The Simple Way to Ease Test Anxiety and Lift Performance

The Proven Way to Ease Test Anxiety and Lift Performance

Anxiety has a way of showing up at the worst times. When it’s brought to life by a test or an exam, it can get in the way of performance regardless of how well the test material is understood.  Maths tests in particular can spark enormous anxiety, but a new study has found a way settle it down, improve performance and create lasting change by altering the brain’s fear circuits.

What are the symptoms of test anxiety?

If you’ve struggled with any sort of anxiety, you’ll be familiar with the signs. The symptoms can be physical (nausea, clamminess, short shallow breathing, racy heart) or psychological (memory loss, freezing, decreased confidence, avoidance, feeling isolated – like you’re the only one who feels this way).

How does anxiety interfere with performance?

Research has found that anxiety interferes with working memory, particularly when the task involves some sort of computation, such as maths. Reduced working memory means that there is less capacity to access existing knowledge and apply it to the problem at hand. This leads to longer reaction times and more errors, all of which compromise performance. 

And this is how to beat it …

It’s long been accepted that phobias and fears can be eased with safe exposure to whatever it is that’s causing the fear. Drawing on this, researchers explored whether exposure to maths would ease maths anxiety and improve test performance.

The study, published in the The Journal of Neuroscience, was conducted on 46 third grade children. At the beginning of the study, the children were assessed on their levels of anxiety and placed into either a high anxiety group or a low anxiety, depending on their scores.

Brain imaging showed that when children in the high anxiety group performed simple addition problems, the fear circuits in the brain and the amygdala (the part of the brain responsible that triggers an anxiety response) lit up.

Each child’s then participated in an 8 week one-to-one tutoring program,  consisting of 22 lessons of addition and subtraction. 

Following their 8 weeks of individual tutoring, all children performed better on the maths problems. By exposing children to more maths problems, their anxiety was reduced and their performance improved.

Those who started out the study with high anxiety showed a significant reduction in anxiety. Brain imaging showed that the activity in the fear circuits and amygdala were significantly reduced in those children. Those in the low anxiety group showed no change, which is not surprising given that they were already low on anxiety scores. 

Why is these findings so exciting?

The promise of this study is that tutoring can work on a physiological level to actually relieve anxiety long term. Teaching children the skills to manage anxiety is important, but if anxiety can be turned around on a physiological level, the way forward is easier and the effects will be more long lasting. 

Other ways to help alleviate maths anxiety:
  1. ‘Brains can grow stronger.’ Let that be the mantra. People who are good at maths aren’t generally born that way. They make their brain stronger and better at maths through hard work, effort and practice. Children and teens who believe brains can grow will likely work harder to reach their goals and will openly and willingly approach challenge. Children who don’t believe brains can change are less likely to persevere in the face of challenge or ask for support when it’s needed. Learning maths is like learning another language – with the right amount of time and effort, anyone can do it.
  2. Read through the test first before answering anything. This seems to have an effect on test anxiety, as the unpredictability of what’s to come is taken away. Precious mental resources can then applied to the task at hand, rather than consumed by worrying about what lies ahead.

Anxiety can be intrusive and persistent, and when it comes to maths it can be enduring, discouraging children who can be good at maths from pursuing careers that draw on it heavily. The good news is that anxiety can be dealt with – science is telling us that – and the wisdom and creativity that would otherwise be smothered by anxiety, can flourish.

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I’m so excited for this! I’m coming back to Perth in February for another parent talk on 'Strengthening Children and Teens Against Anxiety'. Here’s the when and the where:

⏰ 6:30-8:30pm | 📆 Wed 22 Feb 2023
📍 Peter Moyes Anglican Community School, #mindarie

For tickets or more info google:

Parenting Connection WA Karen Young anxiety Mindarie Perth

💜 Thanks to @ngalaraisinghappiness for hosting this event.

#supportingwaparents #parentingwa
Let them know …

Anxiety shows up to check that you’re okay, not to tell you that you’re not. It’s your brain’s way of saying, ‘Not sure - there might be some trouble here, but there might not be, but just in case you should be ready for it if it comes, which it might not – but just in case you’d better be ready to run or fight – but it might be totally fine.’ Brains can be so confusing sometimes! 

You have a brain that is strong, healthy and hardworking. It’s magnificent and it’s doing a brilliant job of doing exactly what brains are meant to do – keep you alive. 

Your brain is fabulous, but it needs you to be the boss. Here’s how. When you feel anxious, ask yourself two questions:

- ‘Do I feel like this because I’m in danger or because there’s something brave or important I need to do?’

- Then, ‘Is this a time for me to be safe (sometimes it might be) or is this a time for me to be brave?

And remember, you will always have ‘brave’ in you, and anxiety doesn’t change that a bit.♥️

#positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #parenting #childanxiety #heywarrior #heywarriorbook
The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️

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