Warriors and Worriers

There is a great article today in the New York Times called “Why can some kids handle pressure while others fall apart?” by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman (authors of the great book NutureShock). The article describes new research that shows people carry genetic markers that tip their stress reactions towards one of two possibilities: Warrior or Worrier. Essentially, thanks to both helpful chemical reactions in the brain, the warrior reaction focuses and performs under stress whereas the worrier reaction, again due to chemical makeup, inhibits and even paralyzes.  About half of all people have a balanced combination of the two reactions but the other half favor either warrior or worrier reactions. The authors point out that human survival over the ages has depended on both types of overreactions – those who would fight under dismal odds and those who would put the breaks on when everyone starts jumping off the cliff.

Enter modern education and standardized, high-stakes testing. Researchers found warriors get an edge when they sit down to test and worriers underperform at an average of one whole grade level (from an A to a B, B to a C, and so on) than what they are capable of under non-stressful circumstances. I found this a hard pill to swallow. What the research is saying is that some of our students are born less able to test – it is in their very genes! The good news is, all is not lost for our worrier students. Bronson and Merryman write:

So while the single-shot stakes of a standardized exam is particularly ill suited for Worrier genotypes, this doesn’t mean that they should be shielded from all challenge. In fact, shielding them could be the worst response, depriving them of the chance to acclimate to recurring stressors. Johnson explains this as a form of stress inoculation: You tax them without overwhelming them. “And then allow for sufficient recovery,” he continued. Training, preparation and repetition defuse the Worrier’s curse.

With planning and intervention, all students can be coached to overcome what turns out to be a genetic disposition to stressing out under pressure. What was most interesting about the article however was the authors take on standardized testing as a form of competition. Being a worrier is actually an evolved trait preserved in our genetic code over time because it is useful; risk aversion can keep you alive. However, unlike in other forms of competition, in standardized testing there is no upshot for underperforming:

Taking a standardized test is a competition in which the only thing anyone cares about is the final score. No one says, “I didn’t do that well, but it was still worth doing, because I learned so much math from all the months of studying.” Nobody has ever come out of an SAT test saying, “Well, I won’t get into the college I wanted, but that’s O.K. because I made a lot of new friends at the Kaplan center.” Standardized tests lack the side benefits of competing that normally buffer children’s anxiety. When you sign your child up for the swim team, he may really want to finish first, but there are many other reasons to be in the pool, even if he finishes last.

The same conclusions largely extend to academic grades. How can we create a classroom environment where our students can learn to deal with stress and compete in healthy ways that allow them to grow and become more resilient? Here are my ideas:

  • Play group games: Working collaboratively in teams to compete against classmates can be tremendously motivating. In my classroom I use one very simple game (check it out here) that frequently brings my classes to a screaming, chaotic – but invested! – all out brawl. Because the game is played in teams the pressure is off specific individuals. At the same time it is kind of stressful but in a fun, low-stakes way.
  • Teach test-anxiety coping methods: Use visualization, breathing exersies, and true-to-life practice. See here for details
  • Show students their progress: Use tracking systems to show students how they have learned over time. Although this is easiest to do with multiple choice style exams it is also extremely effective with an unchanging rubric; this way, students can compare their performance on the same rubric in February to their performance in May. Tracking student growth also allows you to give targeted feedback on specific ways for students to improve. It is also empowering for students because they see a clear path forward. A trackable grade isn’t an unchanging stamp but instead it is feedback on their performance at a specific point in time.
  • Show students this research: Empower students to self-identify as “warrior” or “worrier” and then make a plan for how to compensate for their areas of weakness as well as maximize their strengths.

What ideas do you have?

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