Should students with anxiety be forced to present?


Students present in class

Bethany Hansel, Managing Editor

Anxiety among high school students has been rising over the past number of years. Stressors such as grades, college, peers, work, extracurriculars, and a myriad of other factors all come together to pile on modern high school students. This generalized anxiety and pressure that is falling upon modern high school students is creeping into every aspect of their lives, but particularly in school.

It’s normal for teenagers to feel nervous about speaking in front of a class. For students with anxiety, however, it goes beyond a mere disliking of presenting or shyness; it is something that has serious psychological effects on a person. It can be hard for those without intense anxiety to understand just how terrifying and debilitating speaking up in front of a class can be.

Presenting is obviously an important skill to gain for the workforce and simply for life, and is therefore something that is written in as a requirement in English classes.

“Oral communication skills are a strand in the English/Language Arts curriculum K-12,” explains Ms. Free, Tallwood English teacher. “English teachers have to assess these SOLs, so we assign tasks where students can show their mastery of the skill. Sometimes the skill can be measured in a small group (younger grades especially) but sometimes the skill lends itself more to a presentation.”

Presentations are also generally a way for teachers to evaluate how much a student has learned, but for students with anxiety, there are other options that allow a teacher to assess their knowledge and abilities.

“If it’s something where they don’t have to present to get their piece across, I could just say write an essay on it or something of that sort, because that’s another form of presenting information,” states Cegan Hinson, Tallwood Future Teacher Award Winner.

“I’ve had teachers that have like given us choices as to whether we want to present, but still turn like our research and preparation in to receive a grade….I feel like it’s good if we have the option of just like turning in our powerpoint or whatever, because the teacher’s gonna see it anyway, and students don’t actually listen when you present,” states Alexis Danielson, Tallwood senior.

Some students had ideas on how to make presentations more bearable.

“One idea that I think would really help is doing more group presentations. Because with group presentations, everyone has equal time to present, if you mess up it’s not just you alone, and I always feel a lot more comfortable and confident with a group because it’s not me alone. So I think we should do more group presentations because it lets you practice your presenting skills while still lessening your anxiety,” states Danielson.

Grades for presentations are naturally going to be influenced by how well the presentation is delivered, and students with anxiety are simply bound to perform worse and thus receive lower grades.

“I don’t think that students should be required to present, just because some people can like set up a presentation and know all the information perfectly, but they just have anxiety presenting in front of people, which can impact their grades,” states Danielson.

Participation grades are also a common practice that can have detrimental effects on the grades of students with anxiety.

“I dislike participation grades very much. So like for our seminars, some teachers will require students to have up to three times that they participate, and sometimes some students may not have a voice because there might be people who are more confident than them that like talk the whole way through,” states Danielson.

Some argue that forcing students with anxiety to present and participate is doing them good by helping them overcome their anxiety. Forcing students to face their fears like this is a form of exposure therapy, a practice that is frequently used by therapists to help people overcome their fears. Even as scary as that is for students with anxiety, some students with anxiety agreed with this sentiment and recognized how much being forced to present throughout high school benefited them.

“As a person with anxiety, I feel like kids should learn how to present in high school rather than waiting until they get in the business world when it matters for their company. At first I did not like presenting at all–I hated it–but I am happy that I’m better at it now so that I have the skills that I need to present if I need to, which I undoubtedly will need to at some point,” states Katie Adams.

“Some people just can’t handle speaking up, they’re not as confident and just have really bad anxiety….But I also think that presenting can kind of help somebody be more confident in the future,” states Danielson.

For some students though, presenting truly does just prove too much for them.

“If a student has documented anxiety (meaning they have a diagnosis), there are a number of things I am willing to do to help. (This could include presenting to a smaller group, or a few friends during lunch, or if all else fails, presenting to me or making a video.) Of course, if a student has an IEP for 504 that includes an accommodation for something to do with oral presentations, I have to follow that by law! If the student doesn’t have an IEP/504 or a documented medical concern, I encourage them to plan ahead, practice, and come to me for help, but ultimately I encourage them to do the presentation or task,” explains Free.

Unfortunately, not all students with serious anxiety have been diagnosed or are receiving the help they need. While it is important for many students to face their fears and practice this skill that is only going to get better over time, there is no shame in working towards this goal in small steps. Communication here is key; teachers are often willing to work with students when they communicate their needs and do all that they can to support them.

“I consider it very brave and admirable for students to present their work in front of their peers. I also consider if brave and admirable when students come to me outside of class to communicate their needs and ask for help. I try to explain to the student why they’re doing the assignment, and I try to understand what’s making them not want to present/participate. Almost all teachers are willing to discuss this with students, even if they choose not to modify the assignment,” states Free.

It is important for students to learn to not only face their fears, but to communicate their needs so that they can best face their fears. Anxiety is a difficult barrier to overcome, but there are ways of learning to deal with it effectively, so it is important than students with anxiety do not give up hope.