Stock photo of a classroom of children, probably aged about eight. They are sat on the floor, some with their hands up, while the teacher talks to three children in front of the group. I think these three children may be presenting. The classroom looks busy, lots of bright colours and artwork on display

Overwhelm in the Classroom

This post was originally written in 2018 for an old and now retired blog.

Humour me for a minute. Can you remember back to being in primary school? Were you ever in the position of really not understanding something like a maths question? What did you do? Did you put your hand up and ask for help? That’s the correct thing to do right? That’s what you are supposed to do. Put your hand up, ask for help, listen to the teacher’s advice, complete the task, get on with the next activity. Easy!

Now me, my husband and daughters have all had very different experiences of being in infant school (reception, year one and year two in the UK), despite attending pretty similar schools, but not one of us did the hand-putting-up-thing if we could possibly help it. We were all known as being “good” at school, and we all had above-average learning abilities. But put our hands up, speak out loud and risk being stared at as we mumbled our question? Hell no!

Instead we had our own techniques for dealing with being at our desks, staring blankly at something like a maths problem and not knowing how to solve it. We were discussing these over dinner last night. Here are the some of the various approaches we used:

  • Crying
  • Cheating
  • Doodling
  • Sleeping
  • Running away

Asking for help did not at any point feature on our preferred strategies. I’d be interested to know if it was one of yours. Would you like to know what my favoured approach was? Shall I tell you a story? It’s a forty year old story but I suspect it is still relevant today.

Despite reading fluently long before I started school and happily writing pages and pages of fiction, I just didn’t get how the rules of maths worked. I liked counting rhythmically or melodically and I’d often walk or skip round the playground counting my steps until the end-of-playtime bell rang. But multiplication? The analogue clock? Fractions? Um… Nope.

On this particular afternoon in 1978 I was in a noisy, smelly and chaotic year two class, doing basic multiplication with the aid of stacking bricks  – to work out 5 X 6 for instance, you’d make 5 stacks of 6 bricks and then add them all up. Stacking bricks for multiplication seems like a great learning method to me; great for both visual and kinaesthetic learners. So what could possibly go wrong?

Well, unfortunately, there weren’t enough bricks for my sum. And I couldn’t figure out how to resolve this seemingly easy predicament with any success. And did I mention that the classroom was noisy, smelly and chaotic? Three times I queued up to have my book marked. Three times I was distractedly told “no, do it again.” From the repeated rubbing out of my mistakes I was making a hole in the page. I got increasingly agitated. And there didn’t seem to be any way out.

What to do? My teacher didn’t register my distress because I still hadn’t learnt that facial expressions were generally necessary to communicate emotion (it was a few years yet before I figured that out and painstakingly taught myself the relevant faces in the mirror). I couldn’t ask anyone else because I didn’t really have any friends. But I hated not being able to complete the task; too many people were moving around and being noisy; the air was too close, my brain felt jammed, and the sheer frustration was becoming rapidly overwhelming.

Dear reader – this six year old made the decision that that she felt most suitable. She quietly put her book in her drawer, slipped out of the classroom, collected her corduroy shoulder bag and red, hooded coat; crept out of school and (trembling all over and envisioning police cars coming to catch her) quickly walked the half-mile home. My instinct in stressful situations is to run away. Something as simple as not being able to do a maths problem was stressful enough to merit my running away.

I sometimes wonder how common this instinct is for kids. Schools these days are pretty difficult to escape from now that security has become such an issue. And that’s fair enough but If I’d been in the same position now, where would I have run to? I know that some schools have fantastic strategies in place for kids who become easily overwhelmed and need to retreat until they can cope again but this certainly isn’t standard. At least not yet.