Performance anxiety in the school context –

Performance anxiety in the school context

Posted by Pénélope Venskus on

Performance anxiety in the school context

What student hasn't felt a certain amount of stress before an oral presentation or an evaluation? It is totaly normal. Good stress can even be good. However, some students are so concerned with success and high achievement that it causes them excessive stress known as “performance anxiety”.

Good stress vs bad stress

The right stress can promote performance, memory and increase alertness and attention according to Sonia Lupien, full professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Montreal. It remains normal as long as the stress ends when the worries are resolved. However, anxiety is problematic when it is persistent, stronger than that experienced by others, or unjustified. Thus, for some students, academic success sometimes takes on such disproportionate magnitude that it becomes anxiety-provoking. According to psychologist Béatrice Beaucage, “a moderate level of anxiety can lead to optimal performance, while performance deteriorates if this level is too low or too high”.

What causes performance anxiety?

Professionals agree that performance anxiety is the result of several possible causes. It would arise from the preschool and primary years. Thus, certain risk factors increase the likelihood of a student suffering from performance anxiety. It is also necessary to consider individual, biological and family characteristics, as well as the school environment. It is when a student has several risk factors and does not have enough protective factors that performance anxiety is more likely to develop (Dumas, 2007). Thus, according to Cocullo 2014, a student will be more likely to develop this problem if:

Individual factors:


  • Genetic predispositions (father or mother with an anxiety disorder);
  • Prenatal and perinatal development (high level of stress for the mother during pregnancy);
  • Temperament (behavioral inhibition).

At the socio-cognitive level:

  • Attachment;
  • Personality traits (ambivalent insecure type attachment);
  • Low sense of self-efficacy and maladaptive perfectionism;
  • Type of school goal.

Family factors:

  • Parenting practices (inadequate supervision and coaching);
  • Presence of an anxiety disorder in the family.

Environmental factors :

  • Underdeveloped social network.

School characteristics:

  • High teacher pressure for achievement and high standards;
  • Stressful school environment and evaluation context;
  • School environment that offers little academic and emotional support.


The main consequence of performance anxiety is poor school performance. Also, research has shown that students with performance anxiety have poorer study skills, difficulty organizing their time and organizing class notes, and preparing for exams. Indeed, this has the consequence of creating difficulties at school and can sometimes lead to dropping out (Van Amerigen, Mancini & Farvolden, 2003). Finally, physiological manifestations can lead to dermatological problems as well as sleep-related difficulties (American Psychiatric Association, 2000).

Possible solutions:

  • The first step is to recognize that the situation is problematic;
  • Have healthy lifestyle habits (exercise, get enough sleep and eat healthy);
  • Change their expectations and demands of themselves;
  • Review your study methods;
  • Do relaxation and breathing exercises;
  • Opt for yoga and meditation;

If you suffer from performance anxiety, it may be worth checking what kind of support is offered at school. In some schools, the teaching staff has training on stress or how to intervene in the case of students suffering from performance anxiety. Some schools offer yoga and meditation workshops.

We also recommend that you visit the “Center for Studies on Human Stress” website. Stress training programs for children and adolescents are available.

Finally, consulting a health and social services professional may be wise. Sonia Lupien points out that performance anxiety is one of the easiest disorders to treat with cognitive-behavioral therapy. The student is then offered exercises to accustom the brain to thinking differently.


American Psychiatry Association (2004). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-IV-TR (4th ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychiatry Association.

Cocullo, Marie-Lea (2014). Perform ... without anxiety Intervention program to reduce performance anxiety in the school environment. Intervention report presented to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences with a view to obtaining the degree of master of science (M.Sc.) in psychoeducation (Psed.)

Dumas, I (2007). Child and adolescent psychopathology (3rd ed.). Brussels, Belgium: De Boeck University.

Information Network for Educational Success (2016) How to break the vicious cycle of performance anxiety. Retrieved from

Mayer, MJ, Acker, RV, Lochman, JE, & Gresham, FM (2009). Cognitive-behavioral interventions for emotional and behavioral disorders: School-based practice. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Van Amerigen, M., Mancini, C., & Farvolden, P. (2003). The impact of anxiety disorders on educational achievement. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 17, 561-571.

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