“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?
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.
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
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.