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Anxiety in children: how boosting memory might reduce anxiety and improve performance at school

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Anxiety is common in children and young people.1 Sadly, children with anxiety disorders are at risk of underachieving at school – they tend to get lower scores in school tests, are more likely to drop out of school and are less likely to go on to further education. Some evidence suggests that this underachievement may be linked to memory problems. Researchers are investigating whether a fun training programme, which boosts children’s memory skills, might reduce their anxiety and improve their academic performance.

What's the problem and who does it affect?

The anxious child

Anxiety is common during childhood.1 Evidence suggests up to one in twenty children and adolescents experience an anxiety disorder.1 Many find their problems persist for many years, sometimes continuing into adulthood.

Anxious children can worry excessively about all sorts of things – conversations they’ve had, things they’ve done, upcoming events, their health, how good they are at sport or school work, world events and so on.

Children can worry so much that they feel ill and start avoiding everyday activities, such as going to school or out with friends, or taking up a hobby. They may feel sick, breathless, dizzy or panic, and can complain that their tummy hurts. They can also be tearful, irritable or restless, and find it difficult to concentrate or to sleep.

Research studies have found a consistent link between anxiety and academic underachievement at school – anxious children tend to get lower scores in school tests, are more likely to drop out of school and are less likely to go on to further education. Sadly, children’s increasing awareness of their poor academic performance can exacerbate their anxiety, but little is known about how to help them reach their true potential.

What is the project trying to achieve?

A focus on working memory

Evidence suggests anxious children may underperform at school because their anxiety reduces the capacity of their working memory. (Our working memory temporarily stores and manipulates information – when solving a problem, for example.)

Put simply, anxious children may be so busy worrying that they can’t concentrate properly on their lessons – the brain may be so full of worries that it has limited capacity for thinking about other things.

The researchers are investigating whether a fun training programme, which boosts children’s working memory, can also help to reduce symptoms of anxiety and improve their academic performance.

They are inviting around 50 children, aged 11 and 12, who have elevated anxiety levels, to take part in the study. Half of the children will undergo training that is designed to improve their working memory. The child-friendly programme, which is based on a spaceship/robot theme, takes around half an hour per day for up to 25 days.

The other half of the children will meet in small groups for around one hour a week for up to ten weeks, to take part in a tried-and-tested therapy programme called FRIENDs, which was developed to prevent and treat childhood anxiety and depression.2

What are the researchers' credentials?


The project leader, Dr Julie Hadwin, is based at the School of Psychology at the University of Southampton, one of the foremost research-led psychology centres in the UK.

Dr Hadwin works in the school’s Developmental Brain-Behaviour Laboratory (DBBL). The laboratory’s mission is to improve the lives of children and young people who have psychological difficulties – including those who experience anxiety, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, autism and conduct disorder – by translating basic science into clinical practice.

The DBBL houses a multidisciplinary team of researchers who have significant expertise. The group includes developmental and educational psychologists, child psychiatrists, community paediatricians, psychopathologists and neuroscientists. Dr Hadwin and researchers at DBBL have a lot of experience of conducting similar studies to this one. They have already completed a pilot study testing this training method in a small number of children with anxiety.

Who stands to benefit from this research and how?

Reducing anxiety, improving grades

The researchers aim to improve the lives of children who are suffering from anxiety, who are prone to underachieve academically at school. They are investigating the benefits of a fun training programme, which is designed to boost children’s working memory. They hope the programme will both reduce children’s anxiety levels and improve their academic performance at school.

The researchers suggest that the training programme could be practical and workable. If shown to be effective, it could be used alone or along with existing treatments, such as stress management techniques. It could be implemented by a range of professionals who work in schools – including teachers and educational psychologists.

Benefits of a successful new treatment could be broad ranging and long lasting. Studies suggest anxiety may start even in very young children, who have not yet started school, and can continue into adulthood.3

Anxious children are not only at risk of academic underachievement, they can also experience other problems, such as difficulties with relationships, loneliness and shyness, for example. They are also at risk of developing depression and other health problems. Children have much to gain from improved treatment.


  1. Rapee RM, Schniering CA & Hudson JL. Anxiety disorders during childhood and adolescence: origins and treatment. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology 2009; 5: 311-341.
  2. http://www.interactive-connections.co.uk/
  3. Egger HL & Angold A. Common emotional and behavioural disorders in preschool children: presentation, nosology and epidemiology. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 2006; 47: 313-337


Project Leader Dr J A Hadwin DPhil
Project Location Developmental Brain-Behaviour Laboratory, School of Psychology, University of Southampton
Project duration 2 years
Date awarded 19-Nov-10
Project start date 01-Apr-11
Project end date 31-May-13
Grant amount £83,282
Grant code SP4598, GN1784


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