Managing In-Car Student Anxiety

Driver Education Program instructors are routinely faced with students who are appreciably on-edge as they begin their driving lives. Intellectually, students likely recognize it’s normal to be nervous. Emotionally, however, the mere thought of driving a car can cause some youth to become anxious to the extent it is difficult for them to function. Some learners suffer with anxiety to a degree they may become temporarily incapacitated. Recognizing at least some students are extra nervous about their behind-the-wheel instruction is one thing; being equipped to assist our students is quite another. The purpose of this article is to explore strategies and techniques for coping with – and managing – our in-car students’ anxiety.

It might be helpful to explore several reasons students may be reluctant to move toward provisional driver licensure:

  • Fear of the unknown – the training vehicle(s) they’ll be driving and/or the instructor(s) with who they’ll work

  • Concern with harming others/damaging the car/appearing “foolish”

  • Scared of being struck, injured, or killed by other road users

  • Fear of failing – often the result of performance expectations ineffectively communicated (or not communicated at all)

  • Fear of succeeding

As to fear of the unknown, we instructors provide our students and – at the same time, ourselves – a significant service when we “set the stage” at the onset of any in-car instructional session. We may know what a session holds in store, but our learners do not. Previewing the objectives and planned activities of any behind-the-wheel session as it begins goes a long way toward reducing student nervousness. Students are in a much better position to see their way clear to succeeding when we clearly communicate performance expectations.

Consider using a 0 to 10 scale to discuss with students their anxiety at the start of an in-car session. Toward the end of the session, ask students to report their anxiety level. The goal, of course, is to reduce the number. Even if the number remains the same (or even if it happens to increase), students are actively involved in their own emotional statuses. Moreover, this method allows instructors to gauge students’ outlooks as they learn to drive.

When using this technique, it is important to establish with students the meaning of the rating scale. For example, you might say, “On a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 meaning ‘none’ and 10 meaning ‘awful’, where is your anxiety right now?” Often times, students respond in a non-numeric, non-committal way, such as, “Meh”, “Not bad”, “I’m fine”, or by shrugging their shoulders. Be kind in meeting these types of responses, but be gently firm in insisting upon a number. Once a scale number is provided, assure the student an important session goal is for that number to go down. Not surprisingly, most typically, end-of-sessions student-reported numbers are, in fact, lower.

Whether or not instructors use the above technique, it is vital to establish and maintain a cool, calm instructional style when working in-car with students. Use positive reinforcement appropriately. Identify and communicate clear paths to performance improvement as indicated. Rather than speaking and training in terms of what students are “comfortable” doing, focus instruction on competence-based confidence.

For example, many students are terrified at the mere prospect of negotiating freeway environments. Consider the differences between the following instructor-to-student session preview approaches:

  • Today, we’re expressway driving. Are you comfortable with that?

  • Today, we’re driving on a freeway or two. You might be a little apprehensive about that, and that’s OK. But if I didn’t think you were up to it, we wouldn’t be doing it. You’ve got this!

A successful in-car session is a period of time during which no one has been killed or injured, nothing has been broken, and learning has occurred. That’s worthy of feeling relieved and accomplished … by students and instructors. Relatively little for students learning to drive is “comfortable”, per se, although righteous confidence blossoms and grows as demonstrated student competence improves. Anything instructors can reasonably do to ease in-car anxiety serves our students – and us – well.