Avoiding Avoidance; Strategies to Combat Project and Performance Anxiety Part 2 (Performance)
When I was in elementary school, we used to write and give speeches every winter. I always found this incredibly daunting, as it involved not only researching but writing and presenting. One year, I decided I was going to take a break from the stress by simply pretending that it wasn’t happening.
Every day we had a block of time to research/write and practice. Every day I doodled and tried to look like I was working hard. No doubt the teacher knew that I was doing absolutely nothing, however, she let me continue on my chosen path, perhaps wondering how long it would take me to come to my senses and get down to work. Didn’t happen.
Eventually, the presentation date arrived. We got through about 3 or 4 a day, and I was in a class of 35. The teacher didn’t call on me, and I was actually starting to believe that my ‘pretend it isn’t real’ method was effective. The night before we got down to the last 3 presentations, I remember lying in bed and actually thinking that I could improvise my way through it. I was into ghost stories at the time, so in my half asleep state, I decided on a few key things to include about ghost sightings and drifted off to sleep expecting to rock everyone’s world the next day, should I even be called upon to do so.
It didn’t work out so well. I was called up to present and even started to speak with a bit of confidence. Then, my mind blanked–probably because I really had nothing to say. What might have been 10 seconds felt like an hour, as I stood gaping at the class and wondering how I could have been so wrong about my improv skills. The teacher made an unusual noise and asked me to take my seat. I heard giggles from around me, but I was lost in a combination of mortification and genuine confusion.
Sound crazy? You’d be surprised–or maybe you aren’t…
In my last post, I covered a system for getting through the research and writing. The performing usually comes with its own set of challenges. This is the public bit. A lot of kids (and adults) struggle more with this than anything else in their school careers. For students who have anxiety over presenting, it will likely always be a challenge–but facing challenges is vital for a person’s development into a resilient adult. Having the tools to face the challenges makes a huge difference.
What do I mean by performance task:
A presentation in front of a group
A sports try out
My approach is to work from the place of least risk, gradually towards the highest risk (which is the evaluated performance). If we assume there are 2 weeks to go from step 1 to performance/presentation, timelines might look as follows:
Step 1: Inner circle represents the point of lowest risk. This would likely be practicing alone in front of a mirror or teddy bear, with no audience (no disrespect towards teddy bears).
Self talk: “I am safe, No one is judging me. I can do this until I feel confident enough to show someone else”.
Step 2: The next circle out represents one step up in risk level. This may be showing one person who is trusted/safe (almost as much as teddy). There may or may not be constructive feedback at this point. The purpose is to get used to an audience.
Self talk: “I am in front of an audience but I am safe. There is no judgement. ____ is here to help me. I feel confident”.
Step 3: This next circle starts to broaden the audience to multiple people (still trusted). The purpose is to start getting and using constructive feedback.
Self talk: “I am ready to accept feedback because it will help me improve. I feel more prepared and I am controlling my anxiety”.
Step 4: At this point, it is time to open up to an audience of peers (not necessarily friends), or a teacher. This is the polishing stage. The purpose is to get performance ready.
Self talk: “I have faced my fears, worked hard and used feedback to make my work even better. I am proud of myself”.
Stage 5 is the final performance/presentation/audition.
Self talk: “I am ready. I have done everything within my power to prepare. I feel confident”.
Again, using a tool to help manage the time frame, such as a wall calendar or reminder app, is really important.
Get a wall calendar and help the student with the time frame
At each stage, ask your child how they are feeling (get them to reflect on that–is this better than previous similar situation)
Ask them about their self talk. Are they using positive self talk? Is negative self talk creeping in?
If there is negative self talk, encourage them to say the planned self talk out loud before they practice.