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Vol. 10 #3 Internalizing Behaviors

Internalizing Behaviors

Michael David Benhar, Ph.D.

The ability to self-regulate one’s emotions is essential; enabling individuals to direct their emotions toward positive uses. Unfortunately, approximately 17% of students with emotional, behavioral, and learning disorders in the United States have difficulties regulating their emotions (O’Connell, Boat, & Warner, 2009). This inability to modify emotions has a devastating negative impact on not only students' academic performance but also on their social relationships.

Students with externalizing behaviors are those who consistently exhibit maladaptive behaviors by getting into fights – verbal and physical, who may be out of their seat and demonstrate noncompliance with rules, routines, and directions within the classroom. These children are easily identified because of their disruptiveness. However internalizing behaviors, in which individuals may exhibit symptoms of worry, anxiety, withdrawal, helplessness, or depression are by their very definition, more difficult to identify due to their internal nature. Therefore, students experiencing internalizing behaviors are more likely to be overlooked in the classroom and not receive professional attention to address their specific difficulties (Mather & Goldstein, 2008).

Furthermore, although sleep disturbances, appetite changes, and distressing thoughts are not easily identified in a classroom setting, these subtle symptoms of anxiety and depression exacerbate and begin to affect engagement in schoolwork both within and outside of the classroom setting. A teacher is in a unique position to identify internalizing behaviors in students because they spend a fair amount of time in the classroom with the student. Overly controlled emotions, as seen in people with internalizing disorders, have deleterious effects on the learning process by impairing student-peer interactions and student-teacher communication (Meltzer, 2010). Therefore, it is vital for educators and other school personnel to be aware of the signs and behaviors that are often not clearly overt in order to provide the necessary assistance (Mather & Goldstein, 2008).

Worry, Fear, and Anxiety

Worry, fear, and anxiety are part of the normal human experience and it is quite natural for children to express these emotions. However, when these emotions manifest as an over-reaction to situational demands and interfere with normal functioning they can develop into clinical levels of anxiety and/or depression. The distinction between a developmentally appropriate emotional reaction and one that requires clinical attention is not always clear therefore it is important to make some distinctions for clarification (Mather & Goldstein, 2008).

In everyday language, many people use the terms worry, fear, and anxiety interchangeably. Worry “...reflects the inability to confidently predict a positive outcome for an upcoming event" (Mather & Goldstein, 2008, p. 114). This occurs due to repeatedly thinking about a negative outcome without generating an alternative positive possibility for a particular event. Worry in small doses can be beneficial to execute a task or resolve a conflict as it may cause the individual to eventually generate a positive solution and resolve the dilemma. However, when worry occurs for the sake of worrying, without generating any solution to be executed, it can be devastating by incapacitating the individual or by causing avoidance of the event in order to reduce the worry (Barlow & Durand, 2018).

Fear, on the other hand, is considered a normal, physiological and emotional reaction to an actual or perceived present threat. Oftentimes, fear is considered the 'fight or flight response' to a dangerous situation, for example when one is confronted by a vicious animal. The cause of the fear is quite clear and the danger is present. Finally, anxiety is presented in the psychological literature as a perceived sense of unease or apprehension that is future-oriented. Anxiety is a concern about some event, situation, or activity that may somehow be perceived as a threat to the individual. In many ways, anxiety is having a fear response to a non-present, potential threat. When people experience this 'false alarm' and have a fight or flight response when there is no actual threat, it may take the form of a panic attack (Barlow & Durand, 2018).

It is important for teachers to recognize the distinction between normal, typical worries or fears and clinical anxiety, as evident under some of the following conditions (adapted from Mather & Goldstein, 2008):

1)When the anxiety interferes with the child’s everyday functioning.

2)When the anxiety leads to avoidance of the feared situations when no danger is present.

3)When the emotional reaction is not in proportion to the demands of the situation.

4)When there are great difficulties in recovering from the anxiety-provoking situation.

Characteristics of Internalized Symptoms (adapted from Mather & Goldstein, 2008)

It is beneficial for educators and other school professionals who work with students to be aware of a set of behaviors that indicate a referral for help is needed. Some of the behaviors that indicate a red flag include the following:

1) Physical complaints such as students complaining of stomachaches, headaches, vague pains, or frequent visits to the nurse. Clearly, it is warranted to first rule out physical causes by recommending referrals to the appropriate doctor before arriving at a conclusion that the physical complaints may be due to anxiety or depression.

2) Difficulty tolerating frustration is common when students are dealing ineffectively with worry and hopelessness. Major disappointment, distress and even an over-reaction to minor mistakes or setbacks demonstrate being overwhelmed and having poor coping strategies.

3) Lethargy, students exhibiting a lack of energy or enthusiasm for school projects, activities, or social events may be evident of some symptoms of depression. Of course, other reasons could be the source of the lethargy but as there is a cause for concern, follow-up is warranted.

4) Peer difficulties and/or social isolation are also prevalent in students dealing with hopelessness and anxiety.

5) Coexisting conditions, such as a learning disability, attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder, or a medical condition, place students at higher risk for developing anxiety and depressive symptoms.

Implications for the classroom

Anxiety and depressive symptoms can be very debilitating for students. The research shows that children who experience the symptoms of anxiety and depression in childhood are more likely to experience similar overwhelming feelings in adulthood. Thus, it is incumbent upon teachers and other professionals who work with students to identify the symptoms of internalizing behaviors as early as possible in order to refer them to appropriate school personnel, such as the school psychologist or social worker to provide the necessary intervention.


Barlow, D. H., Durand, V. M. & Hofmann, S. G. (2018). Abnormal psychology (8th edition).

Boston: Cengage Publishers.

Mather, N. & Goldstein, S. (2008). Learning disabilities and challenging behaviors. Baltimore:

Paul Brookes Publishing.

Meltzer, L. (2010). Promoting executive function in the classroom. New York: Guilford Press.

O’Connell, M., Boat, T., & Warner, K. (Eds.). (2009). Preventing mental, emotional and

behavioral disorders among young people: Progress and possibilities. Washington, DC: National Academics Press.

Michael David Benhar, Ph.D. is a Professor in the Social Sciences Department at Suffolk County Community College. Dr. Benhar teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in Developmental Psychology, Exceptional Child, Classroom Management, and Assessment. He has co-authored a chapter on students with disabilities and has worked as a school psychologist in a preschool for children with special needs. In addition to teaching, Dr. Benhar engages with clinical, private practice work supporting optimal functioning for children, adolescents, and adults. Contact Dr. Michael Benhar at

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