School Anxiety

By // March 24, 2016

In the last few weeks we have been busy meeting with teens and families who are applying to LightHouse for the fall. In our conversations, I’ve been struck by an often-repeated theme when I asked teens about why school hasn’t been working for them: anxiety.

I have heard the story dozens of times now, teens for whom school has prompted tremendous anxiety. Whether it’s the size of the school building or the number of kids there, or it’s fear of being called out in class, or it’s test anxiety, or it’s bullying or harassment…the list goes on, and it all can become debilitating. It often results in missed school days, and as missed days add up they result in feelings of failure that only perpetuate themselves into more missed days. In the end, it adds up to teens feeling like they can’t succeed or like something is wrong with them.

It doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, there is absolutely no reason it should be this way. Why have we designed institutions that actually promote these feelings in their very design? Perhaps the very institutionalization of learning is a foundational part of the problem here–one size fits all, when, in fact, one size fits none. Our factory model of education simply doesn’t allow the space, time, or resources to respond in a way that truly meets the needs of each child. It’s simply not possible.

Since September I have watched an evolution: teens who refused to leave home to go to school in the past who are now waking their parents up every day to get to LightHouse (really!). And it’s not because of any reason other than the fact that so many of the structures that create feelings of anxiety in school are simply not present at LightHouse.

As much as we strive to create our own environment, we cannot help but react to the environment in which we find ourselves. Environment matters. Hugely. A space where teens can take ownership and where adults and teens co-exist in authentic and respectful relationships can be transformative.

Actually, let me rephrase that: It IS transformative. We see it every day. And I tell the teens and families who come to visit LightHouse that it is possible for them too. It doesn’t mean that all anxiety goes away forever, or that transformation happens quickly or easily. But, as Montessori and Reggio Emelia educators have known for years, the environment of the classroom is a teacher unto itself. So let’s make educational environments that encourage learning, growth, and compassionate connections. Not the opposite.

2 Comments on “School Anxiety”

  1. Jennifer T.

    Please, please tell us how your school does this. My 14-year-old daughter has not been to school in 2 months due to anxiety issues. She has been working with counsellors and her doctor has now put her on anti-anxiety medication. But, nothing is changing and I am ready to take drastic measures. While we can not move to Holyoke (we live 3,00+ miles away) what can I do as a parent to help her? The situation is desperate, she is a wonderful person, highly intelligent, caring, and it is breaking my heart to see her go through this. Thank you in advance for any advice you may be able to share.

  2. Josiah Litant


    Let me say first that, when you ask what you can do as a parent to help your daughter, you are already doing it by asking the very question about helping her, and by seeking other solutions. You are supporting her…and that is probably the most important thing of all.

    There is no one magic solution to make anxiety disappear. But, in our experience, a dramatic change in environment and expectations can create opportunities that are free of so much of the pressure that teens often feel in school. What can you do to alter you daughter’s environment? Is homeschooling an option for your family? Are there local resources for homeschoolers even if you personally can’t be home with her all day? Are there alternative programs through your local public or private schools that she could do full time or even part time in combination with homeschooling?

    The truth is that there are many paths forward and the challenge is in finding what resources will work for your family. And if there’s nothing that meets your daughter’s needs in your community, I would wager that there are other families who are facing similar struggles who might be interested in talking and connecting about doing something together. In fact, I know there are—we have found dozens of them here in Holyoke in just the last year…families who didn’t think they had options and who are now part of our LightHouse community. Because people everywhere are looking for other paths, other ways for their kids to learn that are authentic, inspiring, compassionate, and personalized.

    I’d be happy to talk to you on the phone if you want, and to offer our support however we can. You have options, we just have to find them.


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