New group offers skills to deal with academic anxiety

Tilly Friedlander

In response to the academically-competitive environment at Redwood, the Wellness Center has started a support program called the Test Taking and Academic Performance Anxiety Group (TTAPAG). The group offers guidance for students dealing with the overwhelming pressures that come with school and will teach students skills to better cope with anxiety in their academic lives that they can apply to any stressful situation.

Since April 3, the group has met five times in the Wellness Center and will continue to meet for a total of six weeks this year and next school year in the fall. The group is led by Bruce Killen, a licensed psychotherapist who specializes in anxiety and stress.

Stressing about academic performance, students now meet in group put on by the Wellness Center to combat testing anxiety.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about eight percent of U.S. teens suffer from some type of diagnosed anxiety disorder, and school counselors and nurses across the nation have cited an increase in amounts of stress and pressure among students.

In 2015 Redwood students participated in a Healthy Kids Survey which focused in part on mental health. Students ranked stress and pressure around academic performance as their number one social and emotional challenge out of 14 different options which included anxiety, depression and personal family issues.

According to Wellness Coordinator Jennifer Kenny-Baum, the data made it clear that because Redwood students felt so much pressure and anxiety around school work alone, this was the area that the Wellness Center would work on informing students of skills they can utilize for these academic pressures.

Killen has been using a systematic approach to teaching students ways in which to cope with all of the academic pressure and anxiety in their lives.

“I use a three-pronged approach to helping people with anxiety that a psychiatrist named David Burns uses. The first one is exposure which is basically just kind of doing ‘the scary thing.’ What that basically means is just studying and practicing stuff even though it’s scary,” Killen said.

The second step that Killen uses in teaching students is cognitive behavioral skills, which has to do with changing the way students think about themselves in order to minimize the pressure that they put on themselves.

“[This step] means really looking at what these kids are telling themselves, what do they believe about themselves, about tests and about what they’re supposed to do to succeed in life, and helping change some of those thoughts and beliefs that aren’t helping them and are making them more anxious than they really need to be,” Killen said.

Finally, the third skill educates students about expressing the cause of their anxiety and practicing better ways to reveal their emotions.

“A lot of teens that feel anxious tend to be very nice people and sometimes they have a hard time, for example, expressing anger. So, if they’re not expressing their anger appropriately, that could make them anxious,” Killen said.

Kenny-Baum’s goal for the group is for it to teach students concrete skills that they can utilize throughout their lives to cope with stressful situations.

“My hope is that students will be able to get some tangible take-away strategies that would last beyond the group for students to use independently and employ,” Kenny-Baum said. “When you encounter any kind of situation that’s stressful, it’s almost like you’d have your own personal toolbox of ways that you manage and deal with things.”

In order to find students interested in joining TTAPAG, Kenny-Baum asked counselors, school psychologists and teachers to see if they had anyone to recommend. Next year she will advocate or the group more and plans to let students sign up for the group themselves rather than recruiting students as she did this year.

“Turnout hasn’t been incredibly successful because this is one of the only groups that we’ve had after school and it’s really hard [to fit into students’ schedules]. And it’s on a Monday. I think that the timing is a challenge for people. I will go about getting students for the group a little differently next time,” Kenny-Baum said.

According to Kenny-Baum, students who have attended the group sessions found them to be very useful.

“Each person who’s come has said it’s weird to be alone, but it’s actually great. One person was like, ‘You have to put this on Redwood TV. You should advertise for this because it’s really good,’” Kenny-Baum said.

Killen is very optimistic about the potential of the group and the positive impact it could have on student’s skills to manage stress and hopes to continue working with the Wellness Center in the future.

“We’re just starting. It’s kind of a work in progress. We’ve had kids come to every group [session] and I’m very excited about that. And sometimes it just takes time for these things to get going. If the Wellness Center and the school want to continue to do this, I’m all for it,” Killen said.

The group will continue to meet for the next two Mondays after seventh period and the Wellness Center plans to offer another similar group in the fall of next year. If students are interested they can email Kenny-Baum at any time to be signed up for the group in the fall.