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Scaring Teens Doesn’t Help Their Test Scores

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Money, Jobs, & College

As the year winds down and final exams loom, you might be tempted to remind your teen of the consequences of failure. It makes sense, it seems like,  to motivate a kid by pointing out that he’ll not graduate on time if he goofs off, or won’t get into a college, or will be kicked off the team if his grades are low.

Seems like, but not true. A new study reveals that reminding a teen of negative consequences is less helpful than reminding her of the positive consequences.  Saying “If you fail this exam, you’ll never get a decent job” actually causes kids to feel less motivated and do worse on tests than saying “If you do well on this exam, it will be easier to get a decent job.” Same message. A more positive spin.

The study was conducted in England and involved 347 students, evenly divided between girls and boys and about 15 years old. The students were enrolled in an 18-month program designed to help kids pass a major exam required to earn the British equivalent of a high school diploma. Twice over the 18 months, students were asked about their experience, first about the teacher’s use of scare tactics to motivate them and then, three months later, about their own reason for prepping for the exam. At the end of the study, students’ scores on the exam were compared. Students whose teachers used scare tactics were indeed motivated by fear of failure but also did less well on the test than students whose teachers used success images as a motivation technique.

This fits with your own experience, when you think of it. You know that when you try hard to just avoid failing – at cooking dinner, finding your way to a strange location, or completing a task at work – you are less likely to do a truly excellent job than if you work hard to do things well. Fear of failure has long been recognized as a barrier to success. It makes no sense to inspire teens using scare tactics. It’s very likely to backfire.

So, as final exams loom, support your teen.

  • Ask your teen to imagine how success will feel. Guide him to think of the day after the test. How happy will he be to have it behind him, knowing he’s done as good on it as he could?
  • Remind your teen of past successes. You might have to draw from her experience as an athlete or musician or other role, instead of her school experience. There’s something your kid has done that she’s practiced for and had that practice pay off. Remind her.
  • Imagine what doors might open with a successful test result. It might be that your kid can skip tutoring over the summer. He might be eligible to take more interesting courses next year if his grades are good. He might be able to accelerate his schooling and graduate early. Think of what matters to your child and remind him of the positive outcomes can could await.
  • Even in your most frustrated moments, don’t resort to threats. Don’t tell your teen she’ll never amount to anything. Don’t tell her she’s on the road to dropping out. Don’t even tell her you’ll take her car away. These threats become self-fulfilling prophecies as a teen’s worst fears (and yours!) are realized.
  • It’s better to say nothing than to say the wrong thing. Ultimately, your child’s success depends on him, not on you. Since your words have power to derail motivation, if you can’t trust yourself to be positive, it’s better to say nothing at all. Be interested. Be supportive. But don’t feel your child’s scores are your responsibility.

Thinking positively is almost always more effective than thinking negatively. Scare tactics rarely work in the way we hope. Stay upbeat and see if things don’t work out well.


© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Join Dr. Anderson in an online conference for teachers and parents. Find out more at Quality Conference for Early Childhood Leaders.

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Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson is a nationally acclaimed educational psychologist and the author of “Parenting: A Field Guide.” Dr. Anderson is on the Early Childhood faculty at Walden University and she is a Contributing Editor for Advantage4Parents.