By Casey Schmalacker, Academic Coach, New Frontiers in Learning
The academic experience is one wrought with change and obstacles that can cause high levels of stress in students. When stress is not contained, it may negatively affect learning by impairing information retention and recall. This can be especially true for students experiencing prolonged stress as a result of the rigors of the academic school year.
Students with learning differences may experience a variety of stressors that can disrupt a successful academic experience. For example, students with ADHD may struggle with impulsivity, leading to poor decision-making and heightened stress. Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders may have trouble making social connections, leaving students feeling isolated and with increased anxiety. Even though students may experience higher levels of stress, their ability to learn should not be determined by this. Success in school can be affected by a student’s ability to cope with higher levels of stress. It is important to examine the various types of stress, the resources necessary for proper coping skills, and the actual processes for coping.
Stress can be categorized into past, present, and future stressors. Because of the ability to affect outcomes, present stress is the most important stress on which to concentrate. Past stress, such as a poor grade on an exam or a poor experience in a social setting, is no longer in one’s control, and, as the saying goes, “What is done is done.” Future stress has several variables surrounding it that is out of one’s control. By focusing on future stress, the unknown and unexpected can cause even more anxiety and stress. Unlike past and future stressors, present stress can be identified and managed in the moment. This sense of control is called a stressor’s amenability to change. Understanding the various types of stress allows students, parents, and teachers to provide the best advice on helping students to manage stressors.
Identifying stress is only the first step in the coping process. In order to fully manage stress, individuals need to utilize coping processes. These processes first require a foundation of coping resources.
There are four main categories of coping resources:
2) Control or Mastery,
3) Self Esteem, and
4) Social Support.
Students with various learning differences may lack in these four resources, which in turn may account for their higher levels of stress. Optimism is explained as an individual’s view that “Good things rather than bad things will happen to the self” (Taylor, Stanton, 2007, p.380). Personal Control over a situation is the view that an individual can affect and influence outcomes. Having a High Self Esteem is another coping resource that leads to “lower autonomic and cortisol stress responses,” or less intense episodes of stress. Educators and families many times understand the importance of high self-esteem, but understanding its importance as a foundation for coping with stress is essential. Social Support is understood as, “The perception or experience that one is loved and cared for by others, esteemed and valued, and part of a social network of mutual assistance and obligations” (Taylor, Stanton, 2007, p.381). By having a social support network, individuals may experience less intense and shorter lasting episodes of anxiety.
Students with learning differences can lack in one, some, or even all of the above coping resources. There are varied forms of treatment that can be used to help bolster some of these resources in students, but one area that can be directly supported by families and educators is a strong social support system.
Coping Processes can be understood as the implementation of the coping resources to overcome potential stressors in life. These processes are broken down based upon their focus. The three main categories of coping processes are:
1) Emotion Focused,
2) Problem Focused, and
3) Avoidance/Approach Oriented.
Emotion Focused coping concentrates on “Palliating event-related distress,” or altering the emotional response to various stressors. This process focuses on accepting stress for what it is and developing more productive means for responding to this stress. Problem Focused coping looks to resolve the stressful situation. This process looks to overcome the stress so as to remove its source. Finally, the third process is a range of options that can include the previous two processes. Avoidance/Approach Oriented coping is a variety of techniques that either look to deal with the stress head on or attempt to find means to avoiding the stress. Examples of approach-oriented coping include: Problem solving, seeking social support, or the creation of outlets for emotional expression. Avoidance techniques are means to avoiding stressors to prevent the negative reaction.
These processes have a variety of uses in different situations. Understanding the various aspects of stress, the methods and means of coping, and how that coping actually occurs, allows individuals to begin the process of developing systems to overcome these stressors. This can encourage students to reach their fullest potential without stress and anxiety becoming an academic obstacle.
Taylor, S., & Stanton, A. (2007). Coping resources, coping processes, and mental health. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 3, 377-401.
New Frontiers in Learning (www.nfil.net) is a high school and college support program for students with varied learning differences. New Frontiers provides coaching and tutoring services to students in the Westchester, Long Island, and New York City areas, allowing students to apply for and attend colleges based on their plan of study or personal campus preferences. For more information, please contact Samantha Feinman, Program Director, at (646)558-0085 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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