School & District Management

How Students’ Emotions Affect Their Schooling

By Sarah D. Sparks & Debra Viadero — April 19, 2016 4 min read
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As students transition through school—from the elementary to secondary grades, even from school to school—they often become uncertain about their sense of belonging. And that uncertainty can, in turn, translate to poorer cognitive skills and declining gains.

Emerging studies presented recently at the American Educational Research Association national conference suggest new ways of supporting students emotionally during transitions—and how badly things can go wrong when students don’t feel supported.

“Kids who think they have control over their emotions are more likely to use adaptive strategies to deal with stress, and ultimately have higher well-being,” said Eric Smith, a Stanford University postdoctoral researcher.

Smith and his colleagues surveyed 2,119 students in 10 middle schools across the country, with about 60 percent of students in poverty. The researchers asked how often students used different coping strategies during a stressful situation, such as when a friend ignores them.

Students who frequently distracted themselves, accepted their emotions, asked for help, and reappraised the situation to change their perspective had higher levels of what the researchers called “school and general well-being.” Students who felt they had more internal control were coping in healthier ways.

By contrast, students who mentally rehashed the stressful situation—called “ruminating"—fared worse.

Unfortunately, the researchers also found that the older students got, the more they suppressed or obsessed over their emotions, and the less they asked for help or accepted their own feelings.

Boost for Well-Being

To reverse the decline in well-being experienced by transitioning students, researchers from the University of Wisconsin and the University of Chicago sought in a separate study to scale up an intervention that had already been shown to lessen the anxieties of beginning college students. At the start of their middle school careers in 2013, 1,190 6th graders from 11 Madison, Wis., middle schools were randomly assigned to take part in the intervention.

The students read three to four pages of made-up quotes from a survey they were told had been given to students like them at the end of the previous year. The reading was meant to convey that their anxiety was typical and transitory. “I felt like I had a knot in my stomach the first four months,” read one such quote, which added that the teachers at the school “were there to help you” and that the negative feelings dissipated. The students were then asked to write responses to what they read.

When the researchers checked in with students the following spring, they found that:

  • The students in the experimental group had higher ratings on several measures of academic well-being, including social belonging, school trust, and school identification—and lower levels of evaluation anxiety—than those in the control group.
  • There were higher GPAs and fewer Ds and Fs in the intervention group.
  • Participants had missed one less day of school than their control-group peers.
  • And there were fewer behavior referrals for the intervention students.

The effect sizes achieved were “really pretty good” for education, said co-investigator Geoffrey D. Borman, who presented the study. “They are the same as the effect sizes for comprehensive school reforms,” which cost much more, said Borman, a quantitative methodologist at the University of Wisconsin.

The Madison study and others presented at the same session “show how deeply intertwined are cognition and emotion,” said Adam Gamoran, the president of the William T. Grant Foundation.

“How we think about a stressful situation influences how we feel and how we perform,” he added. “It turns out children are better able to cope if they understand what they’re going through is normal, that it affects everyone, and that it will pass.”

He acknowledged, however, that such positive findings have drawn skepticism from scholars outside social psychology, who ask: “How can such a small experience have such big consequences?” But he noted that the interventions, however simple, were “not dreamed up over breakfast” and stem from years of research and development.

Feeling Betrayed

By contrast, failing to support students emotionally during a potentially traumatic transition can permanently damage their academic trajectory.

In a third study at the meeting, Matthew Newman Gaertner, a principal research scientist at the research group SRI International, and his colleagues found that district policies can backfire when leaders don’t take students’ emotions into account. Gaertner and his colleagues tracked students who were forced to change schools when their own school, a large, unnamed high-poverty school in a Western district, was closed for chronic poor performance and shrinking enrollment.

In the study, detailed in the 2016 book When School Policies Backfire: How Well-Intentioned Measures Can Harm Our Most Vulnerable Students, researchers found the school community felt betrayed by the closure—it had been assured the school would not be closed before the school board voted to do so—and students felt blamed for the closure even a year later. One student told researchers, “People label us as bad, stupid, or useless, but people don’t know what it feels like to be forced out.”

The district had dubbed the closure a “rescue mission” intended to settle students into higher-performing schools and boost their graduation chances. Instead, students’ academic progress declined. While students had grown on average 20 points per year in math and 19 points in reading from 6th through 10th grade on annual district tests at their previous school, in the years after the closure they lost 2.3 years of typical score growth in math and 3.7 years in reading. Their likelihood of dropping out of high school doubled as their graduation rate fell.

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Coverage of learning mindsets and skills is supported in part by a grant from the Raikes Foundation, at www.raikesfoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the April 20, 2016 edition of Education Week as Studies Affirm Role of Emotions in Students’ Transitions

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