STRESS MANAGEMENT FOR THE LEARNING DISABLED
AUTHOR: Ronald L. Rubenzer
SOURCE: US DEPT. OF EDUCATION ERIC Clearinghouse on Educational Management
ABSTRACT: This digest summarizes the problem of achievement stress in learning
disabled students, lists warning signals, and offers suggestions for teaching
stress management skills.
TEXT: WHY DOES THE EDUCATION SPOTLIGHT NEED TO BE TRAINED ON STRESS MANAGEMENT
IN THE SCHOOLS?
School-related stress is the most prevalent, untreated cause of academic
failure in our schools. It is believed to afflict an alarming 6 to 10 million
children a year (Barker 1987). In a classroom of 25 students, between one and
three students are at high risk for developing stress-related problems which
would probably interfere with learning (Hill and Sarason 1966).
Achievement stress, the widespread "invisible disability," is rarely detected
but generally gets worse as children progress through school (Hill and
Wigfield, 1984). Untreated achievement stress may result in academic failure,
behavioral or emotional problems, drug abuse, health problems, and even
Even though it has been demonstrated that reducing stress significantly
improves the performance of learning disabled children in reading, arithmetic,
spelling (Frey, 1980), and handwriting (Hughes, Jackson, DuBois, and Erwin,
1979), stress management programs in the schools are almost nonexistent
(Rubenzer, 1984, 1987). Stress management has also been effective in improving
attentional skills (Omizo and Michael, 1982) of children with attention
Since the stressed children of today will be the Type A adults of the 21st
century, treating stress in the schools now may well relax our dangerously
stressed society in the future. Currently, stress-related mental disorders are
200 to 400% more prevalent than any other emotional problem requiring clinical
treatment (American Psychiatric Association, 1980). Valium, a medication used
to relieve stress, is currently the most widely prescribed medication in the
United States, thus indicating the epidemic proportions of stress in our
society today (Cawood, 1981).
WHAT IS STRESS?
Stress is the physiological and emotional reaction to psychological events.
Any event triggering the formerly life-saving, ancient "fight or flight"
response is a stressor. The constraints of modern society clearly prohibit
fleeing from or physically resisting most stressful events (e.g., running out
of a classroom when a surprise test is given, arguing with the teacher not to
give a test). Unrelieved, the cumulative, physical strain generated by
psychological stress can harm the body. Stress is often experienced as a
consistent, exaggerated, and overwhelming sense of urgency, often coupled with
Achievement stress, triggered by school tasks, is a learned, inappropriate
distress habit which impairs school performance. The many faces of achievement
stress include test anxiety (Sarason and others, 1960), math anxiety (Tobias,
1980), stage fright (e.g., public speaking, fear of board work in front of the
class), writer's block, etc.
WHAT ARE POSSIBLE CAUSES OF ACHIEVEMENT STRESS FOR THE LEARNING DISABLED
SCHOOL FACTORS: Achievement stress may be the result as well as the cause of
poor academic performance. The precise role of stress in academic performance
is blurred because of the complexity of anxiety's origin, measurement, and
manipulation. However, The negative relationship between stress and impaired
performance is well established.
SPECIAL EDUCATION FACTORS: In addition to the great achievement demands
(Elkind, 1981) experienced by all students, learning disabled children may be
at particular risk for achievement stress due to frustration stemming from:
1. Insensitivity of significant others who treat these children as if they
choose not to perform, when in fact they cannot perform at their ability
2. Self-concept confusion resulting from the vast gap between being able to
keep up with the class in some modes (e.g., oral discussion, group work,
artistic and creative expression, athletics, etc.) and discrepantly poor
academic performance in other modes (reading, writing, board work,
standardized achievement tests, etc.).
3. Dependency on the special education teacher for academic survival and the
separation anxiety of having this school "life raft" pulled out from under
them if they must leave the program.
4. Labels (formal and otherwise) attached to these children by both teachers
and students, and the isolation and rejection associated with being in any
special education class.
5. Hesitancy to ask clarifying questions because of the fear of drawing
These frustrations magnify the achievement stress for LD students and place
them at particular risk for stress-related underachievement.
HOW DOES STRESS "DIM ABILITY"?
The emotional discomfort of worry, feelings of being overwhelmed, and the
unpleasant physical sensations of anxiety (cold, sweaty hands, butterflies in
the stomach, fidgeting and squirming, etc.) distract attention from subtle
cognitive tasks. Stress can serve as a signal for a panic reaction, or an
anxiety attack (e.g., blanking out during a test).
Stress can also trigger a "flight" response leading to careless "rushing
errors" (missing important details, inadvertently marking wrong responses on
tests, poor handwriting, etc.) resulting from the strong urge to escape from
the unpleasant test situation. A child may learn to avoid stress-producing
tasks, a behavior which results in poorer performance, and thus amplifies the
child's fear of failure at the task in the future. The aim of stress
management is to break the link between irrelevant stress reactions (diffused
attention, fear, etc.) and academic tasks.
WHAT ARE SOME ACHIEVEMENT STRESS WARNING SIGNALS?
1. Sudden dramatic increase or decrease in effort in school. 2. Major change
in attitude or temperament (irritability, lack of enthusiasm, carelessness).
3. Withdrawal or outbursts. 4. Overactive or distracting behaviors (fidgeting,
making unnecessary trips to the pencil sharpener or bathroom, nervous tics,
jumping from task to task, showing difficulty in concentrating, being prone to
accidents, and sighing). 5. Complaints of fatigue and vague illnesses. 6.
Problems sleeping. 7. Headaches or stomachaches. 8. Drug use or abuse. 9.
Increase in allergic or asthmatic attacks. 10. Avoidance of school or testing
situation by direct refusal or convenient illness (an unnecessary trip to the
nurse). 11. Loss of appetite or excessive eating, nail biting, refusing to do
chores. 12. Antisocial or disruptive behaviors (Rubenzer, 1987).
A referral to a school psychologist or counselor may be warranted if the
quantity or intensity of the above warning signals displayed by the child
raises concern. Conversely, decreases in these symptoms would indicate
improved stress coping skills.
THE ABC'S OF STRESS MANAGEMENT
Effective stress management requires a "whole child" approach which addresses
the child's attitude, behavior (skills), and circumstances.
STRESS-REDUCING ATTITUDES. Foster a relaxed classroom environment. Provide
humor as an outlet. Encourage one-thing-at-a-time thinking. Emphasize the
importance of affirmative, positive thinking on performance. Have the child
repeat such phrases as "I can do it," "I am calm and I can remember the right
answers," "I have studied hard so I will do well." Encourage the child to
discuss his or her problems with counseling personnel and others.
STRESS-REDUCING BEHAVIORS. After about 10 relaxation training sessions
(usually three 10- to 15-minute sessions per week) using such programs as QR,
Centering Books, Biofeedback monitor, Stress Dots or Calmpute (see
references), have the student practice relaxation while seated at a desk (with
eyes open). Make certain the student "unlocks" arms and legs, breathes deeply
and slowly, and relaxes muscles. If the child starts frowning or fidgeting
during the task, remind him or her to relax. Sitting at a desk will become a
cue for relaxation if the child is rewarded (saying thank you, etc.) for
relaxing when seated. It may be helpful for a child to engage in some
noncompetitive aerobic exercise for a few minutes prior to being seated to
help burn off energy.
STRESS-REDUCING CIRCUMSTANCES. Provide work which is usually within the
child's "comfort zone" in terms of success. Only after relaxation and
test-taking skills have been mastered should the child be given mildly
challenging work to inoculate him or her against panic attacks.
RELAXATION CENTERS. To assure that stress management will not be shelved and
simply discussed once a year, a relaxation center can be set up, to which
students can be assigned regularly (two to three times per week). A chart
indicating the time each student spends at the center may be useful. Designate
a small area, relatively free from sound and noise distractions. A study
carrel with a comfortable chair should be provided. Decorate the immediate
area with calm colors and soothing pictures or wallpaper designs. A cassette
player with earphones will be needed. A collection of relaxation audio
cassettes should be housed, as should biofeedback equipment if possible.
The special education classroom may be the only place where these children
will be equipped with stress management skills which will become increasingly
more important as the pressures to achieve academically increase.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
American Psychiatric Association. DIAGNOSTIC AND STATISTICAL MANUAL OF MENTAL
DISORDERS (3rd ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association, 1980.
Barker, B. "Helping Students Cope with Stress." LEARNING 15 (1987): 45-49.
Biofeedback Monitor, Tandy Corporation, Radio Shack, Fort Worth, TX 76102.
Calmpute--A biofeedback/stress reduction program. 2180 Belgrave Avenue,
Montreal, Quebec, Canada, H4A 2LB. (514) 489-8251.
Cawood, F. The Side Effects of Prescription Drugs. Peachtree City, GA: Frank
W. Cawood Associates, 1981.
Elkind, D. The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon. Reading, MA:
Addison Wesley, 1981.
Frey, N. "Improving the Performance of Poor Readers Through Autogenic
Relaxation Training." THE READING TEACHER (May, 1980): 928-932
Hendricks, C. G., and R. Wills. THE CENTERING BOOK: AWARENESS ACTIVITIES FOR
CHILDREN, PARENTS, AND TEACHERS. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1975.
Hill, K. T., and S. B. Sarason. "The Relation of Test Anxiety and
Defensiveness to Test and School Performance over the Elementary School
Years." MONOGRAPHS OF THE SOCIETY FOR RESEARCH IN CHILD DEVELOPMENT 31
Hill, K. T. and A. Wigfield. "Test Anxiety: A Major Educational Problem and
What Can Be Done About It." THE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL JOURNAL 85 (1984).
Hughes, H., K. Jackson, K. E. Du Bois, and R. Erwin. "Treatment of Handwriting
Problems Utilizing EMG Biofeedback Training." PERCEPTUAL AND MOTOR SKILLS 48
Omizo, N. M., and W. B. Michael. "Biofeedback-induced Relaxation Training and
Impulsivity, Attention to Task, and Locus of Control Among Hyperactive Boys."
JOURNAL OF LEARNING DISABILITIES 15 (1982): 414-416.
Rubenzer, R. L. "The Effect of Biofeedback-induced Relaxation on Test/math
Anxiety and Related Performance for Children in a Special School for the
Gifted." Doctoral dissertation, Columbia University. Dissertation Abstracts
Rubenzer, R. L. "Helping Your Children Deal with Stress." In D. Dinkmeyer, G.
D. McKay, D. Dinkmeyer, Jr., J. Dinkmeyer, and J. L. McKay, eds., THE
EFFECTIVE PARENT. Circle Pines, MN: American Guidance Service, 1984.
Sarason, S. B., K. S. Davidson, F. F. Lighthall, R. R. Waite, and B. K.
Ruebush. ANXIETY IN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL CHILDREN. New York: Wiley, 1960.
Stress Dots. Communication Unlimited, 11032 Pinyon Drive, Northglenn, CO
80234, (303) 424-4957.
Tobias, S. OVERCOMING MATH ANXIETY. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1980.