In order to ensure that students with social anxiety are able to participate effectively in class, an anonymous LSE student presents a number of tips for teachers on how best to engage and include their students.
Talking has always been a difficult task for me.
From a young age, I was taught speaking up was a dangerous thing. Growing up with an abusive brother, I learned staying quiet was the best way to save me some trouble. The French educational system did not help me develop any oral skills, and I skimmed through the years without ever raising my voice in class.
I passively watched myself shut down, finding a false sense of comfort in silence, watching the world moving before my eyes, while I stayed clustered between the walls of my tortured brain.
In some way, I could find solace in my speechlessness. I began writing poetry and stories, studied languages that I only ever wrote, read and listened to, without actually ever speaking them. I sat every day at the family piano, listening to my mother or my piano teacher correct me, while, silently, I was trying to apply their advice.
I developed a personal cult for secrecy; secrecy was my safe place.
However, at some point in my life, I realised it could not last longer. I had protected myself, lulled myself in this false sense of security for too long. I had to come to the hard realisation that I was mentally ill, that I suffered social anxiety, and had to take measures. I decided to fight back against my own demons. But still, after years of battling, I was particularly challenged when I arrived at LSE to study Inequalities.
I had lived abroad before, worked abroad, studied in a couple of universities before. But never had I been confronted with a seminar.
Seminars were terrifying to me when I first arrived at LSE.
In the UK educational system, seminars are led with small groups of students who are required to react to the material studied in class, to attempt to solve intellectual and practical problems, and to voice their own opinions about readings and varied topics.
In short, they are required to talk seriously about serious things, and in their own name, which is of course logical in a university curriculum (at least in the UK).
But this is enough for me to freeze with terror. It’s not like those foolish things you say at a pub with a pint of beer in your hand, the heartfelt discussions with your friends, the simple answer you give to somebody asking you for directions or the small talk you have when you first meet somebody. In a seminar, I am expected to provide a constructed argument, without being able to prepare it beforehand and to have it proofread, on topics that I often do not know that well since I am a philosophy graduate.
It means speaking out, and to me, it means danger.
I am still unsure what I am actually doing at LSE. But I know I am here to study what I love, and to talk about it. And I know it is high time to speak up.
I know I am not alone facing these difficulties. Sometimes, they are the consequence of a person’s shyness or introvert personality. Often, they are the result of a mental disorder, especially anxiety disorders.
Many students renounce to their education because of the struggles caused by their mental condition. They suffer from anxiety, personality disorders, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) or depression, and often face low self-esteem, acute anxiety in social situations or a fear of exposing themselves. Their conditions may be caused by personal history, social environment or physical conditions. Like me, some may face trouble getting involved in social interactions.
In short, they face extremely challenging situations. LSE, as an educational institution and a body of education professionals, has a mission: it has a duty to include disabled and ill students. Building an inclusive culture at LSE goes not only through the adaptation of its buildings to students with physical disabilities, but also through the adaptation of its teaching resources for students who suffer mental disorders.
We, students with mental disabilities, exist, and we have a right to be included, and a right to quality education.
Being aware of these students and their needs is a first step. However, a second is needed: action. It is true that professors are not mental health professionals, and may lack the resources to help these students. Moreover, they also often lack the time. But many simple actions are easy to implement, and are worth trying.
I would like to say first that this attempt to answer this question is personal and that it does not represent the views of every student touched by this post, especially since mental health conditions fall under quite a wide umbrella.
I had the chance to teach as a language assistant in Germany last year. During the course of these eight months, I encountered some students that may resemble what I probably generally look like in class. I know these students are not easy to handle. I did not always succeed, and sometimes badly failed, to get them to participate. Nevertheless, I always recognised it as my mission to help and get these students to include themselves in the activities of the class.
Here are a few tips on how to favor the participation of your students who suffer from social anxiety:
- Do not assume they are not interested in your class. It is not because they are not saying anything that they are not following what is discussed or are waiting passively. Their brain is probably working, full power. So do not assume they are bad student, because, trust me, they are probably trying the best they can.
- Try to manage the conversation. Some students like to participate a lot. However, they are sometimes blocking the way for students who might feel a bit shyer about participating. Try and get the louder students to understand that they are not the only students in the room, and give time to everybody to think when you are asking a question before designating somebody to answer it.
- You can get them involved in alternative ways. You can conduct rapid surveys asking your students for a simple yes/no answer; students love it, and everybody can easily get involved. Or you can get your students to work in groups on a particular case, so that they can feel less pressured and rely on somebody else to synthesise their work.
- Try and talk to them after your class or at another moment. They will probably be grateful that you are worrying about them, and getting their insight on how they are experiencing your class may be helpful for your teaching. Ask them how you can help.
- If they agree, try and ask them directly what their opinion is about the discussed topics during class. I know some students may feel anxious about being directly called out, so it is better to discuss doing this before actually putting it into action.
- Be understanding, while staying professional. They should not have to disclose personal details for you to have faith in what they say.
Some people will probably answer to this post saying that university students are adults, that no student should be given more attention than another and that it is students’ own responsibility to speak up. I could not agree less.
First, you may remember that these students are at university to learn, just like the other students. They deserve equal consideration and time by their professors (and do not get me started on the price they pay for it). Professors also have the duty to educate them, which they can only do if they pay attention to any special needs their students may have. If we want to build LSE as a learning community, then every student’s needs must be addressed.
Secondly, there is a pattern of oppression in this objection. The persons who tend to participate the most in class, and elsewhere, are often the most privileged people in society. They are male, white, middle- or upper-class, native speakers. These characteristics make them feel entitled to speech, while others are used to standing by. They also make them less likely to develop a mental disorder such as depression or anxiety which are often blocking the way to participation. And I do not think that such pervasive oppression should be actively or passively supported.
From this point, we are stuck in the same problem as ever: what if these people who choose to stay quiet are simply listeners whose own preference is to listen to people, while the people speaking up have a ‘talker’ personality, and their preference is to speak up?
Well, you will need to take my word for an answer: I want to speak up, and I have been working really hard for the past 10 years to raise my voice. But I have been told too many times in my life to shut up. Today, it needs to change, and I need you to help me change it.
I would like to end this blog post by saying I am thankful for the professors and my wonderful @LSEInequalities classmates who were able to make me feel comfortable enough to participate in my classes.