A model of student anxiety

Why do some students seem to suffer more with anxiety than others? Limited amounts of stress are good for us, as we have seen, but too much can have negative consequences. Acute stress (as opposed to chronic, long-term stress) is fleeting, involving complex biological and behavioural mechanisms that can increase motivation and cognitive function. When stress lasts for too long it can lower the immune system and result in more debilitating conditions. In addition, anxiety can also be a symptom or a cause of other conditions such as depression and ascertaining a causal relationship isn't easy (although they are most likely reciprocal). Anxiety can also lead to behaviours that might be seen as dysfunctional or maladaptive, such as selective mutism or increased levels of aggression.

But why do some people cope so much better with stressful situations than others? Why do some students appear immune to the stress of exams while others fall apart at the mere mention of taking a test? There are no easy explanations because many internal and external factors play a role. Some of these have already been discussed, yet these explanations still appear somewhat lacking.

One useful explanation is known as the Diathesis Stress model. The model proposes that psychopathy is the result of internal predispositions and their interaction with environmental factors (or environmental stressors). The word diathesis simply means predisposition or vulnerability. We can apply this same model to test anxiety and daily stressors (Figure 8.1).

No two individuals are identical. Studies into groups at greater risk of psychopathy have confirmed this. In studies investigating the genetic basis of schizophrenia, research has found that concordance rates between identical twins vary from between 40 to 60 per cent (compared with 1 per cent of the general population). The closer the relationship, the greater the vulnerability, but concordance rates are never 100 per cent. Even those who share all of their DNA are still different in some way.

A diathesis stress model of student anxiety

Figure 8.1 A diathesis stress model of student anxiety

In psychopathy, vulnerabilities would include genetic factors, biological characteristics and psychological traits, while stressors might include traumatic life events, negative family life and economic disadvantage. These might well also play a role in school anxiety generally and test anxiety specifically; however, we can also identify more school specific vulnerabilities and stressors. In terms of vulnerabilities, these need not necessarily be innate but could have developed very early on in life. For example, there is some debate over the point at which personality traits arise, whether we are born with them or acquire them at some other very early point in time. Genetic factors are, however, heritable, although not all psychopathy has a genetic element. Biological characteristics usually refer to biochemical factors, such as the functioning of neurotransmitters, including serotonin and dopamine. We also know that hormones (specifically cortisol) play a major role in anxiety.

Academic-specific vulnerabilities include personality. Certain Big 5 traits, including conscientiousness and emotional stability, are related to higher academic achievement and academic buoyancy. Academic self-concept (ASC) can also be viewed as a vulnerability along with academic self-efficacy beliefs (ASE). If very early experiences of education are positive, then both ASC and ASE are more likely to be high. These then safeguard against subsequent negative school experiences and increase levels of confidence (academic self-concept and self-efficacy are discussed in detail in Chapter 11). Another stress factor includes peer relations. Children who are able to build relationships with peers are more likely to enjoy school.

We might also include teacher-pupil relationships here, as longitudinal studies have found that children who have at least one adult they feel that they can turn to have improved levels of general resilience and more positive trajectories (see, for example, the Kauai longitudinal study discussed in Chapter 2). Negative peer relationships, such as bullying, trigger vulnerabilities (see Mercer, 2011 for a full discussion of peer and teacher- pupil relationships).

Stress contagion is another possibility and refers to the transmission of anxiety from one individual to another. For example, if teachers and parents are anxious about students' success in exams, the anxiety is then passed to the students, who may not have been anxious to begin with. This would impact those individuals who already possess a vulnerability to anxious thoughts, perhaps through low academic self-concept or self-efficacy. Not all learners are the same; they have different histories and stories to tell. These histories interact with internal factors, which in turn influence attempts to navigate the present. This attempted navigation results in varied outcomes, some positive and others negative, but no two are exactly the same. This is one reason why some of our students will complete their education with barely a hitch, while others will continually struggle to cope.

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