The material in this article is based on “Stress and the LD Puzzle,” the Keynote presentation by Jerome J. Schultz, Ph.D., Harvard-based clinical neuropsychologist, author and consultant, at the conference Best Practices and New Perspectives in the Field of Learning Disabilities and Attention Deficits. The content of the presentation comes directly from Schultz’s book Nowhere to Hide: Why Kids With ADHD & LD Hate School, and What We Can Do About It (Jossey-Bass/Wiley 2011). The conference was co-sponsored by Eagle Hill School, Greenwich, CT and Smart Kids with LD.
Children today experience a considerable amount of stress. Their lives are full and fast-paced. Adults often have unrealistic expectations: performance is emphasized over process, and a lack of respect is shown for cooperative learning and alternative ways of demonstrating competence. In a culture where “more is better,” kids take more tests, write more essays, enroll in more AP and Honors classes, and more than ever before, attend college and graduate school. They are pushed to do more after-school activities, even though poorly chosen activities (such as the wrong sport or instrument or too many sports or instruments) only increases their stress levels. And although more is asked of them, kids are expected to excel at everything they do. According to Dr. Schultz, “Excellent has become the new normal.”
The LD Connection
Children with LD and ADHD are especially vulnerable to stress and are more negatively impacted by it. For them, just getting through the day is demanding. A school day is long and filled with academic challenges: spoken and written language, multi-step directions, unfamiliar words, and fresh concepts. Information is given, questions are asked and quick, yet thoughtful, answers are expected.
The cumulative consequence of poor academic and social performance is a reduced tolerance for difficulty and frustration.
Each day they must make their way through hallways to the next class on time, socialize just the right amount with the “right” people, and change in and out of gym clothes efficiently and without embarrassment. Sometimes routines are broken and extra resiliency is required: a substitute teacher appears or a friend turns mean.
Both in and out of school, it is harder for kids with LD to be successful. All kids are afraid of failure, but kids with LD will do almost anything to save face and prevent themselves from failing. When under constant stress, they react with the academic equivalent of fight or flight. Being forced or even encouraged to do something they believe they can’t do generates a cycle of Fear-Avoidance-Stress-Escape, which allows them to “Save FASE”—the acronym I coined to describe this protective responsive behavior.
They may challenge and argue with teachers and peers, over-estimate or under-estimate their abilities, resist or avoid a task, make jokes, get silly, destroy an assignment, claim the work isn’t important, or try to physically escape from the situation by asking to get a drink of water, use the restroom, or go to the nurse’s office. These are predictable reactions to chronic stress for kids with LD.
When teachers, specialists, coaches and parents observe these behaviors, they frequently misread them as oppositional, defiant, inattentive, unmotivated, or lazy.
While kids with LD often know they have trouble getting through the day, they generally don’t understand the nature of their learning difficulties or what they can do about them. When parents, teachers and coaches misinterpret the student’s challenges, it creates further stress for the child, making him feel like more of a failure.
Understanding the Issues
Even when adults do recognize that their children are struggling, they rarely understand what the underlying problems are. Consequently, they’re not able to explain the problems to their kids or help them understand why certain things are harder for them. Learning disabilities are complicated to identify and analyze: Does the child have a delayed response to the nuances of social communication? Is he missing subtleties in language, mishearing words that are unfamiliar? Does he, consequently, misuse words or stumble with multi-step directions? Is it because he processes auditory input more slowly?
No matter what the learning issue is, parents and educators should support the child by explaining the challenge and making it understandable. Kids with LD must realize that having a learning or attention difficulty is not an excuse for poor performance but may be a way to explain their difficulty to others. When students finally learn what will help them be successful and are able to put it into words, much of their stress will be alleviated.
DE-STRESS: A Model for Change
The impact of stress on the brain is not all bad: the key is managing the stress effectively. Neuroscientist and Nobel Laureate Dr. Eric Kandel explained that just as fear, distress, and anxiety change the brain to generate sequences of inappropriate, destructive behaviors, the right interventions can turn the cycle around. That’s what my DE-STRESS model aims to accomplish. It includes the following steps:
- Define the condition so the child understands it; without an understanding, he can’t proceed.
- Educate the child about the impact his challenges have on himself and others.
- Speculate about the future: look at how the child’s strengths and assets, as well as his challenges, will impact his prospects going forward.
- Teach the child strategies that will address his specific needs and maximize his success.
- Reduce the risk of failure (e.g., provide smaller classes or study spaces, decrease distractions and noise).
- Exercise: explain that physical activity reduces stress. Once the child sees and feels the benefits, he will make physical activities part of his schedule.
- Success: replace doubt with confidence. Show the child that confidence and control can be created through competence. Help him internalize the mantra, “control through competence.”
- Strategize and use what you and your child have learned to plan ahead.
- Understand the relationship between stress and learning.
- Understand why students with LD and ADHD are particularly vulnerable to stress.
- Correctly interpret stress-induced behaviors.
- Help students develop a sense of confidence and competence that comes from success. Teach the mantra: control through competence.
- Teach students how to self-evaluate and cope with their stress.
- Provide kids with emotional support.
- Advocate for students to have learning environments in which they can experience success.
For more information about Dr. Schultz, a Harvard-based clinical neuropsychologist, consultant, and author of “Nowhere to Hide: Why Kids With ADHD & LD Hate School, and What We Can Do About It” (Jossey-Bass/Wiley 2011), visit his website www.jeromeschultz.com.
Eve Kessler, Esq., a criminal appellate lawyer with The Legal Aid Society, NYC, is co-founder and President of SPED*NET Wilton, Special Education Network of Wilton (CT), www.spednetwilton.org, and a Contributing Editor of Smart Kids.