Four Ways Anxiety Affects Student Executive Functioning

Four Ways Anxiety Affects Student Executive Functioning

Four Ways Anxiety Affects Student Executive Functioning

. . . and How to Help!

Why do some students feel so overwhelmed by projects they just can’t get started? Usually such “activation paralysis” is caused by anxiety. What students need to move forward is a plan of action, which anxious students can’t seem to create. Luckily, there is help and there are solutions.

To illustrate how anxiety can affect student performance, here’s a recent example of activation paralysis I encountered with one of my students.

Jake and Alon’s Story

Jake is a ninth-grade student of mine. He and his partner Alon were assigned to create a Wiki page covering the impact of climate change on a particular area of the Middle East.

By the time I became aware of this project, Jake was a bit behind, but he’d started a Google Doc, noted sources, and simply needed some help understanding directions for next steps. Alon, however, had not started any of his work, nor had he communicated with Jake. Understandably, Jake was frustrated. He seemed ready to undertake the entire project himself given the fast-approaching due date and looming workload.

When I asked Jake to describe Alon’s behavior in class, he said, “When the partner groups were supposed to meet in class, he just held his head in his hands and moaned, ‘We are so far behind, we’ll never catch up.’ I tried to reassure him by saying, ‘We can do this,’ but Alon just seemed unable to move forward.”

I explained to Jake how anxiety can cause activation paralysis. He nodded and said, “I get it. I’ve had that too. But what can I do?”

I suggested to him it’s time for them both to meet with their teacher and ask for help getting unstuck.

Does this sound like your student?

Understanding how anxiety impacts executive function can go a long way to helping your student cope.

Four Signs Anxiety Is Impacting Student Executive Functioning
  1. Anxiety paralyzes task initiation—Students procrastinate starting their work. Parents might hear, “I just don’t know where to start!” Hours can drag on and little work gets done. Some students melt down late at night, or they set the alarm for 6:00 am to get the work done at the last minute.
  2. Stress makes it difficult to plan and prioritize—Students are so awash in assignments using online platforms that they skim the directions covering work required. They fail to write down what’s needed or articulate a plan move forward with calendar deadlines.
  3. Anxiety can be hard to talk about, leading to feelings of shame and sometimes panic—Struggling students are often reluctant to reach out for help from teachers and parents, which leaves them stuck with no plan. Students struggle to advocate for themselves, creating even more indecision, inaction, shame, and loss of confidence.
  4. Anxious students are not good self-regulators—They turn to distractions like social media, gaming, or texting to cope with feelings of anxiety. As a result, parents find themselves also anxious, stepping in with more rules and restrictions. Thus, anxious students become more dependent on parents to regulate and get work handled.
There is Help
What About Jake and Alon?

As for Alon, he needs to meet with his teacher (with Jake). To do this, Jake will likely have to get the ball rolling by asking the teacher to assist. The teacher can then help Jake and Alon create a plan of action that breaks down tasks into manageable, smaller actions. The teacher can also share examples of expected work and set up a reasonable timeline for completion (extensions may be needed) along with dates for accountability meetings along the way. With a plan of action in place, however, Jake and Alon have a way forward and a greater likelihood of completing the project successfully.

Tools and strategies for planning, prioritizing, starting work, breaking up large assignments, and preparing for upcoming exams are essential for executive function and to help decrease student anxiety. Empowered students feel competent and able to operate independently and without parent intervention.

Coaching 1-1 with SOS4Students and similar programs is ideal for teens because it builds student skills while removing parents from having to feel they need to wear both an academic coaching hat as well as a parenting hat!

When anxiety gets so debilitating that performance at school is affected across the board and students increasingly avoid work, it’s time to set up a meeting with the school to explore options. Support might include wellness center help, a 504 plan or IEP, and extending time to complete work. For advice on treatment, we suggest seeking help from a licensed therapist or your child’s doctor. While SOS4Students coaches are not therapists, we can assist with school advocacy and accommodation plans to support coaching work.

Contact us today at (510) 531-4767 or

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