This article is an excerpt from the LD@school learning module Supporting the Well-Being and Mental Health of Students with Learning Disabilities. Click here to access this module.
Everyone experiences stress from time to time. It is a natural reaction to certain events in our lives, such as demands at work or at school, uncertainty around change, or difficult social situations. Stress typically does not last very long or affect our day-to-day functioning. But some people experience longer periods of heightened stress.
Individuals with learning disabilities (LDs) are two to three times more likely to experience a variety of mental health challenges (Wilson et al., 2009). When it is hard to ‘show what you know’, it is understandable that we might see higher rates of school-related stress and anxiety.
This article will review some of the most common causes of stress in the classroom, and offer strategies to address them to foster a safe and inclusive environment for students with LDs.
Students with LDs typically experience repeated failure in school. They may work incredibly hard, but the outcome may not reflect their effort. Over time, it can be more difficult for a student to keep trying and often, we see behaviours identified as ‘non-compliant’ or ‘oppositional,’ yet those behaviours may reflect an understandable coping strategy of avoidance or hopelessness.
Academic stressors can also lead to a lower sense of mastery and fewer opportunities to feel competent at something or to achieve success. Students with LDs may feel like they are not meeting others’ expectations or their own expectations, like they are letting down their caregivers and teachers, or like they are not working hard enough even when they are trying very hard. This can lead to the student experiencing negative feelings, including worry, anger, frustration, and sadness. If a student is constantly experiencing academic stressors, we may see patterns of experiential avoidance.
Examples of everyday academic stressors for students with LDs may include:
- keeping up with classmates or peers
- keeping track of conversations during group work
- taking notes while listening at the same time
- understanding multiple instructions
- shifting focus and transitioning from one subject or task to another
- reading quickly and accurately
- understanding what is read
- expressing ideas orally or in writing
- having to think of an answer to a question on the spot
- printing and handwriting
- spelling and grammar
- speaking in front of the class
- gym class (e.g., participating in activities requiring hand-eye coordination or keeping up with what is happening during sports)
- assignments and homework
It is important to know your students in order to understand what might cause them stress. Both the student profile and the Individual Education Plan (IEP) will be valuable sources of information for understanding specific areas of difficulty, which often cause stress. Additionally, ensure ongoing classroom observations are documented and pay attention to the activities that provoke signs of stress. Learn which situations they can handle, and which ones require additional support. Be sure to provide students with opportunities to participate in activities that they find meaningful and through which they can bolster their sense of competence and confidence.
For more information on student profiles, see pages 42-50 of Learning For All.
Engaging in meaningful social relationships plays an important role in fostering well-being across the lifespan. Without supportive social relationships, children are more likely to experience low self-esteem (Sideridis, 2007), loneliness (ValÅs, 1999), social rejection (Bryan, Burstein & Ergul, 2004), and bullying and peer victimization (Mishna, 2003), and are at greater risk for school failure (Parker & Asher, 1987).
Although not all students with LDs will experience social difficulties, it is estimated that up to 75% of children and youth with LDs face challenges with social relationships (Kavale & Forness, 1996). The relationship between LDs and social difficulties may, in part, reflect the nature of the individual’s information processing challenges (Milligan, Phillips & Morgan, 2015).
For example, if we have trouble interpreting abstract language and words with multiple meanings, we might miss sarcasm or struggle to figure out if the communication is intended to flirt or to mock. Memory problems can get in the way of keeping track of social information. Students with executive functioning difficulties may get stuck in social problem solving or have trouble letting go of ideas. This can affect the ability to manage conflict with peers or to negotiate group projects at school. Many of the cognitive processes affect our ability to follow and participate in a group conversation. For students with slow processing, they may think of a great idea to contribute to the conversation but it is three topics too late.
Students with LDs are at an increased risk for experiencing bullying. The following characteristics may spotlight students with LDs as different; they may be less accepted by their peers and seen as easy targets (Mishna, 2003).
- Frequently requiring additional assistance from teachers or peers
- Being separated from classmates during certain classes
- Difficulties developing and maintaining relationships (e.g., understanding verbal and non-verbal social cues)
- Difficulties managing behaviours and emotions in the school setting (e.g., overly loud, hyperactive, disruptive, and/or talkative)
Strategies to Address Stressors in your Classroom
There are a number of strategies outlined in the PDF document below that may be helpful in addressing the needs of your students experiencing higher stress levels. Remember that each student’s needs are unique, and it is important to know your students in order to select appropriate strategies.
For more information on supporting students with Learning Disabilities and Mental Health issues (LDMH), click here to access our learning module Supporting the Well-Being and Mental Health of Students with Learning Disabilities.
Bryan, T., Burstein, K., & Ergul, C. (2004). The social-emotional side of learning disabilities: A science-based presentation of the state of the art. Learning Disability Quarterly, 27(1), 45-51.
Kavale, K. & Forness, S. (1996). Social skills deficits and learning disabilities: A meta-analysis. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 29 (3), 226-237.
Milligan, K., Phillips, M. & Morgan, A. (2015). Tailoring social competence interventions for children with learning disabilities. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 25(3), 856.
Mishna, F. (2003). Peer victimization: The case for social work intervention. Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Social Services, 84(4), 513-522.
Parker, J. G., & Asher, S. R. (1987). Peer relations and later personal adjustment: Are low-accepted children at risk?. Psychological bulletin, 102(3), 357.
Sideridis, G. D. (2007). Why are students with LD depressed? A goal orientation model of depression vulnerability. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 40(6), 526-539.
ValÅs, H. (1999). Students with learning disabilities and low-achieving students: Peer acceptance, loneliness, self-esteem, and depression. Social Psychology of Education, 3(3), 173-192.
Wilson, A. M., Deri Armstrong, C., Furrie, A., et Walcot, E. (2009). The mental health of Canadians with self-reported learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 42(1), 24-40.