Periodically a debate emerges in social media about whether young people should be forced to present in front of the class.
The Atlantic reported one such debate in September 2018. The story was about a tweet posted by a 15-year old high-school student:
“Stop forcing students to present in front of the class and give them a choice not too.”
This tweet had gone viral, as had a similar tweet posted earlier that year.
Some students were concerned that forcing them to present in front of their peers, could fuel their anxiety and have long-term harmful effects. Some of the tweets suggested it was a mental health issue, and that people suffering from anxiety should be given alternatives.
The tweets garnered support from some teachers saying that they need to show compassion towards students and acknowledge students’ feelings.
But many people defended the need for students to give presentations. Some have gone as far as saying that students should "toughen up" and suggested that giving students a choice to give presentations is like giving them a choice to eat vegetables!
Arguments put forward in favour of presenting included:
These are valid points, especially the argument that employers expect people to have good oral communication skills. (I have previously blogged on the importance of oral communication skills in the workplace. )
I have a 24-year-old daughter who works as a designer and regularly has to "pitch" her ideas to more senior people. I also have a 21-year-old son who has just landed a graduate position in an IT company. The recruitment process was demanding and required him to present on camera and in person.
But there are a couple of things that concern me.
Firstly, I know that bad experiences of public speaking at school can be damaging for students.
I send a pre-course questionnaire to my clients, and many of them can trace a fear of public speaking back to a traumatic experience at high-school or university. Here is one example.
“Throughout junior school and high school, any time I had to do an oral presentation, I would have a mini panic attack due to my shyness — I was a social outcast throughout my early school years and any situation presenting to my peers ended in public humiliation.
It got slightly better in the final years of high school, after moving schools and becoming socially accepted, but I’ve never fully gotten over the public humiliation and social rejection I experienced as a child. Whenever I need to put myself in a situation where people will judge me, I panic and lose all confidence.”
Secondly, the focus of the debates is always about whether students should be forced to present – rather than about how they can be taught an important life skill in a way that doesn’t fuel their anxiety. This is a much more important question.
I have some ideas about how we can help improve their experience. The long-term solution has to be how we teach public speaking in schools. But as a parent, there are things you can do to help.
We need a greater emphasis on public speaking in schools
I have coached public speaking in schools in New Zealand. I am not an expert on the curriculum here or in other countries, but I believe that there are plenty of performance and public speaking opportunities for those who choose to take them.
Debating, drama, student councils, youth politics and other leadership programmes provide excellent opportunities for students who are that way inclined. Social media can even be a positive influence. Many young people aspire to be like their favourite YouTube celebrities and vloggers.
I recently helped deliver some public speaking training for student leaders at a local high school, and they were already accomplished public speakers — much better than many of the adults I come across.
High-profile examples like Greta Thunberg demonstrate that some young people are capable of delivering their messages on the world stage.
But I also know that it is quite possible to leave school with good grades and poor oral communication skills.
The problem is that less confident students can get away with doing “the minimum”. For some students, the dreaded annual speech contest is their primary exposure. I know that many teachers ensure that their students do much more, but this is not universal.
If students presented their ideas verbally every day, it would feel much less pressured. Imagine if schools placed the same emphasis on oral communication skills as they do on reading and writing! We need to normalise public speaking by fully integrating oral communication skills into the curriculum.
Parents can play an important role
You can’t fix the education system, but there are some things that you can do to support your kids to acquire good presentation skills — especially if they are anxious or reluctant. If you do these things, it is more likely that they will take up opportunities at school.
Get the family involved
Start by encouraging them to read out loud to you and other family members. Get them to stand and ask them to imagine a large audience.
Try fun impromptu speaking sessions after dinner once a week. Get the kids to answer straightforward questions like, “Where should we go on our next holiday?” “What animal would you be if you could be any animal, and why?”They should stand when they answer. Let them ask you questions too. Keep it light-hearted.
Have a debate or a family discussion on a topic you would all like to know more about. Suggest an issue a few days beforehand and get everyone to do some research. You could tie this in with something they are studying at school.
It is best to avoid critiquing their efforts too much. The aim is for them to develop confidence through frequent practice, and you will find they improve as they grow more confident.
If you would like to offer a little feedback, tell them what you liked first and finish on a positive note. Try something like:
“I loved your enthusiasm, and you came up with some great ideas about why it would be fun to be a rabbit. Don’t be scared to take a few moments to think before you start talking so that you can organise your ideas a bit more powerfully. But your voice was clear, and I like the way you looked directly at us as you spoke”.
Enrol them in speech or drama classes
If you can find a public speaking course for kids, this could be a great option. But speech or drama classes can work just as well. They will get experience performing in front of others. And a good teacher will ensure they can have fun in a supportive environment.
Start young if possible. Younger children tend to be much less self-conscious, and drama classes can set them up nicely.
Talk to them about their fears
If you have a child who finds public speaking distressing, explain that being nervous is normal and natural. Share your own experiences where relevant.
Reassure them that most people look less nervous than they feel! No one can see their heart pounding or the butterflies in their stomach. And that even if their audience notices a little nervousness no one will remember the next day.
Encourage them to have a growth mindset about public speaking. It involves a set of skills that they can learn — just like reading and writing. You could explain that many schools don’t do a great job of teaching these skills, but there are other ways they can learn.
And explain that the more they practice, the better they will get. Even great public speakers have “not so great” experiences sometimes. But they do it often enough that the good experiences outweigh the bad.
As parents, we have an overwhelming desire to protect our kids and keep them safe from humiliation. But we won’t do them any favours long-term by helping them to avoid public speaking.
Use the home environment as a safe place to develop valuable verbal communication and presentation skills. Back this up with specialised classes if possible. And acknowledge their bravery in moving outside their comfort zone!
Article written by Catherine Syme
First published in Sepetember 2018, updated October 2020
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