Sometimes stress can manifest itself in unexpected ways.
Have you ever had a flash of anger come over you as someone cuts you off in traffic… only to realize that you just weren’t paying attention as they changed lanes because you were busy thinking about a fire you were going to have to put out as soon as you got into work?
Or maybe you come home to find that the dog has chewed the corner of the couch, and get uncharacteristically upset… only to realize you’re actually just stressed about having the house ready for your in-laws coming into town that weekend.
Well the same thing can hold true for our kids.
They may misbehave, or procrastinate, or act withdrawn, citing boredom or disinterest, when in reality they’re actually stressed about their schoolwork under the surface.
This is the phenomenon of academic anxiety, and unfortunately it’s on the rise.
In this post we’ll cover exactly what academic anxiety is, what some of its underlying causes are, and some ways to tackle it so that your kids feel more prepared, and less stressed about the rigors of their schoolwork.
Is academic anxiety on the rise?
Yes. Anxiety among kids is significant, especially in areas where there’s a lot of pressure and competition for kids to perform well. Whether it’s preparing for college exams, book reports, or other homework, students are spending hours studying and trying to perfect their academic work.
About 8% of kids have a diagnosed anxiety disorder, but many more have the symptoms associate with anxiety like rapid heartbeat, clammy palms, upset stomach and constant worry.
Sometimes, this anxiety results in perfectionism, where kids want their school work to be perfect. So instead of writing an essay just once, if it’s not good enough, they’ll crumple their paper up and write it four more times.
Other times, anxiety will cause them to shut off: either ignoring their schoolwork entirely, or simply putting it off as long as possible through procrastination.
Either way, when kids become overly worried about school work, they don’t have time for being a kid.
The link between ADHD and anxiety
Now although, anxiety can be a problem for any student, it can especially be a problem for students who have ADHD, or who already have tendencies towards problems with focus.
For instance, in some students ADHD can trigger anxiety, and as students get older and move through school their symptoms will worsen.
This is because as they become more aware of their executive functioning struggles, they will begin to realize their work and homework takes them longer. This can then lead to missing assignments or not giving themselves time to complete projects and homework. And it’s a vicious cycle that leads to stress and anxiety from falling behind and not performing to their ability.
Some students may even avoid schoolwork all together and it is not because they are lazy or unmotivated. It may even be a subconscious decision to avoid school work or certain assignments. They may also make a decision to focus on one larger, or seemingly more important assignment and let the others fall to the wayside. This behavior, however, will just lead to increased anxiety and negative feelings about themselves.
Because there has been an increase in students with both anxiety and ADHD, if you think your child is struggling with anxiety, whether it is related to ADHD or not, it may be helpful to consult a professional and determine if you should intervene.
Some signs you should be aware of for are:
- Changes in your child’s eating or sleeping
- Constant negative statements about themselves or any self-harming behavior
- Displaying physical signs of anxiety such as headaches or stomachaches
- Withdrawal from friends or family
That being said, there are things we can do as parents, if you think anxiety may be an issue for your child.
How to approach academic anxiety as parents
I recently spoke with WTOP on this topic and laid out a few ways in which we can help our students cope with anxiety.
First, accept how your child is feeling
Accept how your child is feeling, and also know that you can’t be dismissive. What you don’t want to say is “stop worrying” or “it’s not a big deal.” Instead you want to ask questions that will help your child solve problems.
By acknowledging them first, they’ll feel more like you understand what they’re going through and be more receptive to help. It’ll also give them a chance to get their worries out and into the open without worrying about being judged.
Second, guide them towards better time management with questions
So, when you’re talking about homework, you don’t want to say “Do you have homework today?” Instead, ask:
“What are your priorities for today?” or…
“How long do you think it will take you to finish that math assignment?”
Kids that worry a lot about school sometimes have poor time management skills, and if a task should take a half hour, they may spend 90 minutes on it.
By asking “How long will this take you?”, you’re helping them to better estimate their time before they start, which will then reduce the pressure they feel to get it completed quickly, or do more than they are capable of.
Third, help them sort and prioritize their assignments to avoid overwhelm
Sometimes kids stay up late because they start their homework late, often because they’re feeling overwhelmed and under-prepared. When kids are overwhelmed, their assignment load can seem daunting.
In these cases, we encourage kids to sort their assignments into three categories: “must do”, “should do”, “could do”.
The work that absolutely has to be done first goes into the “must do” category. If it should be done, but not necessarily at that time, put it in the “should do” category, like a math assignment that’s not due for a couple of days. And then the work that isn’t required – for example, recommended reading and not required reading it goes into the “could do” category.
Having kids think about their assignments this way can help prioritize what absolutely needs to be done versus what’s simply a nice to have, and get them back into the position of feeling in control of their work, rather than overwhelmed.
Test Anxiety: It’s about more than studying
Now there’s also another variable we haven’t yet touched on, which is also tied to anxiety about school: taking tests.
Test anxiety is definitely real and very common. When students are anxious about tests, they are not using the frontal lobe of their brain as effectively. This part of the brain is responsible for focusing, reasoning, and planning. When you are worried and anxious, your frontal lobe capacity diminishes by about 30%.
For example, a University of Chicago study had students write down all their fears and worries in a journal before taking a test, and found that when kids jotted down their worries right before the test, they performed almost an entire grade point higher on average.
When kids worry, their performance suffers. So below we’ve outlined four main reasons students become anxious before exams, and some methods we can use to alleviate some of this stress.
Problem 1: They don’t know what the test is going to be like
The best way to reduce nerves about what is going to be on an exam is to use all of the real test material you can get your hands on. Whether they are provided from the teacher or through a test prep book, the more your student can familiarize himself with the wording and style of the questions the easier it will be to comprehend when test time comes.
Along with repeated and consistent practice with this material it is shown that taking 5 full length practice tests drastically reduces nerves. I know, it sounds repetitive but trust us on this one they’ll be thankful when they step into the testing room feeling confident and prepared.
Problem 2: They don’t know what will be on the test
Most students have anxiety about the material on their exams because they do not focus on their deficiencies when they’re studying, or better yet they don’t even know what those weaknesses are! When a student understands what skills he is lacking it makes it way easier to study, he’ll understand exactly what he needs to focus on. In turn, he will stop being so uncertain which will relieve this anxiety.
However, sometimes there are still holes in our learning and a student will come across a question on a test that they didn’t study and panic will set in. Sometimes this is because of time constraints in studying but a tutor can be beneficial in this situation. They will help set goals and teach test taking strategies that will help guide them when they are deciding what questions to answer and how to pace themselves if they come across and concepts they are not familiar with.
Problem 3: They don’t know what the testing experience itself will be like
Again, the best way to ease testing anxiety is practice, practice, practice. Especially when it comes to preparing for standardized testing such as the SAT or ACT being sure to take all the practice tests that are assigned under the proper time constraints is vital to a productive test prep plan.
It is the best way to ebb anxiety that is related to taking the real test. Be sure to treat practice tests as if they were the real thing, set up in a quiet area and have all of the materials that will be allowed on test day so they will know exactly what to expect.
Problem 4: They’re worried about what grade they’ll get
As your student takes practice diagnostic tests make sure to track the progress. The more they take the better idea of how they will score on the real thing. If all measures are taken to reduce anxiety on test day they should score in that ballpark. Knowing this information will help to put their mind at ease and boost confidence in their abilities as they prepare.
Next steps for tackling anxiety
The pressures put on kids to do well in school is alive and well. And this means we need to counterbalance this pressure with constructive strategies to help them cope and navigate through their learning experience positively.
So first, if you think your child may be anxious about school, sit down and talk through the situation, giving them the space to air out there concerns.
Then use some of the strategies outlined here (or others you’ve implemented on your own) to help work through the stressors they’re feeling and build a more healthy and productive relationship with school.
And then let us know in the comments:
How have you dealt with academic anxiety in your household?
Do you have any questions or feedback for us on other situations we might not have covered here?
We’d love to hear from you.