Where does your teen fall on the stress-performance curve?

With final exams on the horizon or already in progress, this is a high stress time for many students. Experiencing such high levels of stress can be problematic, especially for students who experience test anxiety or are tempted to procrastinate when they get overwhelmed.

On the other hand, too little stress can also be a problem for students. Indeed, it is not uncommon for a single student to vacillate between periods of too little stress— when projects and studying fall by the wayside—and periods of excessive stress—when they suddenly realize how little time they have left to complete their work.

I’ve found that the stress-performance curve (i.e., “Yerkes–Dodson law”) is a useful visual model to use when explaining this concept to my students, because it enables them to see, on paper, the way in which stress is impacting their ability to perform at their best.

stress-performance 3 As the curve shows so clearly, neither stress extreme is going to create optimal results.  For example, imagine a girl who is so distressed by an exam that she leaves the room in tears… clearly, she is going to perform very poorly on that test. Similarly, if a student was experiencing so little stress during an exam that he put his head down on the desk and fell asleep, this would lead to a very poor outcome. Regardless of whether your teen’s level of stress is too low or too high, moving his level of stress closer to the optimum can help increase his performance on exams and assignments.

Creating an optimum level of stress:
First, your teen needs to be able to assess her current stress level, and recognize whether it is is too high or low.  Once your teen understands the link between stress & performance, she can check in with herself periodically and ask, “Where am I on the stress curve right now?”  Depending on your teen’s maturity and level of self-awareness, this may be a straightforward question, or something that requires some deeper thought.  You can also help prompt this self-reflection process by occasionally checking in with your teen about his or her stress level (“where do you think you are on the stress curve?”)
Once they’ve identified where they are on the curve, the next step is to actively lower — or raise — their level of stress to be closer to the optimum level for performance.  Some students will already have some ideas about how to do this.   If they still draw a blank even after prompting, here are some ideas I might suggest:
For REDUCING stress:

  • Understand what stress does to your brain.  When you are anxious or scared, your prefrontal cortex—the part of your brain that is responsible for planning, decision-making, and complex reasoning—effectively shuts down, and your emotions & instincts take over.  For our ancestors, these automatic fear-based responses were helpful: if you’re about to be attacked by a lion, reacting immediately and instinctively rather than stopping to think could save your life.  But for a teenager facing a difficult pre-calculus test, stress and anxiety will make it much more difficult to think logically and remember what he’s learned.  When students understand what stress does to their brain, and how it impacts their ability to think clearly, it’s easier for them to see the benefits.
  • Use breathing and/or physical relaxation techniques. Taking several deep “belly” breaths, performing 4-4-4-4 breathing (in 4, hold 4, out 4, hold 4), or just taking 1 or 2 slow, deep breaths can do a lot to reduce stress.  Tensing all of your muscles and then slowly relaxing them is a way to quickly release stress.  If there is more time available, exercise and meditation are other great options for relieving stress.
  • Write about the stressful event.  For students with test anxiety, researchers have shown that taking 10 minutes to write about their feelings before a test can improve their performance by nearly a letter grade (B- vs. B+)
  • Decatastrophize. It can sometimes help stressed-out students to pause and ask themselves: “What’s the worst-case scenario, if this doesn’t go the way I’m hoping?”  “If that really happened, what options would I have for how to respond?  How would I handle it?”  For many students, thinking through the worst case scenario can help them gain some valuable perspective on the situation and realize that it’s actually not as stressful as they’d thought.  Then, they can shift to focusing on what they can do to improve their chances of creating a more positive outcome.

For INCREASING stress:

  • Identify the implications.  Sometimes students have a hard time seeing the long-term consequences of their actions.  Encouraging them to think through the results of a decision can increase its perceived importance.  For example, if you can help them see that choosing to play a video game now means they will: stay up late to finish their homework…feel tired the next day…do worse on their math test…end up with a B- in the class…have a lower GPA..have future options available for where to go to college..and so on, then playing that one video game can start to seem less appealing.  Rather than telling your teen the consequences YOU think will result from his decisions, try asking him about what he thinks the results will be each step of the way.  The goal here is to help your teen develop the ability to relate current behaviors with future results.
  • Help your teen connect with the emotional reasons why doing well (and/or avoiding doing badly) is important to her.  If your teen isn’t motivated, logic won’t do much to change that.  Establishing an emotional connection to the results they do and don’t want is much more powerful.  You can help your teen make this emotional connection by encouraging her to talk about how great she will feel after she puts in the effort, accomplishes the work, and achieves a fabulous result…or how awful she will feel afterward if she doesn’t put in much effort and ends up with a bad outcome.  (As with putting it in context, it will be much more effective to ask your teen how he or she will feel about the alternative outcomes, rather than telling them how you think they will feel.)
  • Get specific about the time requirements.  Sometimes students feel very little stress about studying for tests, or long-term projects, because they don’t have a good sense of how much time it will take, or how much time they have left.   If this is the case for your teen, then it may be helpful to brainstorm a list of all the steps that need to complete this work, estimate the amount of time each of these steps will take to complete, and calculate the number of days (or hours) that he or she has left to work, and then think about how much time is realistic to spend on this work each day.  When I do this with my coaching students, they are often surprised by how many steps are involved in completing a project, and how little time they actually have to finish it.  For an unmotivated student, this can provide a helpful dose of stress to help them get into action.
  • Ask them about the effects that their behavior will have on other people (e.g., “If you don’t complete this assignment, you’ll have to go see your teacher after school, and won’t be able to ride home with Kristen. How do you think that will make her feel?”). Sometimes students will do more for their friends or their teachers than they will for themselves.


It may take some effort to get students to the point where they are able to identify and shift their stress level to different points on the curve, but it can pay big dividends. For many students (myself included!), the tendency is to have too little stress in the beginning stages of a study plan or a project… but too much stress toward the end— and on the day of the exam.

If they can develop the ability to actively increase their levels of stress during the days and weeks leading up to the test or the project due date, and then lower their stress during the exam itself, this can make a big difference in their performance.

In addition to helping improve students’ performance on exams, this exercise also develops some very important life skills. However, for some students, the idea that they have the ability to deliberately change their emotional state through consciously choosing what to focus on is novel, because they are used to treating emotions as things that they “get,” not things they consciously create.

Making this bigger-picture shift in their perspective and developing the ability to mentally “step” back, assess their own emotional state, and then consciously choose whether or not to change it, is a skill called “metacognition.” This skill is a critical component of emotional intelligence, which numerous studies have shown are strongly linked to students’ achievement and their success as adults.

Action steps
  • Consider showing the Yerkes–Dodson diagram to your teen and getting her thoughts about where she tends to fall on the curve. What are the situations in which she often finds herself falling too far to the right?  Too far to the left?
  • Help your teen brainstorm ideas for things he can do to shift his stress level higher or lower.  If he’s stuck, present a couple of the ideas listed above as potential options to consider.  Try following your suggestion with a question: “What do YOU think of that idea?”  to emphasize that this is a choice, not a requirement.  If your teen isn’t crazy about the idea you proposed, ask what he thinks would work better for him.  Once you’ve gotten him started, your teen may have several ideas that are an even better fit for him than the ones listed here!

I hope the exam period goes well for you and your family! If you have questions or comments about this article, please feel free to POST them below.

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By |May 16th, 2014|Categories: Mindset|0 Comments

About the Author:

Dr. Maggie Wray is an Atlanta-based academic coach who helps high school & college students achieve their academic potential by improving their organization, time management, study skills, and mindset about school. To set up a time to speak with Maggie about how to help YOUR teen develop the skills he or she needs to thrive academically, visit http://creatingpositivefutures.com/contact or email support@creatingpositivefutures.com

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