How School Breeds Fear and Anxiety

How School Breeds Fear and Anxiety

“There are very few children who do not feel, during most of the time they are in school, an amount of fear, anxiety, and tension that most adults would find intolerable. It is no coincidence at all that in many of their worst nightmares adults find themselves back in school. I was a successful student, yet now and then I have such nightmares myself. In mine I am always going to a class from which, without the slightest excuse, I have been absent for months. I know that I am hopelessly behind in the work, and that my long absence is going to get me in serious trouble, of what sort I am not sure. Yet I feel I cannot stay away any longer, I have to go.” -John Holt, How Children Fail

The first time I read John Holt’s words on school and fear I had a bit of a revelation.

It’s true that if you asked me as a child if I liked school I would have said ‘yes’.

It’s also true that every single day I felt some amount of anxiety or fear. I still sometimes have these nightmares too.

I’d just never realised it before. I remember thinking I liked school, and as an adult I didn’t think any deeper about it than ‘I liked school but I want different for my kids’. I forgot about the anxiety because as a child it was ‘normal’ to me. I accepted that fear was just a part of school.

You could say I ‘adjusted‘.

I think a lot of people use the term ‘adjusted’ to describe children who no longer show overt signs of fear and resistance, without realizing those feelings can still remain. It reminds me of a baby left to cry in it’s bed in order to teach them to ‘self-settle’. Eventually they stop crying. Does that mean they are no longer distressed? Or does it just mean they have given up? I believe it’s the latter. They know very well that they are powerless, that no one will respond to their cries, that they are all alone with their fear, and that expressing it is pointless. So they keep it to themselves, but it is still there. Maybe as they grow their anxiety and fear is eventually expressed in different behaviours that don’t seem linked.

Children in school are likely to know the same truth as those babies. They are stuck. No one is coming to help. They are supposed to stop crying and complaining and get used to it. So most of them eventually do. Maybe they even go on to say they love school. It’s far more bearable to convince yourself you love it than to accept the reality that you must go each day to this place that you dislike for 13 years of your life. So you ignore it, and you come to think of that constant feeling of low-level anxiety as ‘normal’. Having not had the chance to experience any different you even report that you love school. The adults are very pleased with that. It was all worth it, everything is good now. Right?

How School Breeds Fear and Anxiety

I hear so often ‘but they love school’ and these are the thoughts that come to mind. Yes, for some maybe it is true.

I was one of those children too. I was still afraid.

Why are Children Afraid in School?

The simple fact that school is set up as an environment where adults hold the power and spend their day telling children what to do, makes it a breeding ground for fear. How do you get large numbers of children to do what you want them to do with little resistance? You make them afraid.

“The idea of painless, non-threatening coercion is an illusion. Fear is the inseparable companion of coercion, and its inescapable consequence. If you think it your duty to make children do what you want, whether they will or not, then it follows inexorably that you must make them afraid of what will happen to them if they don’t do what you want. You can do this in the old fashioned way, openly and avowedly, with the threat of harsh words, infringement of liberty, or physical punishment. Or you can do it in the modern way, subtly, smoothly, quietly, by withholding the acceptance and approval which you and others have trained the children to depend on; or by making them feel that some retribution awaits them in the future, too vague to imagine but too implacable to escape. You can, as many skilled teachers do, learn to tap with a word, a gesture, a look, even a smile, the great reservoir of fear, shame, and guilt that today’s children carry around inside them. Or you can simply let your own fears about what will happen to you if the children don’t do what you want, reach out and infect them. Thus the children will feel more and more that life is full of dangers from which only the goodwill of adults like you can protect them, and that this goodwill is perishable and must be earned anew each day.” – John Holt, How Children Fail

Maybe you can’t see the fear so you don’t believe it’s there. Maybe you associate fear with crying, trembling, hiding, running away. For some, especially younger children, it does manifest that way. But for others the signs aren’t as clear.

The truth is most children experience an undercurrent of pressure, stress, fear, or anxiety at school. They are constantly required to follow orders and perform to standards, not to mention social pressures and bullying. And if they don’t comply? They are punished. These things are a constant consideration.

How School Breeds Fear and Anxiety

What are the consequences?

“At the core of required performance is fear. If we don’t perform adequately to meet the expectations of others, we fear losing love, respect, humane treatment, and dignity, among other things. When this fear is part of our daily lives at home, at school, or at work, we move into survival mode and leave our best selves behind.” -Teresa Graham Brett, Parenting for Social Change

How damaging is it to live in a state of constant anxiety and fear? I’m not even considering the worst cases here. I’m talking about the everyday low-level stress and fear that school induces. And it does. Let’s be honest, school is not all that interesting. We hear constantly about the struggles to motivate children to do their work. If they were not afraid of the consequences of not doing it then they would simply choose not to. In the absence of making their brand of education actually interesting and meaningful, schools need fear to control students.

How does this shape them as people? How does it change their personalities? How does it affect them throughout the rest of their lives? How does it limit them from being their best selves? We can only guess as it is the lucky child who manages to escape this pressure.

So if it’s not good for children emotionally, at least it gets results academically right? Nope.

“I think the big mistake in schools is trying to teach children anything, and by using fear as the basic motivation. Fear of getting failing grades, fear of not staying with your class, etc. Interest can produce learning on a scale compared to fear as a nuclear explosion to a firecracker.” – Stanley Kubrik

How School Breeds Fear and Anxiety

Sure, fear may get children to comply, but if the goal is real learning then we have missed the mark by a long shot.

“What is most surprising of all is how much fear there is in school. Why is so little said about it. Perhaps most people do not recognize fear in children when they see it. They can read the grossest signs of fear; they know what the trouble is when a child clings howling to his mother; but the subtler signs of fear escaping them. It is these signs, in children’s faces, voices, and gestures, in their movements and ways of working, that tell me plainly that most children in school are scared most of the time, many of them very scared. Like good soldiers, they control their fears, live with them, and adjust themselves to them. But the trouble is, and here is a vital difference between school and war, that the adjustments children make to their fears are almost wholly bad, destructive of their intelligence and capacity. The scared fighter may be the best fighter, but the scared learner is always a poor learner.” -John Holt, How Children Fail

An environment where you are afraid, is not an environment where you’re going to learn. You can tick the boxes, meet the requirements, look like you’re doing all the right things to avoid punishment, but chances are you learning very little.

So what is the point of all this really? School cultivates fear, shame, anxiety, stress, and tension. It doesn’t serve children’s needs emotionally or educationally. Who is benefiting then? Adults? For the feeling they are important and powerful?

Why do we tolerate this? Why is it ok with us to have our children spending their days under a cloud of anxiety? Maybe, like me, we have all come to accept this as normal and we hadn’t even considered it. Maybe when children tell us they love school it is what we want to hear so we don’t even question it.

School, in it’s current form, cannot exist without fear.

Maybe it’s time to demand better for our children.

Maybe they deserve to spend their childhood surrounded by love, acceptance, support, and respect, instead of fear, anxiety, shame, and judgement.


Tina Veeranna
March 4, 2018 at 6:09 pm

What a sad, excellent, thought-provoking and heart breaking article.
It has got me thinking and I too completely relate to the idea that I “enjoyed” school and actually did well when in fact I was probably living in a constant state of anxiety, stress and fear. I remember on several occasions trying to harm myself in order to escape going, and yet if someone had asked me what I was escaping from, or what I was so worried about, I would never have been able to verbalise it as I didn’t know (and still don’t if I’m honest).
What a horrendous and disabling way to live. Thank you for reassuring me that my decision for my soon is right and that I may be going against a whole society but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong.

Felicity Bent
March 4, 2018 at 8:16 pm

This post exactly reflects my thoughts and experiences, as a child, as a mum and as a teacher.

March 4, 2018 at 9:00 pm

Yep! I can remember trying to give myself a temperature so I could stay off school, by putting on loads of clothes and hiding under the blanket until it was unbearable. That was in junior school, by high school I’d given up trying but turned to self harm to cope with the constant feelings of self hatred and anxiety, and a massive amount of shame and guilt since I had a loving mother I felt I had no ‘reason’ to feel the way I did, which made it harder to admit to and deal with.

March 5, 2018 at 12:01 am

In the States, I recently came across a fear-based attitude that’s perpetuating our public school system. I hadn’t realized that many people, including our lawmakers, consider school to be a daily social services wellness check. The fear that children couldn’t possibly educate themselves has built into the fear that parents can’t be trusted to parent without the government checking on results on a daily basis. Consequently, after a recent incident of child abuse in a homeschooling family, a law has been proposed in California that local fire chief’s should be required to do yearly home inspections of homeschools. The law is of course well-intentioned, but it’s been mystifying to see quotes in the local news pointing out that public school teachers have background checks, but parents do not, so how can they be trusted?

March 6, 2018 at 6:17 am

I totally agree and loved this post. I do ponder, what happens when they have left the caccoon of home and enter into a world that applies these methods at work, in dating, etc. I would love to hear your reply.

    March 10, 2018 at 4:12 pm

    Gailen, I’ve home educated my kids, but unfortunately not from the beginning. My son still struggles with low self-esteem, due to being severely bullied at school. We have a fantastic homeschooling community in the city where I live (in New Zealand), and I’ve observed other families where their children have been home educated from kindergarten to high school. What I’ve noticed is that home educated children are far more self-confident and mature, so that by the time they enter university and the “big wide world”, they’re more able to handle the workplace bullying, because they have a healthy self-esteem.
    Unfortunately, the workplace has degraded over the past few decades, because the same bullies that didn’t get dealt with at school, grow up to be big bullies.
    When I was at school, (not in New Zealand or USA, mind you), we got corporate punishment. Yes, the children got caned if they were involved in bullying or disrespecting the teachers. I can tell you now, that when I went to work, I still had respect from my colleagues (they didn’t swear in front of women, and they didn’t treat women like sexual property.) They had respect for each other. I don’t see that, in what is portrayed in the sitcoms that come out of the USA, which is what is “training” the USA public. A lack of discipline here in the NZ schools is turning out adults that swear and cuss and have no respect for each other. I unfortunately allowed my daughter to go to highschool for one year, after homeschooling her for 4 years, and it changed her, and messed her up, because children’s brains at 15 are not yet developed enough to deal with complex relationships.
    One does not “cocoon” your child in home education. You still socialize with others, but you’re always with them, or nearby, so that when conflict situations arise, you’re there to guide them through the communication and conflict in an adult way, which they don’t get at school, because there aren’t enough adults on the playground to deal with all the issues.

March 14, 2018 at 10:36 am

SO true. Thanks for another amazing, touching article, dearest Sara <3

Jim Freck
March 28, 2018 at 9:59 pm

I’m just wondering how everyone feels about the class dojo many schools are using as a discipline/reward. I recently experienced a situation were a 7 year old was not allowed to attend a picnic lunch outside with others and had to eat in the school cafeteria because she did not have enough dojos. I believe another type of discipline would have been more appropriate. My concern is the emotional effect on this child being separated from her classmates definitely outweighs whatever her” infraction” was.

April 4, 2018 at 1:24 pm

I never loved school even though I had good grades, I always knew there had to be something better out there. Unfortunately there wasn’t for me. Nobody knows of homeschooling or unschooling where I grew up, in Romania, but life will look very differently for my kids in the US.
I am now catching up on your latest articles, I am so grateful for your blog ❤️ It’s making me a better babysitter

Lucynda Riley
April 12, 2018 at 10:27 am

Going to school was such a miserable experience for me. Public school or private school. it wasn’t unusual for me to wake up in the morning, throw up from anxiety, and then try to pretend to be sick so my parents wouldn’t make me go. I hated it so bad.

August 10, 2021 at 6:49 pm

Thank you for this article. I can identify with the fear and anxiety from my own experience as a child and also watching it as a teacher. Have you come across any evidence or research to back this up? I would love to be able to read and share with my family so they can understand more about where I am coming from with the anti-school sentiments 🙂

January 19, 2022 at 7:32 am

If only everyone had the time, money and ability to home/unschool their kids. Sadly they don’t so what we need is viable alternatives – please talk about alternative ideas rather than being down on the current systems continually. So many people have no choice and sadly you don’t make them feel better about themselves – real, actual ideas of what else would be much more productive. I wish I could do differently for my kids but even paying doesn’t seem to bring any alternative that isn’t mired in dogma of its own.

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