Dealing with phobias at school

For many students the school is intimidating. I was intimidated by bullies in the elementary school and the school gym. My wife Anna suffered from dyslexia until she learned speedreading, and some school subjects were quite fearsome for her. Some of my friends and fellow memory experts feared math. The school does not have to be feared, and we definitely want to break the vicious cycle for our children. If you find the subject interesting, you are welcome to read more here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

The vicious cycle of phobias at school

The basic mechanism of school phobia is very simple. We do something with our peers and fail miserably. The experience is bad enough, and we start to hate a specific subject. So instead of concentrating on the subject, we concentrate on our emotions. As a result, we fail yet more spectacularly. We try hard to work and eliminate the gaps, but cannot concentrate on the subject since we hate it. So we give up and try to cheat or avoid the subject if we can. This generates further gaps, driving deeper despair. It does not matter what you fail: sports, math or history. The experience is a bad one, and it tends to color the entire school years.

The remedy of holidays

The one thing that more educated and wealthy parents do is hiring a tutor, especially during the holidays and summer vacations. It is not clear that the tutors help during the school year: each time we close a gap, a new gap appears. During the summer vacation, we can finally close the gap, without facing the phobias at school. The kids really hate to work on summer, yet there is nothing more effective for closing those persistent knowledge gaps. This is especially true if the gap was detected relatively early, and the resentment has not become systematic. If the children do not take tutors, they may take some extracurricular activities preparing them for the next year. Each time the children get back to school, the children of rich parents get better scores.


Some phobias, like gym, are associated not so much with a specific activity as with specific place. One of the ways to handle this is removing the association. We can go to the dreaded space without doing the dreaded activity, and we can do the dreaded activities in a controlled environment under the watchful eyes of good coaches. I sent all my kids, boys and girl, to certain sports classes, including self-defense. They were always able to stand their ground with bullies and were sufficiently confident not to bully others. I wish my parents could do the same for me.

Advanced classes

Sometimes the basic classes use skills we do not have. For example, a dyslexic person can learn to speedread much better than normal reading. A smart child with ADHD, like my middle boy, will hate the slow pace of the science class with a teacher that is certifiably dumb. It is generally a good practice to build a strong fundament, and build new levels of skill above it. However, some cases are simply different. We might need to skip the basics and go to the intermediate materials, hoping that the deficiencies will be compensated by the new skills. The advanced extracurricular classes offer various ways to bypass the bad teachers and learning situations and learn out of curiosity instead of learning for an exam.

Parental help

The parents can often be good mentors, but rarely good coaches. It is best not to spend the time with your own child one on one, but to find someone who can do this. However, in some cases, the deficiencies are so simple and clear that they can be eliminated in one or two conversations or learning sessions. Sometimes a simple feedback will make the process painfully clear and will solve an issue that could build up into a phobia.

Specific tools

Certain therapeutic tools like guided visualization or writing a diary can be very effective for certain school phobias. They can also be very disorienting. There are many tools for different issues, and fitting the right tool for the right child is very complex. Since both my wife Anna and myself have some relevant experience, we were successful using these tools with our children. My school was not successful in handling my anxieties, even though I spent many hours with the school counselor. A bad counselor can be very discouraging, as instead of help the child gets confused. As parents, it is best to find alternative approaches. For example, horse riding activity can treat many leadership issues and self-defeating patterns.

First signs of learning phobia

With so many remedies available, it is a miracle that most students have some form of phobia. The reason is very simple: nobody sees the issue until it is too late, and then the system offers drastic solutions. The learning phobia changes the brain chemistry. The hormones of fear reduce the learning abilities and it becomes difficult to concentrate. The child may have difficulty to sit, may experience physical weakness or may try to fake a medical emergency. My first-born child used to generate medical examination every time his excited classmates used to shout. I gave him earplugs, so he would feel that he has a choice, and there were no more medical situations.

Confusing symptoms

Now, suppose a certain child fails to concentrate and says that the subject is boring, what can we do? How do we separate a bad teacher from a boring subject from a tired child and eventually from learning difficulties? The parents are often irrational, either ignoring the problems entirely or vigorously looking for problems when everything is OK. The school does not have enough resources to address adequately each and every student. The parents may be alerted about the discipline issues before there are other indications. The discipline issues rarely are symptoms of pure rebellion. Much more often they are some early indicators of inner unrest, and often specific learning difficulties. They present layers of issues, and often each layer needs to be treated separately with a different approach or a different specialist.

Avoid drastic solutions

The schools tend to avoid student problems until it is too late. Then the student is marked as problematic. If the school marks the student as problematic, it can often hint that psychological evaluation or certain drugs will be helpful. Should we send every child to psycho-didactic evaluation, and what should we do with the result? Again, rich parents often provide their children with documents that allow certain waivers, like extra 15 minutes to write the task or an oral exam. Regarding the drugs like Adderall, parents often experiment to see if they help or have bad side effects. Quite often parents feel paralyzed between doing nothing and turning their children into zombies. It is probably best to avoid drastic solutions, and prefer extracurricular activity over drugs. Quite often, sports, music or a different diet are sufficiently effective to change the child’s behavior.

Limit screen time

Many learning issues rise from too much screen time. Video games, especially strategy games, can be good for the brain. However, too many games interfere with dopamine cycle and the learning becomes less interesting and less rewarding. Social media generates various issues with confidence and anxiety. Children who spend too much time online, often find it hard to select the right words when facing real people. It is best to limit the child’s screen exposure to a certain safe amount, which is determined by the child’s age and personality. The children should be bored from time to time. This gives them the chance to be creative.

Discuss alternatives

A child has much less experience than a grown-up and may see no good alternatives. The grown-ups may be locked in the same vicious cycle as their children and may require professional counseling. Most children should enjoy balanced activities. Getting too many activities, or too few excitations may result in reduced productivity and learning abilities. In any school situation, there are many alternatives. The child does not have to avoid, cheat or fail. There are other better strategies, which can be determined with the right grown-ups. Comparing with other children and trying to copy their approach may result in jealousy and resentment, so it should be treated with care. If the child does not find the right word, it is totally OK to use synonyms, but it is not OK to avoid the classes.


If we happened to lose all our fights as parents, we still get a second chance. Everybody can learn new skills at any age. Clearly, the adults learn differently from children, and quite often have enough experience to be resilient in front of their school phobias. It is never too late to learn certain sports. History gets much more interesting as we get older. Even mathematical issues are avoided when we help our own children with their homework. Relearning is not the best or most effective solution, but it is always a viable option.

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