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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.