Struggling Students under Stress: My Personal and Professional Perspectives
As a student I struggled significantly with a reading and processing-related learning disability (LD) and, as a result, stress was a big part of my elementary and secondary school experiences. So it’s no coincidence that I’ve spent most of my professional life trying to understand how emotion affects children who struggle in school. Students with LD experience more negative emotion, depressed mood, physical complaints (like upset stomach), anxiety, and stress compared to their peers without disabilities. This is the cumulative impact of a student’s repeated experiences of failure in “one-size-fits-all” schools designed to meet the needs of the mythical “average” student and not adapted to the vast diversity among students in our education system.
Emotion, motivation, and stress contribute greatly to students’ success or failure in school. How, then, did I — and others like me — become successful in school and in our careers? I’d estimate that seventy percent of my job involves reading and writing. Is it torture? Sometimes it is, but most of the time I love it because I find my work deeply interesting and personally meaningful. I still struggle with my weaknesses, but I work hard to leverage my strengths. You and your child can do the same.
Noted stress physiologist and Stanford professor Robert Sapolsky points out that the mind can be an incredibly powerful tool for de-stressing the body. We feel stress when we perceive the environment to be bad or threatening. To decrease stress and negative emotion we have to either change our environment or change our perception of the environment. Most of us can learn to use coping skills to overcome stress. That said, sometimes a little stress can go a long way toward improving performance. Memory, flexibility in thinking, and goal-directed behavior can be enhanced by stress. But chronic stress can have devastating consequences on our health, happiness, and ability to be productive in learning and in life. Whatever strategies you and your child adopt to manage and leverage stress, success will ultimately depend on being consistent.
You can start by making it a habit to ask your child how he or she feels about school. At the dinner table at my house we take turns telling each other about the “best” and “toughest” parts of our day. My husband and I model how to talk about our feelings and then our daughter follows suit. You can help your child build this skill through practice. Try asking questions like: • Why do you think that happened? • How did you feel? • What did you do when it happened? • What do you think you should do if something like this happens again?
Most importantly, be a good listener. It’s less important to propose solutions than to be a sounding board and a safe outlet for your child to express his or her feelings about school.
Successful adults with LD often describe having a passionate personal interest that propelled them emotionally through the stresses of formal education. For example, although I struggled with reading, I was deeply interested in science (especially neuroscience) and read everything I could find on the subject! Help your child find ways to pursue his or her interests and to develop self-understanding. Self-understanding allows children to gain control over their environment — leveraging support when they need it and monitoring their progress so that they can become happier and more deeply engaged in school. Certainly, individuals respond to stress in many varied ways, but we can all learn strategies that will help us manage and even prevent stress. And, for children with LD, having supportive adults can make all the difference.