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Thinking Outside the Classroom: Do children always need to learn in the traditional class environmen

Updated: Jan 19, 2022

By Eilidh Murphy

  Image description: The image is a blue infographic with colourful blue rectangles in the background. In the foreground there is a photo of Eilidh, smiling. Below is the writing (in white) that says “Thinking Outside the Classroom: Do children always need to learn in the traditional class environment? by Eilidh Murphy” In the top righthand corner is the LUNA project logo and and the text (in black) “A LUNA project series on Education”. End of description. 

Covid-19 has changed lives almost instantly and while lockdown measures are easing, some things haven’t gone back to normal. Working from home remains the norm and while schools have returned for the new academic year, there are robust plans in place to revert quickly to online learning if required. Twitter exploded with rants from many people, particularly parents, complaining about how they had always been told it was impossible to do their job from home. Understandably, they were angry to discover that actually; they could. As my mind raced during the empty lockdown days, I began to think. For all the parents who “couldn’t” work outside the office, were there children who “couldn’t” learn outside of school?

During my senior phase of secondary school, I suffered from anxiety and severe panic attacks. The thought of being in a classroom terrified me and an Atlantic of “what ifs” would flood my head. What if I panicked, how could I get out? What if I started to cry? What if somebody asked what was wrong? What if I couldn’t pay attention? I began to form new doubts about my academic ability and worried about falling behind and failing all of my classes. I entered a treacherous cycle of panic revolving around school that spiralled into the other parts of my life. I was afraid to train with my netball team in case they were talking about my behaviours in school. I stopped dancing; the thought of performing paralysed me. I became afraid of my anxiety attacking me in public, so I stopped seeing my friends. Instead, I stayed in my bedroom, learning and relearning any and all information from my classes and working on my assignments. By fifth year of school, it was virtually impossible for me to be in a classroom and learn. By sixth year, I could hardly be in a classroom at all.

Despite this, I excelled in my studies, meeting the grade requirements to study Psychology at University. My teachers at school were excellent, but I hardly learned in the classroom. I spent hours at home on YouTube understanding maths equations, reading through course notes and writing them out over and over again to remember them. Some teachers would give me copies of the presentations they were using in class and would even take time to go over things with me individually. Others became frustrated that I couldn’t stay in a class or became angry when I couldn’t perform certain tasks. I spiralled more, missing school altogether for days at a time. I was frustrated and upset because I was doing well; I knew I could learn myself if I worked through the materials and I learned to ask for help when I didn’t understand something so why were some teachers obsessed with me being in a classroom all the time, and disappointed in me when I couldn’t be?

Of course, I understand that there are things that can’t be missed. I studied chemistry and had to participate in experiments for part of the coursework. And I managed; just. But working in silence from a textbook could be done in an environment where I felt more comfortable, rather than one in which I could do nothing at all. I was made to feel like a failure for being mentally unwell in a way which meant I couldn’t attend a class. I knew if I was sick in the hospital, or taken unwell with the flu, I would not be expected to be in the classroom but because my illness was a mental one, I was.

At university, where most learning is self-directed, I have made huge strides forward in dealing with my anxiety. There is nobody disappointed with me if I cannot make a lecture, and there is rarely the same pressure to attend. I find without that pressure; I am less anxious when attending and hardly miss my classes because of anxiety now. As soon as I broke the cycle of anxiety surrounding my education, I improved in other aspect of my life because I felt like I was improving and was confident to try new things again. There was nobody telling me I was failing or becoming frustrated with me for not being in the classroom.

My experience is, unfortunately, not uncommon and not specific to anxiety by any means. When I reached out, many secondary pupils from the western hemisphere got in touch, explaining how their mental condition had not been managed well by their school. Most commonly, people with dyslexia and autism were not supported well by their schools. 2 people with autism reported having to move schools’ multiple times while 1 reported dropping out completely and taking up home schooling. Others with different anxiety disorders felt criminalised by their school because they weren’t attending enough. Behavioural problems including ADHD more often than not resulted in suspension or total expulsion from one or more schools.

For every bad teacher there are 100 good ones. I had wonderful, compassionate teachers who would sit with me while I calmed down, who checked in almost every day, worked through my worries with me and made me believe that I could do anything. But my anxious brain was trained to focus on negatives and those who were frustrated and disappointed in me stuck more. I wish I had stood up for myself and told my teachers what I needed and how their approach was making me feel. Maybe the next anxious pupil who came alone would not feel like such a failure but be met with compassion when they needed it most.

Now that I’ve grown up, although still sad about the way school was for me, I don’t blame my teachers. The pressure schools are under to cope with the needs of their pupils is immense and I guess they just didn’t have the experience, training or resources to facilitate my learning in a way that was not just successful, but beneficial to me in overcoming my anxiety, and enjoyable; a positive life experience.

Now when I think about school, I think about those who believed in me and helped me, and the small achievements I did make. I also think ahead; how can I help schools facilitate anxious pupils? Quieter learning spaces, when I was allowed to use them, were my safe haven. I was completing the work during school hours, rather than into the night and so less worried about falling behind. The teachers who had no expectations of me answering questions or staying for the full lesson made me more comfortable; I could stay longer and function better. If I had a plan for leaving class when having a panic attack and wasn’t worried about getting in trouble for doing so, I was less anxious about going. When I was met with compassion and understanding, I wasn’t upset or anxious about returning to school the next day.

(Originally published 29/9/20)

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