Knowing but Not Showing: When Knowledge Seems to Vanish

A couple of weeks back, we started on a problem that is a nightmare for many parents and children. It’s the mediocre or even less than mediocre grades that appear even when your child has really studied and seems well-prepared.

As we talked about then, there are a number of language and learning issues that can contribute to this pattern. This time, we’re going to consider a different aspect—namely, the role that is played by anxiety, or as it is sometimes termed, performance anxiety. Unfortunately, this is an experience that is shared by many. Even many brilliant, experienced actors will admit to what is called “stage fright.” And this force was said to have led our illustrious Thomas Jefferson to speak publicly only one time during his presidency. That was at his inauguration.

Because the phenomenon is so widespread and so unpleasant, lots of research is carried out to determine what is happening. Among other factors, scientists have found that when someone is overwhelmed with test anxiety, their “memory stores” are blocked and hence not available to work test problems. The end result, of course, is a lowered score. By contrast, in non-test situations where the same level of worry is not present, they do fine.

So skill is not the cause of the problem. But what is? The answer brings up a range of issues including temperament (or the kind of personality we’re born with), high sensitivity to failure, a perfectionist streak-to name just a few. What is common to all is that they represent deep seated emotional patterns that cannot easily be changed. But in no way does that mean the situation cannot be improved. Here are some things you might consider:

1. Make sure your child is getting enough sleep: Sleep may seem far afield from the topic of anxiety reduction, but sleep deprivation—which is pervasive in our society—can wreak havoc with our nerves. Insufficient sleep alone can cause a response akin to an anxiety attack. And students who are anxious about their school performance often the ones who stay up really late, trying to do and redo everything –in the hope that this will make them better prepared. Ironically, it achieves just the opposite. So being firm about a sleep schedule and removing all high tech devices about one hour before your child goes to sleep can be hugely effective.

2. Avoid complimenting while providing a sympathetic ear: After a poor grade, devoted parents and teachers often try to lessen the impact by telling the child about all his or her good qualities (e.g., “but you are so smart”). Although offered with the best of intentions, that is not how they are received. The child often feels patronized and thinks, “If I were really good, they would not have to be telling me this. They are just trying to be nice.” On the other hand, simply listening calmly and sympathetically can be soothing and lead to a lessening of anxiety.

3. Protect the child from himself: Many students with performance anxiety often “test” themselves by doing more than is needed or taking on the most difficult assignments. They regularly want to see if they are up to the standard they are seeking. Whenever possible, try to steer your child to a slightly easier path. For example, your child when faced with a book report may select a difficult book that you know is going to cause errors and complications. In this case, offer some easier alternatives. And, should your child object, do not fight back. Instead, use your parental authority and calmly respond, “That is not the right one for you now. These are better.”

4. Get a good book: Given the pervasiveness of the problem, there are many, many good books out there on this subject. You have to do a bit of searching to find the right one that fits your family, your child, your parenting style and so on. For example, some books rely on using meditation techniques; some rely on re-training habits; and others rely on adapting psychotherapy techniques. Their relevance will also depend on your child’s age. So spend a bit of time to review a range of what is out there. In fairly short order, you will find one that fits your child’s needs and style.