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Anxiety and Problem Solving in Kids with LD
Q: Is there a relationship between anxiety and problem solving skills in children with learning disabilities?
A: There is a relationship between anxiety and problem solving skills (and more) in all children, and especially those with learning disabilities. Children who are anxious or worry a lot about lots of things are in a chronic state of stress. Stress can also be caused by external factors such as noise or family arguing. Both types of stress can be harmful and can interrupt learning. For example, a recent study at Cornell University showed that the constant roar from jet aircraft could affect a child's blood pressure and the production of stress hormones, which in turn affect learning. Related studies show that children living near large airports tend to be poor listeners and do not read as well as children in quiet schools.
Whether stress is caused by external or internal causes, it can affect learning, and kids with learning disabilities are especially vulnerable. Many children with learning disabilities are worried about lots of things. They worry about all the stuff that concerns other kids, and then worry more. They worry about how well they will perform, about whether they will fail or be accepted by other kids, whether they will go to college, or whether their kids will have learning disabilities. They worry about what the other kids will think if they see them getting special help. They wonder whether modified tests will count as much as the "regular" tests. They worry about reading in public. The list goes on.
Recent discoveries from the field of neuroscience indicate that stress can cause an increase in certain stress hormones, particularly one called cortisol. Scientists know that stress can cause problems with memory and problem solving. High levels of cortisol in the blood in the brain make it difficult for cells in certain regions of the brain to absorb glucose, which is the major source of nutrition for the brain. The hippocampus is the area of the brain that has a lot to do with memory, and the cortisol is actually drawn to this region, where it can have a negative impact on memory and learning.
When stress levels drop (for example, when a test is over) cortisol levels drop and memory improves. That's why people often remember the answers to a test after it's over. The problem is that kids with learning disabilities can remain in a fairly chronic state of stress, unless they are in classrooms in which teachers help them relax and develop a sense of mastery over their learning disabilities. This means that their cortisol levels can remain elevated, and learning is impacted, and so on.
The solution is the creation of classrooms in which students can learn how to recognize anxiety and stress and do something to reduce it. Relaxation techniques such as deep breathing exercises, and "stress busters" or little activities (like taking a short, fast walk) can go far to lessen the effects of stress. In severe cases that don't respond to behavioral treatment, medication to relieve anxiety might be considered. Remember: not all stress is bad stress. It's the condition that our body gets into to help us get through challenging situations. Kids also have to learn about "good stress" and how to use it.
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Jerome (Jerry) Schultz is the founding clinical director of the Learning Lab @ Lesley University, a program that provides assessment, tutoring, and case management services for children with learning challenges. Schultz holds a Ph.D. from Boston College, and has completed postdoctoral fellowships in both clinical psychology and pediatric neuropsychology.