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Schwellenangst - or when IAG goes wrong

A DfE Community Learning | Mental Health Research site

I love the German language.  Although I only scraped a CSE in the subject many years ago (showing my age here) I have since become aware of a range of magnificent words German has to describe a range of existential states (but that's another post). 

'Schwellenangst' is your word of the day; it's defined in yourdictionary.com as:

"A fear of, or aversion to, crossing a threshold or entering a place, especially in a potential customer.

Origin From German Schwellenangst, from Schwelle (“threshold”) + Angst(“anxiety”)." 
Some definitions extend it to 'the fear of starting something new.'  Combined, that's a double anxiety whammy.

'Schwellenangst', is why shops and restaurants are designed with floor to ceiling glass frontage - a potential customer that can see into the shop or eating place is more likely to venture in.  Think of a time when you were hesitating outside a bar or restaurant.  Are you more or less likely to go in if you can't see inside? Less likely all the way for me.

How many of our learning venues are designed with this existential state in mind? Not many of the ones that I know of certainly, although the City Lit, which I visited last week for the excellent Festival of Identities does. (The City Lit has changed a lot since the days Dirk Bogarde taught me creative writing in one of their classroom eyries behind a red brick pre-millennium  building!  Ok, it wasn't Dirk Bogarde but it was a fiction writing class.)  The point I am trying to make is that in older community buildings a lot of our learning goes on behind high windows and closed doors - it's not visible to those passing by. 

For our CLMH learners who plucked up the courage to come to see us in buildings that haven't been designed to reduce schwellenangst, the good news is that we can still do plenty to reduce their feelings of anxiety.  A friendly first contact helps, whether it's over the phone on on email.  Helping people plan their travel also helps.  Do they know where the building is located? What's the nearest train station or stop on the bus route called?  Maybe offering some tips on where to park a car easily can help people feel that they can cope with the journey.

We tell people we will meet them in reception and, wherever possible, the name of the IAG adviser they will be seeing.  (We call them Wellbeing Coaches on the research project.)  When we set up the first appointment we ask people how it's  best for them to communicate with us and we make sure that they have our phone contacts, or email, or work mobile depending on what they prefer. 

The aim is, if 'schwellenangst' strikes, and we know that for some people it does, they will be able to let us know and we can continue the conversation with them when they are ready.  A minority of people have had 3 appointments with us or more before they actually make it through the door.  The key to not losing them is to keep communicating.  Interestingly, although we offer outreach appointments, to date people really seem to want to come in to the college for their initial appointment.

We know there's still more we can do though to ease people's anxieties.  We are working towards having photos of all of us, and tutors working on the provision available to potential learners; ensuring all the directions to our venues are clear and that learners have them in a timely fashion.  We know our pre-course information needs to get the balance right- enough information for people to feel secure - not so much it feels overwhelming.  We are working on getting that right this summer.  Vital to this is feedback from learners. Ideally those who didn't come in and learn with us yet as well as those who did.

When things go awry 

Sometimes things go wrong. I'll use an example from our CLMHR project to illustrate the point.  After Easter this year, our new courses were starting and somehow or other without our knowledge, the local paper decided to print a small column filler about our new Mindfulness evening course.  This wasn't a bad thing in itself, but there were a few aspects that were likely to raise people's anxiety. 

Firstly, the paper ran the article on the day the course started which meant people were calling to attend a course that started the same evening.  We simply couldn't see everybody in advance.  Secondly,I felt the  the language the paper used for the piece was not ideal and certainly not that which we would use, referring to 'helping those suffering from depression and anxiety.'  Referring to 'helping' and 'suffering' makes people potentially passive victims of their mental health and that is the complete opposite of the values of the Ways to Wellbeing programme.

We didn't want to turn people away (our dedicated and empathetic admininstrative staff team of two did great telephone work that day) so we asked people to come in earlier before the course started and I went in to explain the overall programme and the IAG offer. 

This worked well for most, but there was one potential learner who I will never forget.

They came in with a supporter because their fear of coming into a new place was so great.  They had done brilliantly, navigating their way into a strange building, into the hall where the tutor and I waited to greet people.  I quickly sensed all was not OK, so I asked the question, 'Are you OK?'

The answer was emphatically, 'No'.  Basically this potential learner had got so worked up that they took one look at the empty chairs set out for the session and burst into tears.  I took them to a small meeting room and we had a chat.  It was clear this person was so overwhelmed they wanted to leave straight away.  We arranged to meet later in the week and look at other learning available.  Not surprisingly I received a polite message from the person a few days later cancelling our appointment, the unchecked and unmanaged 'schwellenangst'of the first occasion had become a trigger point for any future visits to the college.

A lesson learned 

Whilst I am proud of everything we have achieved on the programme, I will never forget that lost potential learner.  If the IAG had been delivered in line with our usual model I truly believe that learner would have progressed onto learning with us and all the benefits that offers. Now we'll never know. 

So IAG, IAG, IAG is not just nice to do - it's essential.  Yes, there may occasionally be potential learners that slip through the gaps, but as project lead my role is to close those gaps and learn from the mistakes. 

I'll also be asking the local and well-meaning paper not to publicise anything on the day again.

Further reading

For further reading about the importance of IAG please do check out Kathryn James' publication that has been highlighted before by Catina titled 'Getting to Level 2' and I'd also recommend  '9000 Voices: student persistence and drop out in FE' by Paul Martinez and Felicity Munday. 

Both links take you to free downloads and are definitely worth a read.  9000 Voices is a much longer document, but the takeaway points are easily located if you are pressed for time.


sallybetts's picture

Hi Jessica

You illustrate perfectly, with a great word too, how easy it is for things to not go to plan. I truely wish that potential learner could read your post, they'd see the sincerity, understanding and caring you convey and they'd come back - perhaps you should write a piece for publication in the same paper.

It has always stayed in my mind the student who told me that he would not have any qualifications (he left school with none), gone to university and got into full time employment if it wasn't for the person who did his initial IAG meeting. I asked him why it had such an impact on him. He said he felt completely ashamed and stupid for the situation he was in and the need to come into a college to get help - his business had failed, his marriage had failed (losing the person who read letters and sorted bills) and he couldn't barely read and write. But he was met with a smile, a person who was non judgemental, encouraged him to talk about what he'd like to do in employment not trying again at his previous type of work, explained the next steps, introduced him to his teacher, met him after his first class to see how he'd found it, followed his progress and suggested additional classes at various intervals. He said, "she never made me feel that I was stopping her do something else or that she was busy."

Calmness in the surroundings and approach are so important. It's such a shame that the paper didn't check the piece so that you could include additional information to support your normal IAG route. I will keep hoping they try again.

Jessica Russell's picture

Hi Sally

Thank you for sharing that story - it's amazing what staying out of judgement can achieve!  

I really like Brene Brown's work on wholeheartedness - your case study is  a great example of how wonderful wholeheartedness in IAG can be.

I love this video short voiced by her - actually it's taken from one of her talks.  

Best, J