Anxiety in the Classroom (page 2)

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Sources of Anxiety

Learners sometimes develop feelings of anxiety about particular stimuli through the process of classical conditioning (see Chapter 9). They are also more likely to experience anxiety, especially debilitating anxiety, when they face a threat, a situation in which they believe they have little or no chance of succeeding. Facilitating anxiety is more common when learners face a challenge, a situation in which they believe they can probably achieve success with a significant yet reasonable amount of effort (Combs, Richards, & Richards, 1976; Csikszentmihalyi & Nakamura, 1989; Deci & Ryan, 1992).

  • Children and adolescents are apt to have some degree of anxiety—possibly facilitating, possibly debilitating—in many of the following circumstances:
  • A situation in which physical safety is at risk—for example, if violence is common in their school or neighborhood
  • A situation in which self-worth is threatened—for example, when someone makes unflattering remarks about their race or gender
  • Concern about physical appearance—for example, feeling too fat or thin or reaching puberty either earlier or later than peers
  • A new situation—for example, moving to a new school district
  • Judgment or evaluation by others—for example, receiving a low grade from a teacher or being excluded by peers
  • Frustrating subject matter—for example, having a history of difficulty with particular mathematical concepts
  • Excessive classroom demands—for example, being expected to learn a great deal of material in a very short time
  • Classroom tests—for example, having to take an important test, especially a high-stakes test that affects chances for promotion or graduation (more about high-stakes tests in Chapter 16)
  • Concern about the future—for example, how to make a living after graduation from high school (Ashcraft, 2002; Cassady, 2004; Chabrán, 2003; Covington, 1992; D. L. DuBois et al., 2002; Harter, 1992; Hembree, 1988; N. J. King & Ollendick, 1989; Matthews et al., 2006; Phelan et al., 1994; Sarason, 1980; Stipek, 1993; Stodolsky et al., 1991; Wigfield & Meece, 1988; K. M. Williams, 2001a)

Learners’ particular concerns change somewhat as they grow older. Developmentally speaking, the most anxiety-arousing period is probably the transition from elementary school to a secondary school format- perhaps to middle school or junior high or even high school.

A Multiple Whammy: Making the Transition to a Secondary School Format

Elementary school classrooms are often very warm, nurturing places in which teachers get to know twenty or thirty students very well. Students in elementary classrooms also get to know one another quite well: They often work together on academic tasks and may even see themselves as members of a classroom “family.” But somewhere around fifth to seventh grade, many students move from elementary school to a middle school or junior high school. As they do so, they simultaneously encounter numerous changes in the nature of their schooling:

  • The school is larger and has more students.
  • Students have several teachers at one time, and each teacher has many students. Thus, teacher–student relationships are more superficial and less personal than in elementary school, and teachers have less awareness of how well individual students are understanding and mastering classroom subject matter.
  • There is more whole-class instruction, with less individualized instruction that takes into account each student’s academic needs.
  • Classes are less socially cohesive. Students may not know their classmates very well and may be reluctant to ask peers for assistance.
  • Students have fewer opportunities to make choices about the topics they pursue and the tasks they complete. At the same time, they have more independence and responsibility regarding their learning. For example, they may have relatively unstructured assignments to be accomplished over a two- or three-week period, and they must take the initiative to seek help when they are struggling.
  • Teachers place greater emphasis on students’ demonstrating (rather than acquiring) competence; for instance, mistakes are more costly for students.
  • Standards for assigning grades are more rigorous, so students may earn lower grades than they did in elementary school. Grades are often assigned on a comparative and competitive basis, with only the highest-achieving students getting As and Bs.
  • High-stakes tests—tests that affect promotion to the next grade level—become increasingly common. (H. A. Davis, 2003; Eccles & Midgley, 1989; Harter, 1996; Hine & Fraser, 2002; Midgley et al., 2002; Wentzel & Wigfield, 1998; Wigfield et al., 1996)

Furthermore, previously formed friendships can be disrupted as students move to new (and perhaps differing) schools (Pellegrini & Bartini, 2000; Wentzel, 1999). And of course, students are also dealing with the physiological changes that accompany puberty and adolescence.

This multiple whammy of changes often leads to decreased confidence, a lower sense of self-worth, less intrinsic motivation, and considerable anxiety. Focus on peer relationships increases, academic achievement drops, and some students become emotionally disengaged from the school environment—and may eventually drop out of school altogether (Eccles & Midgley, 1989; Gentry et al., 2002; Urdan & Maehr, 1995; Wigfield et al., 1996).

If students remain in an elementary school in early adolescence, rather than moving to a middle school or junior high environment, their attitudes and motivation are more likely to remain positive, and they are less apt to experience anxiety or depression (Midgley et al., 2002; Rudolph et al., 2001). By the time they reach ninth grade, however, they almost inevitably make the transition to a secondary school format, where they experience many of the changes that their peers in other school districts experienced a few grades earlier—more demanding expectations, increased emphasis on demonstrating competence, less supportive teacher–student relationships, lack of class cohesiveness, and so on (Midgley et al., 2002; Roderick & Camburn, 1999; Tomback et al., 2005). Students in lower-income, inner-city school districts (especially males and minorities) are especially at risk for making a rough transition from an elementary to a secondary school format, elevating their risk for dropping out before graduation (e.g., see the opening case study, “Starting High School,” in Chapter 1).

In theory, middle schools were developed to ease the transition to a secondary school format (e.g., Kohut, 1988; Lounsbury, 1984). Ideally, they are designed to accommodate the unique needs of preadolescents and early adolescents, including their anxieties about more demanding academic expectations, the changing nature of peer relationships, and their own rapidly maturing bodies. Effective middle schools give attention to students’ personal, emotional, and social development as well as to academic achievement, and they are attuned to students’ individual differences and unique academic needs. They teach learning and study skills that help students move toward increasing independence as learners. At many middle schools, teams of four or five teachers work with a subset of the student population (perhaps 75 to 125 students per team), coordinating activities and exchanging information about how particular students are progressing. Such strategies can ease students’ transition to a secondary school setting (Hine & Fraser, 2002; Midgley et al., 2002).

Students who make a smooth transition to a secondary school format are more likely to be successful there and, as a result, are more likely to graduate from high school (Roderick & Camburn, 1999; Wigfield et al., 1996). The Into the Classroom feature “Easing the Transition to Middle and Secondary School” suggests several strategies for teachers at the middle school and high school levels.

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