Emotions, Learning Differences & Academic Grit
We all have emotions! Emotions are what make life rich and unique. Some emotions are positive, some negative, some stronger than others. As parents, we see our children develop emotions as they respond to the world around them. We can feel the front lines of the raw emotions with our kids. In fact, tons of literature has been written about the terrible twos, the teen years, launching students to college or independence. So how do emotions play into development when a child has a learning difference?
Learner Differences: Processing Information
The very position of being a student means that new information is presented daily for a person to learn. Information a person doesn’t already know. Take the example of upper elementary or middle school student. There are typically 4-5 academic classes (math, english, science, social studies and reading/lit). One student is required to ‘learn’ at least one thing but probably several in each one of those classes. Adding to that social emotional learning, navigating peer relationships, teacher/student relationships, getting to/from school with all materials. It’s no surprise kids are tired when they return home and even a little cranky. If we as adults encountered new circumstances every day, I can’t imagine how tiring this could truly be. Much of the time, students handle the novelty of all of the learning that happens in a day because over time, routine becomes reliable and they can focus on academic material.
What is Academic Grit?
Now let’s take the situation for student A – let’s call him Alexander. Alexander has ADHD which means his brain would prefer to focus on many things at once rather than one thing at a time. He is more easily distracted by _______ (a peer, a noise, an itchy shirt, his stomach). Alexander has to do the same ‘learning’ as the other students but it’s harder for him because his brain learns differently. So for every effort of 1 for a typical student, Alexander is putting in a 1.3 of effort. Does Alexander have 1.3 of resources to give what is needed for him to keep pace?
Emotionally, what is happening with Alexander when he is having to expend 1.3 worth of effort? Does he feel overwhelmed? Does he persevere? Does he want to give up? Is he tempted to lie about the upcoming work because he’s out of resources, like ‘get up and go’, ‘ask for help’, ‘focus’? How do we help Alexander learn about his own brain and develop the grit he needs to be successful in life – the perseverance that will propel him forward?
Matthew Tull, PhD writes in Very Well Mind, Distress tolerance is a person’s ability to manage actual or perceived emotional distress. For our student specifically, how is Alexander, tolerating the emotional ‘distress’ that he experiences daily having to work on his weakest areas – focusing and learning? Alexander is tasked with ‘learning’ because he is a ‘student’ so each and every day, he goes to school facing a challenge that is more difficult for him than other students. If this is true, why is it any surprise that he might be experiencing a more intense emotional response.
Now let’s take Sally. Sally has anxiety. She is also a student which by definition means that her job is learning or being presented with new information – every – single – day in every-single-class. Sally is in 7th grade so she is also experiencing the social pressures of middle school. When Sally experiences anxiety due to________(upcoming assignments, sitting with someone new at lunch, a cranky teacher), her brain, the learning and decision making part or the frontal lobe, locks up and her amygdala (fight or flight part) takes over. That is the brain’s natural response to danger. Sally’s brain isn’t in a position to ‘learn’ because that requires her frontal lobe but due to the anxiety or fear, that part of her brain is not available.
So how do we build academic grit or distress tolerance in students with learning differences and is it important? It’s in fact critical for these students to be lifelong learners.
- First, we need to understand what is happening with students so we can make adjustments and meet them where they are.
- Second, we need to teach students about their brains (the learning and the emotional parts) so they understand themselves and can partner in solving the problem.
- Third, we need to draw attention to learning, not just performance. Performance is reflected on tests/quizzes with grades. Learning is about the connectedness of information. Learning requires emotional safety, perseverance, and self reflection.
- Cultivate a Growth Mindset – setbacks are a natural part of the learning process and that even if students struggle, skills can improve over time.
Here are some coping strategies to build distress tolerance or academic grit
- Distraction – students with ADHD often go to distraction because it gives them emotional relief and is ‘easier’ versus focusing. While maybe initially helpful, it can lead to problems like procrastination. Sometimes coming alongside a student to get them started is just the support they need to realize the assignment is easier than they expected.
- Improving the Moment – if we have to do something we don’t like or is hard, let’s make it as pleasant as possible. A clean and comfortable desk, peaceful and calm environment, relaxing music, a snack or even visualizing a relaxing break when finished with an assignment are all ways to improve the moment.
- Pros and Cons – this works well for students who have trouble seeing ahead or have experienced a setback. Hindsight is 20/20 so let’s not let the learning opportunity pass. What will happen if you ______ (ignore that assignment vs tackle the first part tonight, making a study tool for the vocabulary vs. just looking it over). How could we address that differently this time?
- Radical Acceptance – accepting things as they are. For instance: Alexander, you are a student which means your job is learning. You also have a learning difference which means your job is hard. With practice it will get easier and that test will not go away. I see you working and I believe in you. Hey Sally, new information and tons of assignments can be scary and uncomfortable, let’s unpack this together and see what’s really going on. I love a challenge and appreciate your willingness to let me solve this problem with you.
For students with learning differences, what would happen if we praised perseverance over performance? Behavioral Science reminds us that what we focus on grows.
As leaders of little people (or big people), what is your focus?