"I'm not a good test taker." "I can't do math." "I have no trouble with writing papers, but taking tests is hard."
Students who think that they have trouble with tests or with math are usually correct. These students can be very difficult for teachers to work with because they do well in most areas of school, but have trouble on tests. In addition, these students are usually girls. Is there some reason that girls have more trouble with tests and with math? Research shows that girls can do math at the same level as boys can so what is going on?
The reaction to stress is usually known as fight-or-flight. Individuals who are faced with stress or danger respond by sending blood, oxygen, and sugar to the muscles and brain so that they are ready to take on the oncoming problem or rapidly get out of the way. This response has been understood for many years and the assumption has been that all people react this way (Lee & Harley, 2012).
In 2000, Taylor and others published a paper which proposed that many women do not react to stress with the traditional fight-or-flight response. She suggested that many women react in a way she named tend-and-befriend (Taylor et al., 2000). In this condition, the individual does not prepare to fight or flee, but to stand one's ground and defend those around her. In this response, blood travels to the center of the body and the individual finds it difficult to move or think. During this response, the person can freeze, finds it difficult to make rapid decisions, and needs to talk or be with close friends.
So what does this have to do with academic anxiety? I believe that when children are placed in a testing situation or are dealing with material which they find challenging, boys react with fight-or-flight and many girls (but not all) react with tend-and-befriend. The result for boys is that their handwriting can become messier, they can become physically active, and they may overreact to the situation, but they can think. Girls, on the other hand, may find it difficult to retrieve information, have trouble making decisions, and may become very quiet.
Helping girls by pointing out that their reaction is normal – not helpful, but normal – is the first step. They can learn to control their reaction through exercise and breathing control, but the first step is to understand that it is not the test or the math that is causing their problem. It is their reaction to stress and learning to manage stress will help them in everything that they do.
Lee, J., & Harley, V. R. (2012). The
male fight-flight response: A result of SRY regulation of
catecholamines? Bioessays, 34, 454-457.
Taylor, S. E., Klein, L. C., Lewis, B. P., Gruenewald, T. L., Gurung, R. A. R., & Updegraff, J. A. (2000). Biobehavioral responses to stress in females: Tend-and-befriend, not fight-or-flight. Psychological Review, 107(3), 411-429.