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Helping Kids Handle Pressure

Teaching Kids to Be Resilient When the Heat is On

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Helping Kids Handle Pressure

Getting test results

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A recent article in the New York Times discussed the phenomenon by which some kids can act cool under pressure, while others panic. Pressure on kids has increased with the specter of standardized tests hanging over them, and so it has become crucial to understand why some kids can handle pressure while others, just as bright, tend to dissolve into anxiety and fear.

Why Kids Differ in their Response to Pressure

Researchers are beginning to believe that there may be biological differences that explain why different kids react in varying manners to stress and pressure. Studies have focused on the role of the COMT gene, which removes a neurotransmitter called dopamine from the pre-frontal cortex, the area of the brain that controls decision-making. One variation of the gene clears away dopamine slowly, while the other variation removes dopamine quickly. Under normal situations, people who have the gene that removes dopamine slowly from the decision-making area of the brain can better resolve conflicts, reason, and make predictions about what is likely to happen. However, when people feel stressed, the opposite is likely to happen: The brain becomes flooded with dopamine, and people with the slower-acting gene can’t remove the dopamine as quickly.

Scientists call those with the slower-acting gene "worriers," while those with the faster-acting gene are called "warriors" in their parlance. As we inherit one form of the gene from our mother and one from our father, half of people have a mix of these genes, while one-quarter of people are warriors and one-quarter are worriers.

How to Help All Kinds of Kids Handle Pressure

Even if kids tend to be worriers, there are ways to teach them to handle pressure. Scientists have done studies showing that professional athletes, musicians, and other performers feel just as anxious as amateurs. The difference is that they know how to interpret and handle the stress better.

For example, some students heading into a high-stakes test, such as a college admissions test, may experience a rush of adrenaline and be flooded with fear. However, much depends on how they interpret their response. Do they freeze if they don’t know one question, or do they rise to the challenge and feed on the competition in the moment? It turns out that competitive moments can help students achieve their best, as they are pushed to achieve their maximum results. Having a competitive goal can make kids motivated to do better, and they can use the rush of adrenaline they experience in moments of stress to their advantage.

The critical variable in these situations is how kids interpret these signals of stress and the messages they send themselves in response. When they feel nervous in a test, do they tell themselves, “I will never get into a college,” or do they think, “This means I have to push myself to do better. It’s a game.” Scientists believe it’s not so much the feeling as much as the child’s interpretation of the feeling that is all-important.

It turns out that worriers and warriors alike can benefit from intellectual competitions. Worriers learn how to interpret and use stressful situations to make themselves more immune to the feeling of stress, and warriors can do well in stressful situations that are suited to their ability to react coolly in moments of pressure. It is important to embrace both styles of reaction when teaching kids to handle the types of stressful academic experiences that are inevitable in today’s testing culture, and it’s interesting that different types of kids can use their strengths to work up to their potential.

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