High levels of stress and anxiety in a learning environment can significantly affect a student’s learning, retention, and motivation. It is critical to examine how we are engaging our students so we can adapt learning activities. This will help reduce stress and anxiety in the classroom and thus increase student confidence and productivity.
Stress and Anxiety in the Classroom
In class, I notice a couple of my students tend to be prone to feeling discouraged due to their spelling or reading weakness. These students will gravitate towards certain exercises they’re more comfortable with. For example, they tend to prefer crafting or tasks which have multiple solutions, rather than exercises which involve reading out loud or finding a definite solution. If given a choice, they prefer an activity involving crafting or drawing rather than playing a competitive reading game. Perhaps they feel that choosing a competitive game is a test of their competence. Thus they avoid the risk of making mistakes and the inherent threat to their self-esteem that has been reinforced in the past as a byproduct of these types of activities. Other students who are not as sensitive towards their mistakes, will take the challenge of a reading game and even enjoy the competitive nature of it.
According to literature and research on the subject of student performance and anxiety, students who easily feel failure and anxiety because of their imperfections may benefit from task-oriented situations rather than ego oriented situations. Eva Gyarmathy, a psychologist, and a dyslexia researcher states,
“A performance situation is determined by the way it is perceived by the individual: it is either task involving or ego involving. In a task involving situation, attention is focused on the task and the issue is what the solution could be. In ego involving situations, the focus is on the individual’s knowledge, abilities, and performance. The issue is whether the individual is able to solve the task. Test situations increase .anxiety and curiosity about the task is reduced (Gyarmathy, 2014).”
A related study concludes, “Children perform much better in task-oriented than in ego involving situations (Graham, 1999).” Similar findings compare the outcomes of both types of tasks. The benefits of ego-involving situations should not be downplayed, however, as they have been found to be conducive to higher levels of retention. It is also hypothesized that “ego-oriented traces might have both immediate and delayed superiority when ego-orientation is unaccompanied by anxiety, or when the threat to self-esteem is not intense enough to distrust performance (Alper, 1946).” Similarly, Gyarmathy writes,
“Dyslexics are especially sensitive to ego involving situations and failure is highly probable for them and thus causes great anxiety in them in situations involving assessment and comparison to others.”
This seems to suggest that for students who are prone to anxiety, tasks which are not ego-oriented are essential in their learning process. The task which is ego-oriented will likely produce a chain of tension, hinder cognitive skills needed to integrate information, encourage feelings of failure and avoidance of such activities, and decrease motivation.
How to Help in the Classroom?
Thankfully there are some ways to adapt learning activities to be inclusive of the needs of children who are more prone to feelings of stress in the classroom. Gyarmathy suggests,“most situations can be shifted to task involvement simply by rephrasing the task.” For example, instead of asking “will you find the solution?”, one could ask “what could be the solution?”
Another idea is to incorporate specific games and crafts that the student already feels confident with. This can help divert the feeling that the main focus is solely on their performance. Here are some ideas for modifying lessons to involve task-oriented exercises:
- Playing non-competitive games
- Integrating athletic activities like throwing a bean bag, shooting into a basket, playing table hockey
- Drawing, crafting, singing, acting things out
- Matching something to multiple solutions rather than one
Eliminating anxiety and stress in students requires identifying the underlying causes of it, and brainstorming modifications that can be made to ensure the student is given an opportunity to feel competent. Continuously gauging students’ sensitivity, frustration, level of motivation, enthusiasm, and anxiety is essential. This allows teachers to accommodate their learning needs and set them up for success.
Do you have any similar activities that are effective with your students? Please share them in the comments section!
Alper, Thelma G. (1946). Task Orientation vs. Ego Orientation in Learning and Retention. The American Journal of Psychology, 59, 236-248.
Gyarmathy, Eva (2014). Dyslexia in the Digital Age: Difference, not Disability
Written by Georgia Diamantopoulos
Georgia is a tutor at Brainspring Learning Center in Shelby Township.