Curtis, Cheryl Anne
The relationship between anxiety, working memory and academic performance among secondary school pupils with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties: a test of Processing Efficiency Theory
University of Southampton
Research has shown that negative emotions, particularly anxiety, can play a role in learning and academic performance. The Processing Efficiency Theory (PET) and
the more recent Attentional Control Theory (ACT) have been put forward to explain the relationship between anxiety and performance. The theories assume that worry (the cognitive component of anxiety) is thought to have a significant impact on performance and that the affect of anxiety on performance is through working memory, and in particular the central executive. The literature review identified a number of key areas of development, including the application of the theories to younger populations and with targeted populations who underachieve in school. The
empirical paper aimed to test the application of PET and ACT for pupils with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties (SEBD). It investigated whether the negative
impact of anxiety on academic performance was mediated via working memory and whether this relationship was moderated by emotional regulation.
Twenty-four pupils with SEBD aged 12 to 14 completed working memory tasks and self-report anxiety measures. Academic performance was also assessed. Heart rate
variability and parent-rated measures of conduct problems and hyperactivity were used as indicators of emotional regulation. The results showed that overall, there
was a negative association between test anxiety and academic performance and this association was clearer for the thoughts component of test anxiety. Visuospatial, but not verbal working memory was found to mediate the relationship between test anxious thoughts and academic performance on tasks where the central executive was involved. These findings are broadly consistent with PET and ACT. The mediation relationship was stronger for pupils identified as displaying higher levels of hyperactivity; no moderating effect was found for either heart rate variability or conduct problems. The results have implications for understanding the underachievement of children with SEBD and for considering interventions to
promote attainment in school.
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