Insight into the Anxious Learner: Research and Intervention

Presenter: Hilary Murphy, Ph.D.
Neuropsychologist, CNNH NeuroHealth

View the webinar’s corresponding slides here     

The negative impact of anxiety on all areas of cognitive functioning, particularly attention and learning, has been well established in educational and psychological research. However, more recent studies suggest that the relationship between these variables is more complex than originally theorized. This workshop will provide a review of the theories of academic anxiety, discuss facets of executive functioning, and clarify the relationship between these factors and student performance in individuals with and without learning disabilities. Special emphasis will be given to how this information can be used to better understand student behavior and support general well-being.

Hilary Murphy Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist and formally trained pediatric neuropsychologist with a specialization in the neuropsychological assessment of neurodevelopmental and neuro-medical disorders. Dr. Murphy has extensive experience evaluating children, adolescents, and young adults. As part of her training, she participated in interdisciplinary treatment teams, on an inpatient and outpatient context, to treat clients presenting with a variety of neurological, neurodevelopmental, and psychological needs. Her training in school psychology provides her with expertise in collaborating and consulting with educators and other professionals to develop comprehensive, individualized educational and treatment plans. She adopts a multi-faceted approach to neuropsychological assessment, which takes an individual’s culture, social-emotional functioning, cognitive profile, and academic performance, into account to develop a holistic understanding of each patient’s unique presentation. Her areas of expertise include Attention-Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), dyslexia and other specific learning disabilities, Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), concussion, epilepsy, neuro-oncology and late effects of chemotherapy, stroke, and developmental disabilities.

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  1. JZielinski says:

    Is medication the only method to treat anxiety in children and adolescents?

    • Dr. Murphy says:

      This is a great question that I frequently encounter with our patients and their families. Medication is a tool to assist in managing emotions but it is by no mean the only way to manage anxiety. Typically, research suggests that for most individuals a combination of medication and therapy, particularly with a professional specializing in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or CBT, is highly effective in reducing anxiety and promoting coping skills.

  2. rroy says:

    If my child has a neuropsychological assessment will I be able to understand the findings and data in the report

    • Dr. Murphy says:

      Absolutely! I can speak for our organization and my colleagues at CNNH that we pride ourselves in taking the time to review what can seem like an overwhelming amount of information and helping families to use this data to best help their children. Typically, after an assessment has been completed we have a one hour session with the family to explain all of our results and describe and diagnoses we feel are appropriate. These findings are also laid out in a report for families to review and include not just test results but recommendations to improve academic, social, and emotional functioning.

  3. DMare says:

    Regarding an 11 year old student who is easily upset and anxious – how to handle very frequent occurrences of another student bothering him.

    • Dr. Murphy says:

      This is an interesting question, many times, when there are experiences like this which typically occur in school I advise parents to collaborate with teachers to assist in reducing contact between students. In addition, it can be important to understand what about these interactions are problematic for your child and helping the child to understand why his classmate continues to engage in this behavior. Helping a child to determine what is driving his classmate (e.g., is he bothering you to get a reaction?) can help to figure out a plan to reduce these occurrences. In some instances, I use the analogy of a concentric circle to describe what we do and do not have control over in our lives. Oftentimes, this exercise is to help a child realize that we cannot control how someone else thinks, feels, or behaves around us but that we are in charge of how we think, feel, and react to others. If there are concerns about bullying, I encourage you to contact your school’s guidance counselor or school psychologist to explore this issue. Oftentimes, schools have a bullying policy in place and making the support team aware of these concerns can ensure that they will be on the lookout for any possible difficulties between students.

  4. DamionA says:

    As an adult I have experienced panic attacks, in your experience do panic attacks occur in children and if so, what would it look like and how would it be treated?

    • Dr. Murphy says:

      Children can absolutely experience panic attacks and their manifestation can vary from person to person. Oftentimes, children experience significant somatic symptoms, that is they feel the physical aspects of a panic attack (e.g., stomach pains, pounding heart, sweaty palms) very strongly. Most can report frequent aches or pains such as headaches, stomach upset, or other discomfort which are not better explained by other organic causes such as a cold or infection. In some children, anxiety can manifest as episodes of anger or oppositional behavior. In these instances, children may become easily overwhelmed by seemingly benign situations and their reactions to these events can seem overly extreme. Oftentimes, this is a child’s way of avoiding feelings of vulnerability or helplessness.

  5. MCleary says:

    Interested in your comment about this situation, I have a child in 7th grade, he has difficulty with anxiety most of the day, not for a specific class. My mother-in-law says that he’s just not prepared for school and we should get him a tutor. I think it’s a bigger issue than tutoring but I’m meeting resistance from my husband. Not sure what to do.

    • Dr. Murphy says:

      This is an interesting question; a child of that age should generally be able to identify and explain his emotions and I would trust his report. While it is possible that the anxiety is stemming from feelings of academic insecurity or weakness (we know children with learning issues are often anxious about their diffiuculties) if someone reports feeling anxiety then I think it’s worth providing them with support. At seventh grade, some children feel increasingly pressure to be independent in their studies which can also drive anxiety. I would recommend that you speak openly with your child about his experiences and allow him to assist in guiding whether working with a counselor is something he may be open to.

  6. LisaA says:

    Is there any evidence that boys and girls typically manifest subject anxiety? Such as boys with reading and girls with math?

    • Dr. Murphy says:

      The research here can be a little mixed. We know that in terms of socialization and gender roles, girls are often steered away from math and sciences while boys are encouraged in these domains. With respect to anxiety, to my knowledge there is not definitive evidence of a significant gender disparity in this domain.

  7. DSmith says:

    Is there any evidence that procrastination if not “managed” well leads to avoidance?

    • Dr. Murphy says:

      Procrastination and avoidance are essentially two sides of the same coin. Usually, procrastination is a form of avoidance, putting off tasks until the time is “right.” I wouldn’t say that procrastination could lead to avoidance but rather that the procrastination is a form of or attempt at avoidance.