Six strategies to help students manage achievement gap stress

Six strategies to help students manage achievement gap stress“Mind the gap” means be aware of how inequality in income, opportunity and socioeconomic status affects student achievement.

It also means, be aware of the psychological effects of the achievement gap on students’ feelings, beliefs, attitudes and sense of self.

Achievement gaps create a psychological predicament, a threat to one’s social identity and sense of belonging, says a new study in the British Journal of Educational Psychology.

Sweeping changes that narrow the economic gap and the achievement gap are slow and difficult. But, interventions that help students overcome psychological barriers to learning and achievement may offer a more practical, cost-effective and promising approach, according to this study.


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Underperforming students often experience “stereotype threat” and “belongingness uncertainty.” They feel that their social identity makes them ill-suited for academic success and makes them feel that they do not belong in a setting where academic ability is prized. These beliefs often are self-fulfilling and interfere with student performance.

“Recent research suggests the utility of ‘minding the gap’ as a social psychological process,” write the New York University authors. “How do students see themselves in the school context? How accepted and valued do they feel by others? What are the students’ academic goals and underlying beliefs about their ability to reach them?

“A new wave of simple interventions has addressed this subjective experience and found that addressing such social concerns or threats—or simply treating the stresses such processes engender—can make significant differences in learning and performance.”

Below are research-based psychosocial interventions that address students’ subjective experiences of the achievement gap and are designed to change their perceptions of threat or their responses to these threats. These “gap-reducing” interventions are easy to implement in any school or classroom.

Quiet time

Recent research has shown that meditation is beneficial in schools, reducing students’ anxiety and improving executive function, working memory, self-awareness and self-control. It may be even more beneficial for students of low socioeconomic status who often live in an environment with toxic amounts of stress.

One particularly successful intervention is a stress-reduction program called Quiet Time. Students spend the first and last 15 minutes of every day either sitting quietly or practicing transcendental meditation. At Visitacion Valley Middle School there was a dramatic drop in both suspension and truancy rates, as well as increases in academic achievement after 3 years of Quiet Time, the researchers report. As more schools incorporate a meditation program, the body of research supporting its use continues to grow.

Role model exposure

The role-model effect, also called the “Obama effect,” can disable stereotype threat.   Students are less intimidated by challenges when they see that a member of their group has succeeded in the same domain.

One study cited by the researchers found that when female students take a math test under the supervision of a female test proctor who is presented as a math expert, they performed better on the test. Another study found that female students did better on an exam after reading a newspaper article about an intelligent female student who excelled at math.

The positive influence of role models is more effective when they describe their own early struggles and communicate that struggle itself is normal. “By contrast, role models who are believed to be naturally gifted superstars who succeeded by talent rather than persistence are less inspiring than the hard worker who gains competence through grit and tenacity,” the authors write.


Some students may perform poorly on tests despite knowing the material because they are so worried and anxious about the task at hand. They may even back away from academic challenges in general to avoid feeling distressed.

One way students can regulate their negative emotions is through reappraisal or exercises.   Researchers have found that when students write freely for 10-15 minutes about a specific upcoming stress, they are better able to process their fears. One study found that writing about fears before a final exam raised students’ grades on average from a B- to a B+. Simply telling students that physiological reactions such as sweaty palms or a rapid heartbeat are natural reactions to anxiety significantly improved their scores on a practice GRE, the researchers write.

Possible selves

As they form their own identities, adolescents should be encouraged to think of their “possible selves,” different versions of themselves that they are and could be. Possible selves might include the clever student who aces tests or the fat self who can’t lose weight and so on. “Simply thinking about attaining a positive possible self has been associated with greater well-being and persistence, while not becoming a desired future self has been linked with depression,” the researchers write. Students could get discouraged if they dwell on the discrepancies between idealistic and realistic selves, but if they learn to coexist with their possible selves, this approach can be very beneficial and motivating. As they envision who they could be in the future, they are more likely to see the relevance of what they are currently learning in school.

In one “purpose for learning” intervention, students wrote an open-ended essay response explaining how learning in high school would help them be the kind of person they want to be or help them have a positive impact on others. Students who wrote about this self-transcendent purpose for learning achieved higher STEM-course grades, researchers write, particularly the low performers. Research suggests that helping students make schoolwork more relevant to their identity increases intrinsic motivation and academic engagement.

Values affirmations

According to self-affirmation theory, people are motivated to think of themselves as moral, capable and good. When they encounter threats to their self-integrity, people look for ways to restore their self-worth. One positive way to do this is to engage in self-affirmation activities.

In one intervention at a suburban school in which half the students were African American, 7th-grade students completed a series of writing assignments in which they wrote about a personally important values such as family or friends. According to the researchers, this intervention reduced the GPA between white students and African-American students by 40% in the fall term.

Results of other studies on self-affirmation are more complicated. In one study, a self-affirmation improved the performance of Hispanic students, but had no effect on African American students. In another study, self-affirmation was less effective if students were aware that the exercise was intended to help them. Other studies have reported that self-affirmation can backfire if it reminds individuals that they are not living up to personal standards. It may also work better for those with higher self-esteem, according to another study, leaving those with lower self-esteem feeling more depressed and self-critical.

Belonging interventions

An important lesson for students of all ages is that a certain amount of social anxiety is normal. Before and during an important transition, such as the move to middle school, high school or college,  discovering that everybody has similar concerns and anxieties about fitting in is in itself a type of belonging.

“Retaining a sense of belonging and feeling socially connected is a fundamental human motivation,” the researchers write.

In a one hour-long intervention, high school students about to enter college were asked to interpret the results of a survey of college students about the transition to college. The survey responses, which included essays, emphasized that students of all ethnicities worried about belonging when they first got to college but eventually came to feel at home. The responses and essays described how, as new freshmen, students felt like outsiders but then they gradually gained confidence, made new friends, adapted to the workload and felt accepted.  This brief intervention is credited with reducing the GPA gap between white and African-American students, even though the students claimed it had no effect on their college experience, the researchers write.

“Without denying the importance of structure, resources, or important policy changes needed to address the persistent and growing gaps in learning, we believe that recognizing the significance of social psychological factors offers the possibility of developing interventions that do not depend upon structural or political change, but rather can empower teachers and students to make the best of unequal opportunities.”

“Minding and mending the gap: Social psychological interventions to reduce educational disparities,” by Brian Spritzer and Joshua Aronson, British Journal of Educational Psychology, 2015, Volume 85, pp. 1-18.

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