Five Fears That Prevent Real Learning

by ChristinaPilkington on June 25, 2011 · 24 comments

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I remember sitting with the rest of my class on the floor. I must have been about six or seven.  I had tried and tried and just couldn’t hold back any longer; I had to go to the bathroom.  I raised my hand, like a good girl, and asked to go. No, I couldn’t go, the teacher said, I must hold it. But I really can’t, I said. No, don’t ask again. I won’t forget my fear and shame when I felt the hot wetness growing underneath me.

I wasn’t supposed to go to the bathroom because the teacher was teaching something “very important.” I was supposed to sit and listen despite my need to take care of normal bodily functions. What was so important that I needed to pee in my pants for?

I don’t know.  I didn’t know at the time, and I certainly don’t know now.

What I’ll always remember, though, is the fear. And not just on that occasion either. I remember fear of those who made fun of me (and at a small private school, too), fear I wouldn’t win a competition, fear I wouldn’t understand something, and fear that this was what learning was all about.

I recently read a paper put out by the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. The paper discusses how science has proven that early exposure to circumstances that produce persistent fear or chronic anxiety can disrupt the developing architecture of the brain, which leads to lifelong consequences. Most people think of child abuse, children of war, or chronic physical illness as producing this type of fear, but I believe one of the most insidious yet devastating producer of fear in a child’s life is his lack of control over his needs and desires.

Most children do not receive the respect they deserve from the adults in their lives. Most children’s lives are very structured, and their learning goals come not from themselves but from their teachers and parents.  And no matter how well-intentioned they are, what the child understands is that his curiosity, his interests and his goals for himself are not valued.

There are many ways fear affects a child’s life, but I’d like to look at five different ways fear can prevent learning. These fears are very prevalent in school environments, but can also be found in homeschooling situations, too.

Fear of failure – Most people want to reach for goals, to grow, to learn. But often, very early in their lives, they are told that they are learning something the wrong way, that if they don’t learn what others want them to learn and in the way other’s want them to learn it that they will fail.
Children believe they will fail to receive love and acceptance if they don’t do exactly what others want; they believe they will never be able to provide for themselves if they don’t receive good grades, get into college, or some other harmful myth.

Instead of focusing on what we believe children are doing wrong, we need to focus on what they do right. We need to look at how they are unique and, I believe, created by God to do something only they can do. Instead of pointing out how a child is misspelling something, we should be excited they want to express themselves in writing. Instead of looking at their decision not to attend college as a failure (which often means going into debt for most their adult lives), we should look at their dreams and goals and the amazing things they ARE accomplishing.  Let your children know that if something didn’t work they way they wanted, it doesn’t mean they’re a failure; they now have a chance to look at the problem in a new, creative, innovative  way.

Fear of ridicule – If a child is in a situation when he’s being made fun of, either by another child or an adult, he cannot concentrate on learning, even if it’s a topic he really cares about. His instincts will keep him on edge; he’s looking to protect himself and all his attention will be focused on that. It doesn’t even have to be an obvious form of ridicule, either. There are subtle ways a teacher can make a child feel he’s a disappointment to her when he doesn’t measure up to her expectations.

Respect each child as an individual. Often the freest child, the one who is least self-conscious and walks his own path in life is most open to ridicule. Our society loves conformity. That is the way the school system is set up; yes, even the vast majority of private schools follow this model, too.  Every child of a certain age is in the same grade despite varying abilities and interests. Every child must learn the same things at the same time. Yet, do adults follow this same model? Do we all do the same things at the same time and in the same way?  Are schools really preparing children to be self-directed, independent, creative adults?  Children need to feel free to be themselves and not be made to feel stupid or a freak for wanting to learn in the way that is best for them.

Fear of no respect – I touched on this in the paragraph above but want to emphasis that everyone needs to have autonomy. We need to feel loved as unique individuals. Even those who have been lead to believe it’s best to follow the crowd can’t quite escape the gnawing feeling that something is wrong, that no one really values their uniqueness and individuality.

The best way I know how to respect children is to treat them like people, not children. I get so tired of many adults I know, even within my own extended family, of talking condescendingly to my kids, who order instead of ask and don’t treat their questions seriously. You’d treat another adult’s opinions and desires respectfully. You’d encourage them to reach for their dreams and support them as much as you could. Do the same for your kids. Don’t let fights about reading, math or another other subject get in the way of your relationship.

Fear of abandonment – Many children get dropped off at school on their first day of kindergarten (or sadly much sooner) in tears. They don’t want to leave their parents. But parents are made to feel that this “separation anxiety” is natural, that their child will “get over it.” I even see this in church nurseries where parents walk away from screaming babies. Yes, most children will stop screaming after a few months, but we must not think it’s because they’ve gotten over their “anxiety.” Children learn to cope with abandonment in different ways; some are just better at hiding it than others.

If you wait until your children are ready to go out on their own, either to outside lessons, sports or even school if they choose, they will be confident and secure. You don’t need to be afraid that you’re “babying” them or that they’ll never want to leave home on their own. The very opposite is true. Most children eventually want to be independent; they want to have responsibility and do things on their own. Follow your child’s lead. If certain circumstances arise where you must be separated, it’s very important to let them know that you wish this wasn’t the case and that you leave them in a place where they’ll be loved and respected.

Fear of caring – This may seem like a strange fear, but some children are afraid to care about things. They know that if they care too deeply about something it will just be taken away from them, so it’s best to remain as detached as possible. You can see how some children pull back from their families this way as they are forced to spend less and less time with them both away from home and even when they are home because of all the homework they are required to do and those ever so important extracurricular activities.  But they also stop caring about things they used to love doing, too. I’ve seen this in small children as they grow older. They used to love drawing, or telling stories or climbing, but this gradually fades as they grow older. You might say this is just a part of maturing, but I think something else might be going on here.

Many children have an incredible ability to focus on things they love to do, even with children who are labeled ADHD. But then they are placed in situations where they’re required to jump from topic to topic, activity to activity, often within the space of 30 minutes. Suddenly, they aren’t allowed to focus on what they love, they aren’t allowed to perfect their skills, to improve on their talents. Why should they get excited about drawing anymore? By the time they really get into the picture they’re working on, someone will just take it away and say it’s time to move on to something else.

Let you children care deeply about things and see that they have to time to devote to the things they care about. Don’t let your fears get in the way. They will want to read, they will want to do basic math and they will want to write. How do I know this? Because most kids will want to drive a car someday, they’ll hear about an exciting story and want to read it for themselves, they’ll want to figure how much money they need in how many months to buy that new toy, they’ll want to e-mail and text their friends.  They’ll have a real need and desire to learn all the skills they need to succeed in reaching their dreams. But if we don’t give them the time they need, they won’t have any dreams left to care about.


What fears do you have for your child?  Do any of those fears overlap with fears your child has for himself?


If you have a minute, please leave me a comment below or send me an e-mail at  I’d love to hear your thoughts about fear and learning.  To get free e-mail updates every time I post something new, just sign your name and e-mail address in the box at the upper-right hand corner of this page. Thanks!

Photo Credit: Gareth 1953

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  • Kirti Behal

    Enjoyed reading this article. Hope young parents read it and realise it’s important to understand that these fears are genuine and children can’t learn and develop when they have any of these fears.Parents need to love their children and work in tandem with teachers to make their children confident.Kirti

  • Kirti Behal

    You are right about the fears that children have in school and at home .Children need to be loved and given time to gain confidence and to understand different situations. Teachers and parents need to work in tandem to make children learn without fear.Young parents should read this article .

  • TheresaNovak

    I am just finding this now.

    We have been homeschooling for 2 and a half years, prior to that our girls were in school. I was drawn to unschooling, but lacked the courage to actually do it at first. Now I see my girls pursuing their interests and I am finding that the things they are engaging themselves in seems more worthwhile than what I come up with and I want to learn how to help them better reach their own goals.

    Fear is a big thing for me. I was afraid of failure as a kid and I learned how to get an A. I didn’t learn much material, don’t recall very much from school or college for that matter, but I was always on the Dean’s List, I was Phi Beta Kappa. My older daughter is creative, her answers in school were deep and insightful but not always what the teacher was looking for…and that was an issue. I didn’t want to stifle that, I believe innovative thinking, creative thinking is more worthwhile than thinking like everyone else. My real fear now is the SAT…if my girls want to go to college, they have to do well on the SAT and while I think they can learn enough about writing just by reading and writing all of the stories they write, I am not so sure they would learn advanced math for the SAT if I don’t teach them. But honestly, math does us in. None of us like it that much. Maybe it’s that attitude?

  • OlderNWiser

    I am age 71 but had a similar experience in 8th grade. We had outdoor Phys Ed right after lunch in May in the heat of the Deep South. My next class was Social Studies with a test scheduled. Within 5 minutes of beginning the test, I was doubled up with abdomenal cramps ( not female). I requested to go to the
    Girls Restroom which was about 12 feet outside our classroom. NO! I was told, no leaving the class
    after beginning the test. Intellectually, I understood that. I was an A student and never caused
    any trouble at school. I really needed to go and when the teacher would not understand that this was
    an “emergency,” I was devastated emotionally and very “sick” physically. I could not even
    write on my paper. She walked around and took them up at the end of the class and chastised me for not writing on mine. I could hardly hold my head up by then. I went to the nurse and left school an hour
    early. I lived 2 blocks away. I got an F on my paper of course and my year’s A was dropped to a C.
    I still remember it vividly. After being my teacher since the previous August, how could she suspect me,
    her A student, would cheat. I was horrified. Our grandchildren are homeschooled and all making
    very top grades. I will hush before I do get on a soapbox about education/practices. :)

    • NanaPam

      OlderNWiser, I’m 64 and this resonates with me, too. I had my share of shaming experiences – just to name one, in 4th grade my teacher tried to change me from writing left handed to right handed! All that accomplished was to make me find any kind of sickness-excuse for avoiding school. (This teacher was highly regarded, creative, an otherwise gifted teacher – and this was a class for high achievers. I see her strengths now, looking back, but still wonder what was so bad about being left handed, which I am to this day.)

      I had a junior high home ec teacher that would hold up a a student’s sewing project to show a mistake to the whole class and say, “Naughty, naughty, naughty!” And no, I’m not making this up!

      To my great delight, I am homeschooling my 5-year-old granddaughter (who comes to my house for day care five days a week). I’ve found that I really am more patient on my second trip through childhood, and able to handle the spilling, breaking, bedwetting that all children experience without the yelling-fear-shaming words. “That’s okay. Accidents happen. I know you didn’t mean to do it.”

      • christinapilkington

        How wonderful that you can homeschool your granddaughter! Even more wonderful that she won’t have to go through the humiliating experiences you do. I really do think sometimes adults project their fears, anger and frustrations too readily on children. They have a vision for what they think is right and want to project that on their kids. It’s an exhausting job being a teacher and parent- it call for constant patience. It’s something I need to work at every day.

    • christinapilkington

      I get so sick reading stories like this. These types of things stay with us our entire lives. There is no way kids can learn anything when they live in fear of not even being able to go to the bathroom if they need to. Thanks for sharing this story, but I wish you didn’t have to!

  • Shara

    We homeschooled our children because the natural learning style of my oldest daughter predicted that she would not learn to read until she was 8 to 10 years old. After watching the shame of being a late reader destroy my friends daughters love of books.I knew that until she could read school was not the place to be. At home she did not know she was a late reader as all her homeschooled friends were not reading either – they naturally and effortlessly all learned to read between the ages of 7 and 10 – and yes mine was the last to learn – but within 6 months you could not tell who started first – and now at 15 they are all A students in High School. If most children naturally learn to read after the age of 7 (and studied do show this) what is our school system teaching – a fear of reading – and that, not a lack of academics is creating a crisis.

    • christinapilkington

      When I taught in the public schools, I worked with kids who had supposedly had learning disabilities because they took a slower time learning to read. These kids were 13 and the school said they could only read at a 2nd grade level because of test scores. But when I let them read whatever they wanted to, several of them choose three hundred page novel and we had great, in-depth conversations abou the books. It’s amazing how well the school system can squash a love of learning and particularly a love of reading right out of kids.

  • carrie

    LOVE this!! beautifully written!!

    • christinapilkington

      Thanks so much, Carrie!

  • Jennifer

    Wonderful article, Christina. Very well said. It first caught my eye because I had almost exactly the same experience – I also peed my pants in class because I wasn’t allowed to go to the bathroom. (I wrote about it on my blog awhile back: My favorite part of this post was your simple statement “The best way I know how to respect children is to treat them like people, not children.” Yes, yes, yes!

    • christinapilkington

      Thanks, Jennifer! I just came from your blog. I’m hoping to read more of your posts on our upcoming trip in the car.

  • Laura Weldon

    You’ve really seen into the heart of this Christina. I shared this on my FB page once, doing it again. Thanks as always for your insights.

    • christinapilkington

      Thank you so, so much Laura!

  • Laura Weldon

    You’ve really seen into the heart of this Christina. I shared this on my FB page once, doing it again. Thanks as always for your insights.

  • Beth

    Wow, great article! You really put a lot of thought and insight into this! I totally agree that we need to treat our kids like people.(I know, it’s a novel idea) It’s disgusting what we do to them in the name of education. If we spent more time thinking about the child and a whole lot less time bowing to the system we’d have a generation of happier, freer (is that a word?) better educated kids.

    Keep up the good work!

    • christinapilkington

      Thanks! I agree that when we stop looking at children as unique independent people and just as numbers, that’s when we’ll finally make a step towards something positive. I just can’t see that happening any time soon when there’s such a big push for meeting quota and scores and making learning into a business. Very sad.

  • Cathmg45

    My fear is that my child wants to go to public school, unknowingly receiving no respect and being denied bathroom privileges. How can I communicate with my child without squashing their personal desires to take part in mainstream culture? I seriously fear that my fears will not overlap with the fears of my child…

    • christinapilkington

      That’s a really tough situation. With my kids, I am going to give them the option of going to public school if they so choose. I don’t want my kids to resent me one day if I never allow them to experience what school is like in an instiutionalized setting. Now, I really hope they don’t make that choice, but I’d rather they make that choice and see why learning outside the system is much more freeing and liberating than wondering what they had missed out on. If your kids have a choice and they choose public school, they’ll be in a different position than a child who has no choice in the matter. They might choose public school for a few months or a year and want to come home again, especially if they can learn according to their intererests and are not coerced into learning things that are not right for them. I think the forbidden fruit always looks sweeter than it really is. If it’s not forbidden, it just might not seem that inticing anymore. These are just my beliefs, though. You really need to do what you feel is best. I would just try to keep in mind that peace and harmony in the family should be one of your highest priorities.

  • Kelly

    Thank you for this! I feel like you’ve taken some of my thoughts and feelings (regarding fear of respect & abandonment with children) and put them into words that I couldn’t find! I can’t wait to read more of your website!

  • Kelly

    Thank you for this! I feel like you’ve taken some of my thoughts and feelings (regarding fear of respect & abandonment with children) and put them into words that I couldn’t find! I can’t wait to read more of your website!

    • Anonymous

      Thank you! So many people do not take children seriously today. I think that is the biggest obstacle towards changing the way we view education. Things will not change until children are respected and treated as people with their own feelings, hopes and desires.

    • Anonymous

      Thank you! So many people do not take children seriously today. I think that is the biggest obstacle towards changing the way we view education. Things will not change until children are respected and treated as people with their own feelings, hopes and desires.

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