Why Anxiety is an Academic Issue

School Stress 101: What’s Going on in Your Child’s Head and How to Help

Many teens are stressed and anxious and many are stressed and anxious about school. That’s important but perhaps not breaking news. And I don’t think that in itself necessarily makes anxiety an academic issue. But anxiety’s effects on performance and achievement do. The good news is, research tells us what we can do about it.



In our first episode of this season, we are talking about why anxiety is an academic issue. 

The first thing I want to do is be very clear what I mean by anxiety, and why you might hear me use the terms anxiety and stress somewhat interchangeably when I’m talking about this issue.

People can be diagnosed with stress or anxiety disorders when their symptoms meet certain criteria but it’s really important to note that stress and anxiety are perfectly normal human reactions to threatening or worrying situations. They are part of the fight or flight fear response that keeps us safe by preparing the body to deal with danger. I want to underscore that every healthy brain experiences stress and experiences anxiety.

My favorite way to delineate between the two is that stress is the body’s reaction to a threat or concern, whereas anxiety is the body’s reaction to the stress.

That means anxiety can persist even after the threat or concern has passed. 

So, for example, a student may feel stressed when they have a math test coming up, and they can remain anxious about the test when it’s over. Or they may feel stressed trying to get their paper done before a deadline, and they may feel anxiety about writing in general, whether or not they have a writing assignment on any given day.

The reality of being a student is that there is a pretty constant stream of assignments and deadlines coming your way, so if students are experiencing stress and anxiety, they are experiencing both pretty much all the time, at least during the school year. And that’s why I feel comfortable using the two terms interchangeably when I’m talking about these emotions as they relate to school.

So now that we’re clear on that, I’m going to jump in with some statistics. Most of the available statistics about stress and anxiety in youth describe teenagers so those are the ones I’m going to talk about:

According to the Pew Research Center’s 2019 study, 70% of teens say anxiety is a major problem among people their age in the community where they live. An additional 26% say it’s a minor problem. And, unsurprisingly, available data show that COVID has only exacerbated this problem. 

More specifically to school, studies by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) show that the majority of adolescents worldwide report worry and tension in math classes and when doing math. According to the same studies, 61% of teens say they personally feel a lot of pressure to get good grades in general, and another 27% say they feel some pressure to do so.  And 41% of 2016 incoming college freshmen said they feel “overwhelmed” by all they have to do, compared with 28% in 2000 and 18% in 1985 (Eagan 2016). 

So, many teens are stressed and anxious and many are stressed and anxious about school. That’s important but perhaps not breaking news. And I don’t think that in itself necessarily makes anxiety an academic issue.

But anxiety’s effects on performance and achievement do.

A recent meta-analysis shows that math achievement is significantly and negatively correlated with math anxiety specifically (Barroso 2021). Though it has been less extensively studied, recent research also indicates a negative correlation between reading anxiety and reading achievement (Taboada 2022) and the same relationship for writing (Gibriel 2019).

We need only to look as far as the concept of stereotype threat (Steele & Aronson 1995) to understand how solving this problem is even more urgent for marginalized students. Stereotype threat is the name for the threat an individual feels when they are doing something that a negative stereotype for their group is associated with.

In other words, it’s a fear of confirming a negative stereotype about a group they identify with. An example of such a stereotype would be “Girls aren’t good at math.” And an example of stereotype threat would be a girl taking a standardized math test and feeling the additional stress of not wanting to confirm that stereotype.

You’ve probably experienced stereotype stress at some point in your life, especially if you’ve ever been the only person in an important room with your gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, age, etc.

Stereotype threat is considered by some researchers to be a contributing factor to long-standing racial and gender achievement gaps, such as underperformance of Black students relative to white ones in various academic subjects, and under-representation of women at higher echelons in the field of mathematics (APA 2006). Researchers hypothesize that relevant negative stereotypes affect performance by inducing anxiety which decreases performance by depleting working memory and other executive skills (Johns 2008).

So the research tells us that anxiety is an academic issue. The good news is, research also tells us what we can do about it.

And I’ll tell you all about that right after the break.

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Imagine your teen or tween getting a handle on their school-related anxiety (and no longer adding to yours).

We see it all the time: Procrastination, Staying up way too late doing homework last-minute, Falling grades due to missed assignments, School-related meltdowns…These behaviors are often directly related to anxiety. And I can confidently tell you that these DO NOT have to be a part of your life this school year.

The School Without Suffering Toolkit equips students with concrete strategies and exercises that they can learn step by step and then revisit whenever they need to during the school year.

With the Toolkit, your child will be able to re-evaluate stress that’s negatively affecting them, initiate and execute academic tasks with ease, foster a growth mindset, manage their time effectively and healthfully, and complete their most anxiety-inducing homework with confidence.

AND, with the option to meet with an expert, empathetic School Without Suffering academic coach when they need some extra support, students will always be able to use the tools in their toolkits how they need to, when they need to to do and feel better.

Visit schoolwithoutsuffering.com/toolkit and use discount code PODCAST at check out for 10 percent off your purchase.

That’s schoolwithoutsuffering.com/toolkit

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Alright so we just talked all about what the latest research shows about why anxiety is an academic issue in addition to an emotional one. And now I want to talk about what steps we can take to addres the issue with our kids.

Remember we talked about how stereotype threat, the fear of confirming a negative stereotype, can induce anxiety. And that anxiety decreases performance by depleting working memory and other executive functions. 

For stereotype threat specifically, empirical evidence suggests that what can mitigate the effects of that induced anxiety on performance is teaching students to do three things: re-evaluate stress, adopt an incremental theory of intelligence (better known as growth mindset), and to perform self-affirmation exercises (Aronson 2002, Johns 2008, Cohen 2006). 

And more generally, teaching students to self-regulate with specific strategies while they work has also been shown to improve academic performance. 

This matters because current mainstream interventions for math, reading, and writing do not directly address this emotional factor of anxiety that holds students back. 

So if your child has been receiving these mainstream interventions, either in school with their teachers or outside of school with private tutors, but they are not reaching their academic potential, this may be why you’re seeing that discrepancy.

And as I said earlier, most of the research I’ve been able to find has been focused on teens and older students. But, since effective interventions involve teaching students strategies, exercises, and mindset shifts, it’s not hard to imagine that if we teach our kids to start using these strategies earlier, they will be in a much better place to be able to handle their emotions and mitigate any negative effects those emotions might have by the time they are in late middle school or high school.

And so, it’s probably not surprising that that’s why School Without Suffering takes the approach to academic support that we do. 

Our mission is to help students feel and do better in school. We provide life-long tools that learners can use to control their external and internal stressors, increase their self-efficacy, and fully realize their academic potential.

Throughout the rest of this podcast season, I’m going to teach you what you can do to help support your kids in this way as well. 

Don’t miss it!