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Stress and Competition Help [Some] Children

Posted on February 11, 2013

Photo by CollegeDegrees360 on Flickr, used with Creative Commons Licence.

Amidst continuing talks of federal education reform, a recent New York Times article examined genetic and cultural factors linked to children’s differing levels of pre-test anxiety. In an effort to explain the fundamental differences between members of highly-anxious and non-anxious groups, some scholars classify students into two groups: worriers and warriors. The author suggests that protecting anxious, “worrier” children from adverse testing experiences in school may actually put them at a long-term disadvantage, despite parents’ best intentions to lookout for their children.

The main genetic determinant of an individual’s anxiety level is their inherited form of the COMT gene, which codes an enzyme to remove dopamine from the prefrontal cortex (the decision center of the brain). Forms of COMT code for either slow-acting or fast-acting enzymes, correlating with the “worrier” or “warrior”descriptions, respectively. Worriers tend to score better on IQ tests, plan more, and earn better grades. However, in the context of threatening or stressful situations the fast-acting enzyme form proves more advantageous, and this group typically scores higher on standardized tests. Neither form is dominant over the other because societies require both planners and fighters to survive,so children have a 25% chance of inheriting the “worrier” gene, 25% chance of inheriting the “warrior” gene, and a 50% probability of inheriting a combination of the two forms. The speed of dopamine removal from students’brains proves critical to their ability to cope with anxiety because “worriers”with slow-removal of dopamine experience higher levels of anxiety before a test, while the “warriors” with high levels of dopamine remaining in the decision center of the brain typically respond better to high-stress situations (such as a standardized test). However, the author argues that even “worrier”children should be exposed to testing and other stressful situations during their formative years so that, as adults, they have rehearsed and mastered the necessary coping skills to navigate similar challenging situations.

Modification of cultural perceptions of stress can also mitigate test-taking-related stress.Studies looking at the effect of anxiety on performance have shown that individuals’ views on the purpose of stress impacts their ability to cope and perform during the task at hand. For example, researchers found that athletes at all levels experience similar levels of anxiety before competition, but that while amateurs perceive this as a negative feeling, professionals use the same mood to energize them for the game. Similarly, an experiment out of Harvard showed that students who were taught that pre-test anxiety is a positive emotion performed better on the tests than those who were given no coaching. These cases demonstrate that, while genetics may play a role in students’ innate reaction to testing, changing cultural views on stress also prove beneficial.

Schubert Schubert Center faculty associates Arin M. Connell, PhD and Amy Przeworski, PhD study anxiety in children and teens. Connell studies the etiology of depression and anxiety disorders across childhood and adolescence, while Przeworski looks at the role of culture in family dynamics of children with anxiety disorders.