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Is Your Student “Pumped Up,” or “Deflated”?

PTown New Years Weekend 2011 027Last week I wrote about the demonstrably positive effects of longer-term studying. Kids who begin studying several days before a test and who study consistently and to the point of mastery get high grades.

This seems like a no-brainer, right? So why don’t more kids do it?

One reason is that fear and anxiety hamper people’s ability to think straight and organize themselves. (We talk a lot about executive function issues in kids, but these are problems all people of all ages experience)

As part of his research with couples, John Gottman attached heart monitors to his subjects, and he discovered that when people become emotionally agitated, their systems “flood” with adrenaline and their heart rates elevate. A heart rate above 95 beats per minute signals that a person’s listening, planning and reasoning skills have broken down.

As one therapist describes it: I express my deeply held wish that all committed couples world-wide would be assigned heart rate monitors the moment they move in together and would be legally mandated to STOP TALKING when their heart rates become elevated. Adrenaline is as altering and intoxicating as any drug, and there is no chance of engaging in constructive discussion or debate with anyone who is in fight or flight mode.

So, it’s important to “keep cool” when you’re having a discussion with your spouse, your child, or anyone (if tempers flare, take a 20-minute break for a calming walk to allow the adrenaline to filter out of your bloodstream).

And, it’s important to realize that students who are struggling with material they find overwhelming and frightening are likely experiencing this very same “flooding” response, in which their minds are doused with adrenaline and they are incapable of settling down to study in an organized, fruitful way.

I still recall my own struggles with Algebra I, decades ago; I had always been a good student, but I was running a D in this class and I was deeply confused and frightened! My mom bought me a little paperback algebra review book (the 1970s version of Algebra for Dummies), and then she sat me down at the kitchen counter and hovered…she couldn’t help me with the math, but she could make sure I was sitting there, working, and she could make me cups of tea and give me lots of hugs and encouragement.

Soon, I was seeing progress, and feeling better and more confident…and after a while I didn’t need her hovering anymore. I began making sense of the material, my grades started to climb, and I actually began to (gasp!) ENJOY math for the first time in my life.

That feeling of accomplishment and mastery became hugely self-motivating, and I actually WANTED to sit down and work on my algebra. (And, it became my career!)

A mom wrote back this week, reporting the same kind of change in her son. We’ve both pushed him to study harder and more consistently, and his math grades have greatly improved. He is pumped up and feeling more confident, doing more [independent] online work as a result.” Success has made him want to do the extra practice that he used to squirm away from.

So, it’s the kids who need the extra practice the most who avoid doing it, because they feel so anxious, defeated and deflated.

Parents can help by

  • providing a quiet, well-lit, distraction-free study area,
  • getting students organized for daily extra study,
  • and supervising in a supportive way,

until students see results and their confidence gets pumped up.

Here’s a wonderful video on the importance of mastery learning (studying until you own the material, not just until you kinda-sorta get it).

[photo of a well-decorated house in Provincetown, MA]


Is Your Student “Pumped Up,” or “Deflated”?

Leigh Pretnar Cousins, MS

Leigh Pretnar Cousins, MS is an educator, counselor, writer and speaker. She's been a tutor, test prep coach and home school teacher for over thirty years. Click HERE to visit Leigh's website and to subscribe to her newsletter, "Learning Something New."

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APA Reference
Cousins, L. (2019). Is Your Student “Pumped Up,” or “Deflated”?. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 29, 2020, from


Last updated: 20 Mar 2019
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