October 11, 2016
LC: Hello Dr. Jacobson, I asked you to speak with me about anxiety and learning. Since the focus of our blog is to provide research-based information to teachers, let’s concentrate on the ways anxiety impacts student performance. What is the link between anxiety and cognition?
LJ: It’s important to consider that the parts of the brain responsible for regulating your emotional responses, like anxiety responses or a fight-or-flight kind of response, are the same parts of your brain responsible for regulating your cognitive control. Children who have difficulty with anxiety are very likely to struggle with cognitive control. That link has a brain basis, because the same regions are important for both types of skills.
LC: What are those brain regions?
LJ: We think primarily about the amygdala, which is associated with affective or emotional responses. The limbic system, which includes multiple midbrain structures and their connections, is primarily involved in the regulation or management of that emotional response, but it’s also really important to consider the basal ganglia. When we think about the basal ganglia, we often think about movement disorders, but it’s also a brain region that is very important for regulation of mood and responsivity to events, stressors, or environmental demands.
LC: You’re saying that the limbic system is responsible for emotional regulation and responsiveness. How is the limbic system related to thinking and learning?
LJ: The basal ganglia play a very important role in the regulation of attention. Regulating attention means being able to make sure that you are attending to the right things, and that you are not distracted by the wrong or unimportant things. Attentional control also has to do with managing all of the timing of your responses. This means inhibiting responses that you shouldn’t be making, and allowing yourself to take the time to think about what response you want to produce. Some of those kinds of skills we call executive function. There is clearly a link in terms of the role that the basal ganglia play in conjunction with the cerebellum and the frontal lobes. Multiple regions of your brain play a role in thinking and learning; there is a distributed network that performs these types of cognitive skills.
LC: Let’s say a student has typical executive function, but they become anxious or have an anxiety disorder. Will their executive function skills be impacted?
LJ: Yes, anxiety will impact executive function. There are many kinds of anxiety. You can have a child who has a panic disorder, a generalized anxiety (which looks more like worries about lots of day-to-day things), you can have a social anxiety, a performance anxiety, and there is obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Each of those has a slightly different flavor - different things may trigger anxiety or the anxiety may manifest in different ways. But it’s important to note that even children without clinically significant levels of anxiety can experience anxiety that disrupts executive function. For example, if you have a child who is concerned about their performance, you can certainly make them anxious by presenting a performance task without warning.
Once you have a certain level of anxiety, it’s hard not to attend to your own worries. It’s hard to not attend to the fears that are in mind. It’s hard to retrieve information effectively in the face of being consumed with a “fight-or-flight” feeling.
Children who are more anxious are often also less flexible. They present with a certain level of rigidity, which can look like needing routines or advance warning of upcoming events or changes. We can also think about it sometimes in terms of perfectionism. In thinking about mental flexibility, it is important to consider problem-solving skills. For instance, in the classroom, a student might need to solve a math or science problem, or have to think about constructing a writing product in multiple ways. These tasks require problem solving, identifying possible options and identifying the best solution, approach, or strategy to use. Children who are anxious might have difficulty thinking about multiple approaches to a problem.
LC: Given that there is such a strong link between anxiety and the ability to perform cognitive tasks, what are ways that teachers can positively influence student anxiety levels in the classroom?
LJ: There are two components to reducing student anxiety. The first is an affective component. The second is a strategy component. In terms of the affective component, we want to focus on reducing the threats that students perceive in the classroom. That includes the tone of the classroom and how a teacher runs a classroom. I’m going to assume no one is yelling in their classrooms, but just in case, I’ll note that not yelling at students is a good first step for reducing threats. It is important to create an atmosphere in which it is OK to ask a question, it is OK to be unsure, and it is OK to not know the answer. These are attitudes that we want kids to have for life, because you’re routinely not going to know things and need to ask for help.
In terms of strategies, once you have established that not knowing is OK and part of the process of learning, you need to have ways to demonstrate and teach flexible problem solving. You might say, “OK, you don’t know how to solve this problem, or what the answer might be. How can we get that information? What are our resources?” You can have physical stations in your room to facilitate this process. Preparing students in advance for performance tasks is also helpful. Letting students know when they will be tested, what they will be tested on, what content will be tested - those things will help to reduce anxiety. Providing them with study strategies can reduce their anxiety, as they will know what they need to do in order to feel prepared.
LC: So to summarize, the first line of defense in reducing anxiety levels for students should be to create a calm and safe learning environment and teach strategies for problem solving and learning so that students feel prepared.
LJ: That’s correct. Students with anxiety disorders may need additional supports, but these are excellent starting points!