Teachers are continually frustrated at the beginning of lessons with the disruption of some students who take a long time to settle down. For some, it's just a matter of them calming down after the excitement of the lunch break or the ‘freedom' of moving from one classroom to the other and for this vast majority experienced teachers have no problems. But, for some students, those with severe behavioural issues this disruptive behaviour can be driven by elevated levels of anxiety, a consequence of the memories of previous unpleasant experiences in the classroom. If we look at particular interventions that have been traditionally used to deal with children who suffer from uncertainty and anxiety, we soon find ourselves examining the use of rituals.
Throughout ancient history civilizations emerged in relative isolation. One cause of anxiety, common in all communities was death and almost all developed intricate rituals to deal with the anxiety and sadness of this inevitability. To deal with this tribal communities developed rituals, funeral ‘services’ to ease the pain of grieving. The application of a set of prescribed activities somehow lessens the heartache of loss.
Other rituals developed to deal with the anxiety that comes from the uncertainty of the future. For example, when early communities made the change from being hunter - gatherers to a reliance on agriculture, they soon realized that the success of next year’s crop depended on a range of factors that were beyond their control. To ease the anxiety they developed rituals, including the sacrifice of animals or other humans to appease a supernatural force in the hope that this ritual would ensure next year’s crop.
It becomes evident that rituals are useful in dealing with occasions that are potentially ‘dangerous’ or where the desired outcome is marginally out of your control.
At a personal level, rituals can be any sequence of actions that may consist of words, touching objects or focusing on a particular object that is designed to reduce tension. These activities are developed by repeatedly performing the same act every time we are exposed to that uncertainty. It is the focus on the sequential activity that alleviates the anxiety of contemplating on the potential outcome of the task at hand.
The use of rituals is widespread in sport. As a coach, I used the same sequence of activities before every game no matter how important each was. For the 45 minutes before each kick-off, all players and staff were required to complete a set of tasks. Within each task players were taught to incorporate their own ‘rituals,' such as putting their left boot on first, listening to music or whatever within the framework of the team procedure. When it came time to take to the field, I had ensured they were ‘ready to play’; they had confidence in their ability to succeed.
An important fact is that both the players and I understood that the rituals in themselves had no magical powers but the use of a structured predictable (how often do I use the words structured predictability) sequence of events helps reduce anxiety and focus on the task at hand.
Now returning to our challenging students, they have a sense of self that is associated with academic failure. As teachers, we need to be prepared to deal with their understandable anxiety. Remember, whenever they have come into a classroom, they have come face to face with the memories of past experiences, most of which are recollections of failure and embarrassment. In fact, to ask these kids even to try to do academic work puts them in an extremely vulnerable position. Furthermore, to invite them to do their best, risks potential ridicule or rejection if they fail. Better to be a 'bad' kid than a dumb kid is a choice they make.
So, if you have students like this, or even if you have kids that are extremely well adjusted the use of rituals will increase the early engagement and consequential success of your lessons. The teams I used to coach were of elite standard and played at a national level, and they certainly understood and benefitted from this structure. However, it is those damaged kids who will get the best out of this approach.
No one can ever predict the future with certainty. Most of us have a fair idea what will happen if we follow a specific course of action. These kids, who come from chaotic backgrounds, have no idea they have any influence on what happened to them. But, if the start of today's lesson is the same as yesterday’s and the day before, eventually they will get a sense of predictability and instead of being full of anxiety from the very start of the lesson they are at least available for the next step of the lesson.
Rituals are also effective for teachers who suffer from anxiety when facing a class. I’m sure we all had a level of anxiety when we began our careers and I’m equally sure there are classes that still cause us increased levels of apprehension. Having a ritual will help the teacher just as much as their students.