5 Tips for Preventing Dependency in Anxious Students

5 Tips for Preventing Dependency in Anxious Students
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Mrs. Chang passed out papers to each sixth grade language arts student. Not a second after the assignment hit Kayla’s desk, her hand went up: “I need help!” This plea was followed by several other students creating a chorus of “Wait. What do we do?”, “I can’t do this”, “How do we do this?” and “Can I go to the bathroom?”

Teachers are spending an inordinate amount of time supporting anxious students. One in four students struggles with anxiety, which can add up to many stops and starts in the lesson and crucial learning time missed. What’s worse, many teachers’ supportive efforts do not seem to be yielding effective results, as managing student behavior remains time-consuming and dependent on adults throughout the year. By changing the way we help, teachers can promote independence, self-monitoring, and self-advocacy in students.

Tip 1: Pull Yourself Back: Don’t accept the word “help” in isolation

It’s exciting and a huge step when a student asks for help as opposed to putting their head down or avoiding the activity by going to the bathroom. But don’t stop there: now promote the use of a more self-reflective statement. In post-secondary school life, the word “help” won’t be of much use. We can’t call the cable company and simply say “help.”

When a student says “I need help,” the teacher typically goes into action and essentially does all the work, scanning the student’s work and assessing the problem - “oh, you are stuck on problem number 4? Remember the formula you need to figure that out?” In many situations, “I need help” is equivalent to “Teacher, do something!” The student didn’t articulate or even think about what they needed help with or why.

Pull yourself back. Pretend you don’t know what the issue is. Respond instead by probing: “What do you need help with and why?” Allow them to self-advocate and articulate their confusion in a more sophisticated and self-reflective way.

Tip 2: Encourage Accurate Questions: Identify reassurance-seeking vs. help-seeking

Kayla didn’t even look at her math paper before deciding it was too difficult for her. This type of negative thinking is a common trait in students with anxiety. Simply being asked to try something automatically elicits self-doubt and negative thoughts in many students. It is better for a student like Kayla to know that she is nervous and needs reassurance, rather than to think she is unable or stupid and can’t do the work. The latter is an inaccurate self-narrative that will reinforce an incorrect self-concept, creating a cycle of more defeatist statements. Instead of jumping in to provide help which could inadvertently validate the student’s negative thought, prompt students to reword their questions.

When a student quickly says “What do I do?” or “I can’t do this,” especially when you know they are able, promote a more accurate question: “Did you want to ask me for a check in?” or “Do you want to ask me if you understand the directions correctly?” To explicitly change this habit, you can respond to a reassurance-seeking question with “Can you change that question to a more accurate one?” The student can then self-reflect and see if it is a mere check-in they need.

Tip 3: Foster Independence: Create whole class rules that promote trying

Fostering independence will benefit most students in your class, not just those with anxiety. Create a class rule that promotes trying before allowing inaccurate and defeated thoughts to shut down effort. Teach students that often our first thought when we look at an activity can be negative (e.g. “oh this is going to take forever” or “I stink at math so I’ll never be able to do this!”). Be explicit and tell the class not to give into negative thoughts – try first. Everyone in this class has to try the work before they can ask for help. You can also take it a step further and teach students to check with a buddy before asking the teacher, as many students are more likely to pause and try before asking a peer.

Tip 4: Make helpful strategies visible

Often when we encourage and assist a struggling student, we do so verbally (e.g. reminding them of past success, prompting them to find the answer in a nearby textbook). Unfortunately, this verbal coaching might not translate into the student trying such strategies independently. In fact, many students name the teacher when asked what strategy helps them when they are stuck or defeated.

Make your great suggestions visible and accessible in the classroom, maybe even right on the student’s desk. A list of “What to do when I am stuck” strategies is essential to making your great coaching transparent. When the student can see the list and choose from the strategies herself, she is more likely to remember them and credit them (as opposed to the teacher) for her success – thus leading to independent problem solving.

Tip 5: Teach Initiation: Address the underlying skill deficit

When it comes down to it, a lack of initiation skills is the root cause of dependent behavior. We can reduce dependence by teaching this key skill. Specifically teaching and visually displaying initiation skills is a great whole-class lesson and will allow the teacher to stop being the first responder. A great response to a student who says “I need help!” is to 1) help her realize the problem is initiation not inability (“Looks like you are having difficulty initiating!”) and then 2) prompt the student to solve her own problem (“What initiation strategy are you going to use (pointing to the poster on the wall)?”).

To create a poster, ask the students how they initiate, not avoid, homework or a difficult assignment in school. Document their suggestions on a visual poster on the wall, which you can point to when they ask for help. Remember to add strategies that bypass negative or inaccurate thinking that the students may not think of. Here are some ideas:

Chunking. You don’t have to do the whole assignment in one burst. Pick achievable goals to help you get started.

  • I am going to work for only ____(1-10) minutes at first
  • I am going to do the first two problems and then stop for a minute
  • I am only going to do the odd numbers on this worksheet at first

Avoid starting with a permanent product. The fear of making a mistake is often what prevents students from starting (especially perfectionistic students).

  • Try on a wipe off board first and then transition to paper
  • Try on scrap paper first
  • Ask for an extra copy of the quiz in case I make a mistake

Counter inaccurate thoughts. Inaccurate and negative thoughts are the largest barrier to initiation for many students. Even a few seconds of negative thinking can lead to a shut down and overwhelmed student.

  • Remember past success on a similar assignment
  • Use accurate self-talk (“this will only take 15 minutes”)
  • Pair something pleasant with something unpleasant (sit in a comfortable chair in the classroom, listen to music)
  • Picture the successful outcome of completing the activity

Persist or initiate when stuck

  • Skip the difficult problems and do the easy problems first
  • Schedule breaks
  • Schedule a small rewarding activity when done

Using these strategies to shift your role from providing help to coaching the student to help themselves puts them on a path to replacing dependency with independence.


Jessica Minahan, MEd, BCBA, is a licensed and board certified behavior analyst and special educator, 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).

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