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Last Updated: 04/12/2018


Article of Interest - Children At-risk

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Bridges4Kids LogoHelping Children With Emotional Problems Succeed
by Martin Henley and Nicholas Long, Classroom Leadership, Volume 7, Number 3, November 2003

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According to Martin Henley and Nicholas Long, teachers and caregivers should first be aware of and sensitive to warning signs of developing emotional problems. Second, they should use the following strategies to help students overcome their emotional barriers to learning:

(1) Make learning relevant;

(2) Help students establish positive peer relationships;

(3) Teach behavior management skills;

(4) Identify and deal with depression;

(5) Support activities that foster feelings of competence, strengthen social relationships, and bolster self-efficacy;
(6) Help students cope with stress; and

(7) Instill hope. More than anything else, troubled youth need to know their lives can improve. When teachers provide a refuge from the "bad" in a student's life, they inspire hope and help students see that the past is not necessarily a prelude to the future. Also, teachers who focus on developing students' strengths are more successful than those who focus on fixing flaws.

Helping Students with Emotional Problems Succeed

Seventh grader Maria sits silently at her desk while her science teacher leads an enthusiastic discussion on the extinction of dinosaurs. Maria is preoccupied with darker thoughts than the demise of the largest animals that ever roamed the earth. The 13-year-old is thinking about killing herself.

Lamont is 15 years old and frequently absent. His mother is a drug addict, and his abusive father is rarely around. Lamont was arrested three times in the last year. According to federal guidelines, Lamont is ineligible for special education services because he is considered "socially maladjusted."

The majority of students with emotional problems sit undetected in general education classrooms. What can a teacher do to help these youngsters learn? First, be aware of and sensitive to warning signs of developing emotional problems (see box on p. 3). Second, use strategies such as those suggested in this article to help students overcome their emotional barriers to learning.

Strategies for Success
Make learning relevant. Emotional distress saps motivation. The distress that accompanies failing grades and teacher reprimands can reinforce students' notion that school simply isn't relevant. Noncompliance, disinterest, and avoidance are symptoms exhibited by students whose perseverance is undermined by poor academic achievement.

What works: To offset emotional distress, give students opportunities to experience school success. The emotionally distressed student is focused more on the concrete "here and now" than the abstract future. Establishing links between the curriculum and the students' lives injects relevance into lessons. Survey students about their interests and how they spend their free time. Use this information as a backdrop for lessons.

Help students establish positive peer relationships. Peers are second only to family in their influence on a youngster's emotional development. Positive peer relationships foster tolerance of others, help students build effective interpersonal skills, and promote self-confidence. The unwelcome outcomes of negative peer relationships include smoking, alcohol abuse, teenage pregnancy, and delinquent behavior.

What works: Teachers can enhance peer relationships by structuring routines that foster a sense of classroom community. Cooperative learning, peer tutoring, and classroom meetings promote interdependence. These structured student interactions help to dispel the negative effects of cliques while promoting the notion that everyone has something useful to contribute. If students don't have the social skills they need to successfully participate in classroom routines, provide instruction in such skills.

Teach behavior management skills. It may be difficult to understand why a reasonable request, a minor classroom frustration, or an accidental bump from a peer can prompt sudden rage in some students. But students who have been rejected by or alienated from significant others believe that further rejection is inevitable. In situations that trigger feelings of anxiety, insecurity, or fear, their impulsive response is anger and noncompliance.

What works: Teachers who remain objective are most effective at defusing conflict. These teachers recognize that misbehavior always has a reason, and this recognition helps them avoid impulsive reactions to a student's conduct that can cause a minor episode to explode into a full-blown crisis. As teachers practice restraint, they can also teach students to reflect on their actions and to use more constructive ways of managing their emotions. Identifying in-school events that trigger disruptive behavior can provide teachers and students with ideas on how to modify school routines to support constructive actions.

Identify and deal with depression. Almost 5 percent of children and adolescents experience symptoms of depression. Persistent sadness or irritability, loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities, disrupted sleep, agitation, loss of energy, feelings of worthlessness or inappropriate guilt, difficulty concentrating, and recurrent thoughts of death or suicide are major symptoms. Early identification is the key to successful treatment through a combination of counseling, psychotherapy, and medication.

What works: Major depressive disorder is characterized by a pattern of five or more symptoms. If symptoms persist for six months, a referral to a school counselor is recommended. A youngster's family may need assistance in engaging the services of a counselor with expertise in depressive disorders. Students cannot "snap out of" depression. Understanding and empathy are more effective than attempts to change behavior through reprimands, incentives, or heart-to-heart talks. Fatigue is a common classroom complaint. Students need extra time to finish assignments, projects tailored to their interests, and brief breaks. Classroom activities that foster feelings of competence and strengthen social relationships bolster self-efficacy.

Help students cope with stress. Like steam building in a tightly lidded pot, emotional distress, when not vented, exerts pressure on the body. Physical reactions—such as frequent headaches, abdominal pain, asthma, hives, chest pains, and dizziness—can emerge if students don't address the causes of stress or if they aren't taught effective coping strategies. Legitimate psycho-physiological ailments persist for four months or longer. Only a physician can make an accurate diagnosis.

What works: Using an upset stomach or other physical ailment to escape schoolwork is not unusual. However, when physical complaints are frequent, a student should be referred to a physician to rule out medical origins. Input from family members can help identify unusual stressors. Counseling builds coping strategies. Chronic stress can lead to depression. Local mental health services should be accessed if symptoms persist despite school-based interventions. A combination of coping strategies will alleviate distress. If eliminating the source of stress isn't possible, teach students relaxation techniques and other stress-reduction methods.

Instill Hope
More than anything else, troubled youth need to know their lives can improve. Consider this comment by 10-year-old Reynaldo: "A lot of people get shot in my neighborhood, but nothing bad has happened to me yet." When teachers provide a refuge from the "bad" in a student's life, they inspire hope and help students see that the past is not necessarily a prelude to the future.

Unfortunately, the symptoms of students' emotional struggles produce more heat than light. Noncompliance, anger, and aggression don't ordinarily engender acceptance and understanding. Yet, teachers who focus on developing students' strengths are more successful than those who focus on fixing flaws. By not giving up on youth, proactive teachers help sustain the belief in a brighter future.
More information and a graph outlining warning signs for emotion problems can be found at


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