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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When things feel hard or the world feels big, children will be looking to their important adults for signs of safety. They will be asking, ‘Do you think I'm safe?' 'Do you think I can do this?' With everything in us, we have to send the message, ‘Yes! Yes love, this is hard and you are safe. You can do hard things.'

Even if we believe they are up to the challenge, it can be difficult to communicate this with absolute confidence. We love them, and when they're distressed, we're going to feel it. Inadvertently, we can align with their fear and send signals of danger, especially through nonverbals. 

What they need is for us to align with their 'brave' - that part of them that wants to do hard things and has the courage to do them. It might be small but it will be there. Like a muscle, courage strengthens with use - little by little, but the potential is always there.

First, let them feel you inside their world, not outside of it. This lets their anxious brain know that support is here - that you see what they see and you get it. This happens through validation. It doesn't mean you agree. It means that you see what they see, and feel what they feel. Meet the intensity of their emotion, so they can feel you with them. It can come off as insincere if your nonverbals are overly calm in the face of their distress. (Think a zen-like low, monotone voice and neutral face - both can be read as threat by an anxious brain). Try:

'This is big for you isn't it!' 
'It's awful having to do things you haven't done before. What you are feeling makes so much sense. I'd feel the same!

Once they really feel you there with them, then they can trust what comes next, which is your felt belief that they will be safe, and that they can do hard things. 

Even if things don't go to plan, you know they will cope. This can be hard, especially because it is so easy to 'catch' their anxiety. When it feels like anxiety is drawing you both in, take a moment, breathe, and ask, 'Do I believe in them, or their anxiety?' Let your answer guide you, because you know your young one was built for big, beautiful things. It's in them. Anxiety is part of their move towards brave, not the end of it.
Sometimes we all just need space to talk to someone who will listen without giving advice, or problem solving, or lecturing. Someone who will let us talk, and who can handle our experiences and words and feelings without having to smooth out the wrinkles or tidy the frayed edges. 

Our kids need this too, but as their important adults, it can be hard to hush without needing to fix things, or gather up their experience and bundle it into a learning that will grow them. We do this because we love them, but it can also mean that they choose not to let us in for the wrong reasons. 

We can’t help them if we don’t know what’s happening in their world, and entry will be on their terms - even more as they get older. As they grow, they won’t trust us with the big things if we don’t give them the opportunity to learn that we can handle the little things (which might feel seismic to them). They won’t let us in to their world unless we make it safe for them to.

When my own kids were small, we had a rule that when I picked them up from school they could tell me anything, and when we drove into the driveway, the conversation would be finished if they wanted it to be. They only put this rule into play a few times, but it was enough for them to learn that it was safe to talk about anything, and for me to hear what was happening in that part of their world that happened without me. My gosh though, there were times that the end of the conversation would be jarring and breathtaking and so unfinished for me, but every time they would come back when they were ready and we would finish the chat. As it turned out, I had to trust them as much as I wanted them to trust me. But that’s how parenting is really isn’t it.

Of course there will always be lessons in their experiences we will want to hear straight up, but we also need them to learn that we are safe to come to.  We need them to know that there isn’t anything about them or their life we can’t handle, and when the world feels hard or uncertain, it’s safe here. By building safety, we build our connection and influence. It’s just how it seems to work.♥️
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#parenting #parenthood #mindfulparenting
Words can be hard sometimes. The right words can be orbital and unconquerable and hard to grab hold of. Feelings though - they’ll always make themselves known, with or without the ‘why’. 

Kids and teens are no different to the rest of us. Their feelings can feel bigger than words - unfathomable and messy and too much to be lassoed into language. If we tap into our own experience, we can sometimes (not all the time) get an idea of what they might need. 

It’s completely understandable that new things or hard things (such as going back to school) might drive thoughts of falls and fails and missteps. When this happens, it’s not so much the hard thing or the new thing that drives avoidance, but thoughts of failing or not being good enough. The more meaningful the ‘thing’ is, the more this is likely to happen. If you can look behind the words, and through to the intention - to avoid failure more than the new or difficult experience, it can be easier to give them what they need. 

Often, ‘I can’t’ means, ‘What if I can’t?’ or, ‘Do you think I can?’, or, ‘Will you still think I’m brave, strong, and capable of I fail?’ They need to know that the outcome won’t make any difference at all to how much you adore them, and how capable and exceptional you think they are. By focusing on process, (the courage to give it a go), we clear the runway so they can feel safer to crawl, then walk, then run, then fly. 

It takes time to reach full flight in anything, but in the meantime the stumbling can make even the strongest of hearts feel vulnerable. The more we focus on process over outcome (their courage to try over the result), and who they are over what they do (their courage, tenacity, curiosity over the outcome), the safer they will feel to try new things or hard things. We know they can do hard things, and the beauty and expansion comes first in the willingness to try. 
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#parenting #mindfulparenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparent
Never in the history of forever has there been such a  lavish opportunity for a year to be better than the last. Not to be grabby, but you know what I’d love this year? Less opportunities that come in the name of ‘resilience’. I’m ready for joy, or adventure, or connection, or gratitude, or courage - anything else but resilience really. Opportunities for resilience have a place, but 2020 has been relentless with its servings, and it’s time for an out breath. Here’s hoping 2021 will be a year that wraps its loving arms around us. I’m ready for that. x
The holidays are a wonderland of everything that can lead to hyped up, exhausted, cranky, excited, happy kids (and adults). Sometimes they’ll cycle through all of these within ten minutes. Sugar will constantly pry their little mouths wide open and jump inside, routines will laugh at you from a distance, there will be gatherings and parties, and everything will feel a little bit different to usual. And a bit like magic. 

Know that whatever happens, it’s all part of what the holidays are meant to look like. They aren’t meant to be pristine and orderly and exactly as planned. They were never meant to be that. Christmas is about people, your favourite ones, not tasks. If focusing on the people means some of the tasks fall down, let that be okay, because that’s what Christmas is. It’s about you and your people. It’s not about proving your parenting stamina, or that you’ve raised perfectly well-behaved humans, or that your family can polish up like the catalog ones any day of the week, or that you can create restaurant quality meals and decorate the table like you were born doing it. Christmas is messy and ridiculous and exhausting and there will be plenty of frayed edges. And plenty of magic. The magic will happen the way it always happens. Not with the decorations or the trimmings or the food or the polish, but by being with the ones you love, and the ones who love you right back.

When it all starts to feel too important, too necessary and too ‘un-let-go-able’, be guided by the bigger truth, which is that more than anything, you will all remember how you all felt – as in how happy they felt, how loved they felt were, how noticed they felt. They won’t care about the instagram-worthy meals on the table, the cleanliness of the floors, how many relatives they visited, or how impressed other grown-ups were with their clean faces and darling smiles. It’s easy to forget sometimes, that what matters most at Christmas isn’t the tasks, but the people – the ones who would give up pretty much anything just to have the day with you.

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