the child too anxious to stand up in front of their peers and deliver a report because they fear censure in the form of a bad grade or scattered giggles then beg off from speaking at a meeting? Presenting at a conference? Asking for a well-deserved raise? Standing up for themselves (or a colleague) in the face of #MeToo or other discriminatory policies?

If we allow children to shirk from actions that make them uncomfortable, won’t that just make matters worse when they’re adults — and a note from Mommy isn’t enough to make everything OK?

Maybe, as opposed to what was proposed by The Atlantic, school should be a place where kids are encouraged to face their fears… so that they might go on to live fearless adult lives.

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