Students who struggle with their work at the high school level are quickly identified by parents and teachers because producing work—such as term papers, essays, quizzes, homework, and projects—is the way that learning is assessed. It’s hard for a teacher to know what or if a student is learning when there is no tangible product coming in to be reviewed or graded. Working as a school psychologist in a high school setting for the past several years has given me the opportunity to notice something about many of the students who don’t turn in assignments: They are often stuck in a cycle that involves a pernicious interaction of three overlapping cognitive processes: sustained attention, working memory, and anxiety or stress. When students have a problem with one or, more typically, all of these functions, it’s hard for them to produce.
Max was a 15-year-old high school freshman who earned his first-ever D in the first semester and was failing most of his courses in the spring. Max’s teachers reported that he was passive in class, putting his head down and rarely if ever turning in work. As the number of missing assignments increased and his grades went down, Max’s response to his stress was to freeze.
Like Max, Sarah seemed overwhelmed by the demands of 9th grade and had increasingly poor attendance, reporting numerous physical complaints. She was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. Sarah’s response to her stress was flight: She began to miss more and more school or leave class to visit the nurse’s office. It became quite difficult for teachers to assess her progress because Sarah turned in very little work.
Peter was a high school freshman with a diagnosis of ADHD. Although he had taken stimulant medication since early elementary school, by the spring of freshman year, he had D’s in the core subjects as teachers reported missing work and erratic test performance. He was quick to describe himself as having a “terrible memory.” Peter’s response to his stress was to fight: He became irritable, uncommunicative, and angry with his teachers and family.
Psychological and academic achievement testing completed with all three students revealed average to above average intelligence and academic achievement scores, but also weaknesses in some aspects of executive functioning. All three students were caught in the same repeating cycle: Anxiety and stress reduced working memory capacity, making it harder to pay attention, so they missed work, which in turn increased their anxiety, and so on. Max’s entry point to this cycle was attention, Sarah’s was anxiety, and Peter’s was working memory, but once they entered the cycle all three found it it difficult to break out. And the cycle was lubricated by a thick coating of shame because they felt they had let everyone down: their parents, teachers, coaches, and peers, and most poignantly themselves.
Successful plans for learners like these consider the three cognitive processes—sustained attention, working memory, and anxiety—and typically include classroom accommodations as well as increased adult support both at home and at school.
A Four-Point Plan for Disrupting This Cycle
- Demystify the cycle: The students and their parents expressed considerable relief when the cycle was explained. We provided the students and their parents with handouts and links to learn more about executive function as well as explicit information about how the brain and body experience stress. Care was taken to reframe each student’s response (freeze, flight, or fight) as a natural and predictable outcome of the cycle.
- Highlight strengths: We highlighted average and above average scores on standardized measures of cognition and academic achievement for each student. And we noted positive parent and social connections, with suggestions about how those could be leveraged for productivity. This step was particularly important for Peter because when students have glitches in working memory function, it is hard for them to think of themselves as smart. Students with limited output need to understand that their areas of challenge do not completely define them.
- Implement strategies at the entry point: We provided specific suggestions for each student at the place in the cycle where they showed the most vulnerability—attention for Max, anxiety for Sarah, and working memory for Peter—and we outlined classroom accommodations, helpful ways to use technology, and new family routines for each of them. And we tried to instill hope, bolstered by concepts of neuroplasticity and growth mindset.
- Provide additional adult supports: We suggested a supported study hall for all three students, with a learning specialist to coach them in the development of executive function skills—they all required instruction and supervised practice in planning, organization, time management, and self-monitoring. Max and Sarah were also assigned weekly check-ins with a school counselor who could collaborate with their outside therapists, help them recognize and then modify some unhelpful cognitive scripts, and learn and practice new strategies for stress management.
Max, Sarah, and Peter have begun to see positive results from these four interventions, but they still have areas to work on—Max and Peter need to develop more independence to manage multiple assignments, and Sarah is building the self-advocacy skills she needs to get back on track after an absence.
These three students are clear examples of how a student can develop a problem with productivity. Of course, many times the picture is not so clear. Other factors can contribute to and/or overlay and intensify this web: slow processing speed, reading or math disabilities, dysgraphia, poverty, a trauma history, physical illness, family stress, etc. Other teens choose to numb their stress with alcohol or drug use, which further complicates the issues and adds more steps to the solution. The students in the three examples here have positive and supportive family relationships and healthy social connections. When those supports are missing, students can feel more ashamed, alone, and stuck.
Even when the picture for non-producing teens is complex, helping them, their parents, and their teachers to recognize and then respond to the cycle at the root of the learning challenge is essential in order to help get them back on track.