It is not unusual for teachers to have concerns about children’s emotional well-being, especially when they struggle academically. Often, though, these concerns cannot be fully alleviated. It is not a matter of “if” their children will be affected emotionally, but “in what way” and “how intensely.” For example, because of frustrations stemming from failure experiences, some children may become anxious, others depressed, and still others, angry. Additionally, the intensity of these reactions can vary widely, from mild to severe.
To help these children “beat the odds,” we need to be aware of these potential reactions and their further effects on learning and overall adjustment.
Why do Children React Emotionally?
To answer this question, we need to look at our society, and school as a reflection of it. Our society is competitive. So is school. Adults are judged on their accomplishments. So are children. Some thrive in this setting; others wilt, especially if they continually struggle academically.
If children do not progress adequately in school, they may become frustrated, get down on themselves, become anxious, worry about tests, dread school. If they blame themselves for inadequate performance, they may become depressed. If they deflect responsibility or blame others for poor performance, they may become angry.
How Can You Recognize Emotional Reactions in Children?
The following behaviors may indicate that children are reacting emotionally to academic frustration. Note, however, that these reactions may also result from frustrations in other areas of life.
Is the child:
Does the child exhibit:
Excessive motor behavior (e.g., fidgeting, tics)
Physical complaints (e.g., headache, stomachache)
In addition to identifying specific behaviors, it is essential to consider the following questions.
How frequently does the behavior occur?
How intense is the behavior?
How long does the behavior last?
When does the behavior occur?
This information will provide a clearer picture of the nature and severity of the emotional reaction. For example, one child may exhibit self-derogatory behavior (e.g., “I’m no good at this!”) when confronted with math assignments. A second child may exhibit the same behavior with any academic assignment. A third may exhibit the same behavior as the second child and be characterized as sullen, unhappy, and withdrawn. Approaches to intervention depend on the specifics of each child’s situation.
How Can Emotional Reactions Affect a Child’s Future Learning and Adjustment?
Anxiety, depression, and anger have powerful “cognitive” as well as emotional components. Yet many adults, let alone children, have difficulty recognizing these cognitive components. We all have concerns, worry, and get angry, but we don’t realize how much these states affect us. Even relatively minor concerns can compete for our attention, occupy our thoughts, and distract us from our purpose. This situation is even more problematic for children who already have difficulty attending, concentrating, and remembering. Valuable time and energy are wasted on nonproductive thoughts, making time spent on learning far less effective.
Experiencing more significant concerns, some children may dwell on past failures, with the anticipation that they will continue to fail in the future. Others may focus on perceived unfairness, poor treatment by others, and the likelihood that these injustices will only get worse as time goes on. Still others may worry about disappointing parents and teachers, as well as the embarrassment they will experience in negative comparisons to classmates, siblings, and friends.
So, a pattern may develop: failure—worry/concern—lower productivity—continued failure—increased worry/concern. Over time, a fatalistic attitude characterized by helplessness, hopelessness, and despair may result. This belief can be associated with a single subject, school, or life itself!
Dr. Gary G. Brannigan is a Professor of Psychology at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. A licensed Clinical Psychologist and a certified School Psychologist with numerous publications, he recently received the State University Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Scholarship. He and Dr. Howard Margolis will soon be publishing a book for parents, Reading Disabilities: Beating the Odds.