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Anxiety – A Major Factor in Classroom Performance

Anxiety, in general, is something that everyone faces sometime in their lives. However, the anxiety can be overwhelming and significantly interfering with the person's quality of life.  In this day and age, children and adolescents are faced with testing from a very young age. These days, more and more children have difficulty is school because of their high levels of anxiety. In adolescents, it is strongly believed that anxiety is a major factor that influences learning and performance (CMHO, 2007).  Anxiety often affects adolescents' school performance poorly, such as their ability to do well in school, their homework completion, their concentration in class, their interaction with peers, and their attendance (Humenskey, 2010). Is there a correlation between anxiety and school performance? First, this paper will examine the definition of 'Anxiety Disorder', its commonality, its causes, and the types of anxiety amongst adolescents. Furthermore, this paper will consult different studies in order to assess anxiety's correlation with school performance, its consequences, its impact on learning, and its potential treatments.  

Anxiety is defined as a feeling of unease or worry.  Anxiety becomes a disorder when the symptoms become chronic and interfere with a person's daily life and their ability to function (CMHO, 2007).  Several anxiety disorders can affect children and adolescents. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) is the handbook used by health care professionals in the United States and much of the world as the authoritative guide to the diagnosis of mental disorders. DSM contains descriptions, symptoms, and other criteria for diagnosing mental disorders (APA, 2014).  DSM-5 released in May 2013 incorporates significant scientific advances in more precisely identifying and diagnosing mental disorders. DSM-5 refined the criteria and symptoms in the areas of anxiety and depression across the lifespan (ADAA, n.d.).  This refinement is quite significant because it amplifies the importance of research in anxiety amongst children and adolescents. And considering that younger people spend most their adolescent years in school, it is important to conduct research on anxiety's affects on their school performance. According to Turgeon, Kirouac, & Denis (2005), General anxiety disorder (GAD), separation anxiety disorder and specific phobia are the most common.  GAD is a condition in which children or adolescents have many worries about their performance in school and in sports, and their health. Often, GAD is accompanied by physical symptoms such as tense muscles, a restless feeling, becoming tired easily, having problems concentrating and trouble sleeping (CMHO, 2007). Separation anxiety disorder is when children and adolescents become frightened of leaving their parents. Specific phobia is the intense fear of an object or a situation such as fear of dogs, flying, etc.  

Anxiety disorders are among the most common mental health problems in children and adolescents. Studies show that between 10% and 20% of young people experience moderate to severe anxiety symptoms. A vast majority (up to 70%) of those who suffer from an anxiety disorder will also experience depression problems (Turgeon et al., 2005).  Anxiety often interferes with the young person's academic performance, social and family level (Turgeon et al., 2005).  Children and adolescents with anxiety disorder worry more, have more complaints about their physical health and need constant reassurance from their teachers or parents to do their work. These children and adolescents are often portrayed as sad, tired, and preoccupied (Turgeon et al., 2005).  Because students with anxiety disorders are easily frustrated, they may have difficulty completing their work. They may worry so much about getting everything right that they take much longer to finish than other students. Or they may simply refuse to begin out of fear that they won’t be able to do anything properly. Their fears of being embarrassed, humiliated, or failing may result in school avoidance. Getting behind in their work due to numerous absences often creates a cycle of fear of failure, increased anxiety, and avoidance, which leads to more absences. (Collins, 2000)

Previous research based on the relationship between anxiety and school performance has had many mixed findings. Jennifer Humensky, Sachiko A. Kuwabara, Joshua Fogel, Corrie Wells, Brady Goodwin, and Benjamin W. Van Voorhees (2010) conducted a research based on 83 adolescents at risk of major depression. Humensky et al. (2010) reported that negative mood interfered with subjective measures of school performance, including ability to do well in school, homework completion, concentrate in class, interact with peers, and going to class. In their qualitative interviews, "adolescents reported that negative thinking led to procrastination, which led to poor school performance, which led to more negative thinking" (p. 377). Humensky et al. (2010) reported in their analysis that there are 3 major themes that emerged from the exploratory analysis of interview transcriptions: difficulty completing assignments, concentrating in class, and cyclical patterns (negative thinking that leads to procrastination and poor outcomes, which in turn leads to greater procrastination and negative thinking).

Excerpts from interviews reflecting each theme are listed below.

Completing Assignments

Just about every time I’ve ever had a paper assignment I’ve gotten myself cranked up and anxious as soon as I got the assignment, and then not started on it until the night it was due because I didn’t want to have to think about it.

I often get depressed and put off my work and it doesn’t get done and I feel unmotivated to do work. (p. 386)

Concentrating in Class

I did awful on a history quiz and had bad thoughts about myself. Now every time I’m in history class I keep thinking of that quiz.

Not being able to pay attention in class is causing me to not perform in tests which will make my applications look bad and not get a job offer. I really want [to] do well in school, but sometimes I freeze up before the tests. I can’t concentrate, no matter how long I’ve studied. This obviously puts my goal of doing well in school on hold.

School Affected by Depressive Symptoms

Getting down on myself by thinking I didn’t have the brains for my Math class only made it harder and took away the motivation to study.

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