Skill-Building Approaches to Anxiety-Fueled Work Avoidance

03/10/2015 05:10 pm ET | Updated May 10, 2015
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Those of us who have spent over 10 years in the field know first hand that the face of the classroom has changed considerably. Long gone are the days when simple, whole class behavior incentive plans kept every student on an even keel. Even experienced teachers may not be sufficiently prepared to address the social and emotional needs of today's students, especially those struggling with anxiety. Anxiety disorders are alarmingly prevalent among U.S. children and adolescents, with 31.9 percent of teens having had an anxiety disorder during their school years. Add to that other increasingly prevalent childhood conditions, including ADHD and autism, and teachers are facing new and overwhelming challenges.

Teachers have always been concerned with students' low work production and work avoidance. Today, with standardized tests looming in our academically-pressured classroom environments, work avoidance is a chronic and growing problem. This behavior can become entrenched in elementary school and exacerbate through the grades as academic demands rise. Students with anxiety may be particularly at risk for avoidant behavior. In this era where low student performance has dire consequences, like reduced funding and state penalties, teachers need a new approach to steering students toward achievement.

Behavior is a way of communicating, and a symptom of an underlying problem. In my experience, when you dig into the roots of work avoidance, you find skill deficits in initiation, persistence, self-monitoring and/or help-seeking behavior. These are the cornerstone skills necessary to overcome the stress, anxiety and perceived or actual difficulty associated with a task.

The flight part of the Flight, Fight, Freeze response is common in students with anxiety. They avoid rather than initiate a task. It's often a result of anxious thinking: "I can't do this! I'm going to look dumb and the kids will laugh." Everyday techniques like motivation (e.g. "You'll have less homework if you finish now!") or encouragement: (e.g. "Get started, buddy, you can do it!") fail with students who are immobilized by anxiety and negative self-perception. We can break through their roadblocks by explicitly teaching the skill of initiation and providing accommodations until the students possess the skills within themselves.

Common teacher practice focuses on assessment: pass out work, notice certain students haven't started, and then offer them encouragement, help or motivation. Unfortunately, the longer a student festers in anxiety -- and it only takes a few seconds -- the less likely they'll initiate. They've decided they can't do the assignment long before the teacher offers help.

The teacher has a 30-to-60 second window to jump in and assist the students with anxiety to start their work with confidence. Helping them begin this quickly is a great accommodation. If there are several students in the class with this issue, try giving them a non-threatening warm-up activity until you have time to help them start the assignment (e.g. word search, crossword puzzle). Alternatively, starting the assignment at an earlier time is a great previewing strategy -- for example, morning work, "We are going to do this phonics worksheet later today, let's start the first two together now." Then when you hand the student the already-started phonics worksheet later that day, he has an entry point and is no longer scared or avoidant of the task.

Negative thoughts and perceptions can fuel avoidant behavior and prevent initiation, so replacing these unproductive and debilitating thoughts with a realistic and more confident outlook can also ease task initiation. One way to address the misperception is to have the student use a scale to rate the difficulty of a writing assignment before and after the activity. Prior to the activity, the student might rate it very hard due to her anxiety-fueled perception, but after it's likely that she'll have a more accurate perception and assign a lower number. Referring back to this rating sheet can help empower the student when looking at future assignments and move her from an "I can't" to an "I can" mindset.

Some students reluctantly initiate an activity, but lack persistence skills, stopping in their tracks at the first difficulty. You can teach and nurture persistence by pointing out the brain growth benefit: "Every time you push out of your comfort zone to learn hard things, your brain grows and you get smarter." Another way of promoting persistence is to reward it. Have part of the student's grade reflect his focus on persistence, not just the product. Self-reflection questions such as: "Did I challenge myself today?" or "Did I persist when it was hard?" can prevent a hard-working C-student from turning off and not trying in the future by valuing persistence as well as output.

Another challenge to students' persistence is the flight anxiety response which may kick in when they encounter an obstacle. Self-monitoring sheets can overcome these moments. Many students will engage in negative thinking when they get stuck during a writing piece: "I hate writing! I can never think of anything to write about!" Use a writing skills checklist (a great example of a self-monitoring sheet). Divide paper into three columns: Parts of Writing, Strategies That Help and a Check Box column to note whether or not they used a specific strategy. This allows the student a plan of attack and a ready reference to strategies that have helped before and alter her perception of their own skills -- shifting her from "I am horrible at writing," to "I only needed a strategy for spelling to complete my assignment today." Incorporating self-regulation techniques like "take a deep breath" into the list of strategies can also be helpful.

Help Seeking
Asking for help can be another challenge for students who struggle with work avoidance. Overwhelmed students can be too embarrassed to ask for help. It's always best practice
for students to be aware of their stumbling blocks, and it's invaluable to teach them how to ask for specific help (e.g. "I don't know how to start this assignment. Please help me think of what to write about,"). Once the student internalizes that they require help with only a small part of the assignment, such as getting started, they may feel less ashamed and overwhelmed. Building this skill empowers the student to reflect on where he is actually stuck, realize it's just a small part of the overall task he is stuck on and get the help he needs more efficiently.

Changing your approach to work avoidance to focus on building skills in initiation, persistence and help-seeking allows students to gain essential skills, confidence and self-knowledge. Shifting grading and other reward systems to reinforce skill practice and strategy use, not just work output, fosters the development of these building block skills.

Empowering this ever-growing group of students can allow teachers to meet the needs of students in their diverse classroom and increase learning time for all.


Jessica Minahan, MEd, BCBA, is a board certified behavior analyst and
special educator and Director of Behavioral Services at NESCA-Newton (MA), as well as a consultant to schools nationwide. She is the author of The Behavior Code: A Practical Guide to Understanding and Teaching the Most Challenging Students, with Nancy Rappaport (Harvard Education Press, 2012) and author of The Behavior Code Companion: Strategies, Tools, and Interventions for Supporting Students with Anxiety-Related or Oppositional Behaviors (Harvard Education Press, 2014).