After one of my workshops on “Finding Your Genius” at a school last year, the mother of fourth-grader Maya told me of the struggle Maya had with social anxiety.
In first grade, she would freeze when it was her turn to speak to the class. The very thought of doing a book report in front of her classmates would cause a panic attack. Sometimes, she would be so terrified that the teacher would have her sit outside the circle or in her own corner.
It was a topic at parent-teacher conferences, of course. Often, teachers would suggest plans for how to help her, like inviting small groups of best friends to their home, or not looking at her classmates when she spoke in class, or various kinds of behavior modification. No matter what they tried, however, nothing helped; in fact, it seemed to get worse. If she were required to speak in front of her class, she would panic. It was agreed: she had “Social Anxiety Disorder.”
Then, in fourth grade, Maya wrote a great story. Her teacher praised her for a great piece of work and, also, showed it to her former first grade teacher. They decided that the first grade teacher should ask Maya if she would like to read it to the first graders.
She did, and Maya agreed, flattered to have been asked. As the day of her presentation approached, Maya showed no signs of her normal anxiety. On the day of her presentation, she walked proudly into the room like an actress, sat in the speaker’s chair with twenty-two first-graders at her feet and read her story with great articulation and even flare.
She was so successful at this that Maya’s teacher arranged for other speaking engagements, and Maya even performed at an all-school assembly with no signs of stage fright. Yet, Maya still panicked before making a presentation to her class.
It is, unfortunately, standard procedure for parents and teachers to treat school problems like medical problems. Listening to them talk about students who are experiencing challenges you would think there are only a handful of diseases: Dyslexia, ADHD, Sensory Motor Integration, Social Anxiety Disorder, Executive Function Disorder, and “On the Spectrum” (formerly Asperger’s). Adults have a hard time seeing school from the child’s point of view, and rarely ask.
When parents and teachers diagnose children, they often ignore five obvious things about us humans:
- We are unique
- We are complex
- We know things about our own problems
- Our brains are working on them on their own
- We are not the same person today that we were yesterday
What we ignore is critical. To say that Maya has “social anxiety disorder” is about as helpful a diagnosis as giving a person who has a hot forehead and can’t get out of bed a diagnosis of “Fever.” Naming a problem usually begs the question of what to do about it. In the end, what worked for Maya was teachers noticing the details of Maya’s experience in school and thinking creatively about it.
Their trial-and-error approach led the adults in Maya’s life to a new thought; i.e. that Maya’s difficulty speaking in groups is her own unique version of one of the challenges of being human: how to be your imperfect self in a group and avoid embarrassment at the same time.
It might be a reasonable working hypothesis that Maya has high standards for herself, judges herself harshly, and imagines that all of her classmates will judge her as harshly as she judges herself. Since being humiliated in front of her friends is an even higher disaster for her than not measuring up to her standards, she is forced into the uncomfortable position of shutting down in a group, in order not to reveal her embarrassingly sorry self to her peers.
A diagnosis can blind us to the very thing that would lead to a great moment.