Test Anxiety

In one of the first longitudinal studies of performance anxiety, Hill and Sarason (1966) found that anxiety both increases across the elementary and junior high school years and becomes more negatively related to subsequent grades and test scores. They also found that highly anxious children's achievement test scores were up to 2 years behind the scores of their low anxious peers and that girls' anxiety scores were higher than boys'. Subsequent research has provided estimates of just how many children in the United States suffer from extreme forms of test anxiety: For example, Hill and Wigfield (1984) estimated that as many as 10 million U.S. children and adolescents experience significant evaluation anxiety.

What explains individual differences in test anxiety? Researchers point to both biological and social factors. For example, some research suggests that having parents who have overly high expectations and put too much pressure on their children contributes to high levels of test anxiety; (see Hill & Wigfield, 1984; Wigfield & Eccles, 1989). The fact that the prevalence of high test anxiety increases across the school years suggests that both cognitive maturational and school characteristics such as the increased frequency of social comparative and high stakes evaluation coupled with increasing are important influences (see Eccles et al., 1998, Midgley, 2002). Evidence from sport psychology suggests similar situational characteristics in the link between coaches' behaviors and levels of performance anxiety among young athletes (see Duda & Ntoumanis , 2005; Scanlon, Babkes, & Scanlan , 2005).

The nature of anxiety may also change with age. Typically, researchers in this area distinguish between two components of anxiety: a worry component and an emotional physical component. Wigfield and Eccles (1989) proposed that anxiety initially may be characterized more by emotionality, but as children develop cognitively, the worry aspect of anxiety should become increasingly salient. This proposal also remains to be tested, but we do know that worry is a major component of the thought processes of highly anxious fifth and sixth graders (Freedman-Doan, 1994). This hypothesis also points to the importance of middle childhood for the development of performance anxiety because these cognitive changes occur most rapidly during the 6- to 9-year-old period of life (Harter, 1998).

In addition, we know that academic performance anxiety predicts decreases in self-worth over the junior high school transition (Lord, Eccles, & McCarthy, 1994) which in turn predicts increases in depression, truancy, dropping out of school and alcohol use over the secondary school years (Eccles et al., 1998). Academic performance anxieties in late middle childhood also predict lowered educational and occupational aspirations much later in life (Vida & Eccles, 1999). For example, using Structural Equation Modelling (SEM) with data from our MSALT study, Vida and Eccles investigated the relation of sixth- and seventh-grade academic performance anxieties to occupational values, a sense of personal efficacy for jobs in business and science, and ability self- concepts for skills in leadership, independence and intellectual activities at age 20. The results from this analysis are illustrated in Figure 14.7. After controlling for actual GPA in junior high school, intellectual anxieties in early adolescence predicted valuing a job that is easy and not demanding at age 20. The intellectual anxieties also predicted lower ability self-concepts and reduced efficacy for jobs in business and science. Because we controlled for

Figure 14.7 Standardized structural paths from early anxieties to later occupational ability self concepts and values


Time 2

Figure 14.7 Standardized structural paths from early anxieties to later occupational ability self concepts and values actual school performance, we can conclude that early intellectual anxieties undermine otherwise academically competent students' confidence in their abilities to succeed at demanding adult careers as well as the value they attach to such careers. In other analyses, we have also shown that early intellectual performance anxieties are related to higher levels of mental health problems among 18- to 24- year-olds (Vida & Eccles. 1999).

Anxiety Intervention Programs

Many programs to reduce anxiety have been developed (see Wigfield & Eccles, 1989). Earlier intervention programs emphasized the emotional aspects of anxiety and focused on various relaxation and desensitization techniques. Although these programs did succeed in reducing anxiety, they did not always lead to improved performance. Anxiety intervention programs linked to the worry aspect of anxiety focus on changing the negative, self-deprecating thoughts of anxious individuals and replacing them with more positive, task-focused thoughts. These programs have been more successful both in lowering anxiety and improving performance. An important issue that has not been adequately addressed is how programs should be tailored for different-aged children. This consideration is particularly important for elementary school-aged children (see Wigfield & Eccles, 1989). Further, because children's anxiety depends so much on the kinds of evaluations they experience in school, changes in school testing and other evaluation practices could help reduce anxiety.

Anxiety and Panic Attacks

Anxiety and Panic Attacks

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