How does stress affect middle schoolers with emotional and behavioral problems?

Educators have long known that adolescents with emotional and behavior disorders have trouble dealing with stress.

But research has been lacking in how middle school-age kids with behavior problems and poor “executive functioning” skills respond to stressful situations at school, such as peer pressure and academic challenges.

Executive functioning abilities are essentially tools for living — foundational mental processes that allow one to succeed at work, school and in relationships; they involve inhibition, working memory and mental flexibility, which are crucial for doing things independently, planning, paying attention, managing time, and controlling our emotions and behaviors.

Michell Cumming

“Nobody has looked at this in terms of students with and without behavior problems, and the variables that contribute to and escalate emotional and behavioral problems,” says Michelle Cumming, an education scholar who last summer received a doctorate in Special Education from the College of Education at the University of Florida. She now is an assistant professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.

For her dissertation, Cumming sought to better understand the relationships among stress, executive function, stress regulation, and emotional and behavioral outcomes of middle school students with and without behavior problems.

She found that students with behavior problems had significantly lower executive functioning abilities and thus tended to act out in ineffective ways when under stress by becoming impulsive, aggressive or shutting down.

Research receives award

On April 21, Cumming was recognized for her research by receiving the Student Award in Quantitative Design from the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC), the world’s leading special education professional association. CEC, which held its annual conference in Boston, says the award recognizes outstanding research contributions to exceptional children and youth.

Specifically, Cumming conducted a study during the 2015-2016 school year of 79 middle school students in Florida, California and Arizona, roughly half of who were classified as having various behavior disorders. She used self-reported survey tools, including a National Institutes of Health-developed iPad app to assess the kids’ working memory, impulsiveness and cognitive flexibility. Teachers also were surveyed to report on students’ behaviors.

The results showed that students with emotional and behavior disorders had a sizable deficit in these executive functions, had higher peer stress, and use less effective stress regulation when encountering stress at school.

As with all such research, Cumming built her project on the work of others, most notably that of her faculty mentor, Stephen Smith, professor in the college’s Special Education program. She worked with Smith as a graduate research assistant to develop I Control, a school program to help foster self-regulation of middle school students with emotional and behavioral disorders.

“I feel really lucky to have been a research assistant on such an important topic in special education,” she says.

The importance of middle school

Cumming says studying students in middle school is vital because this is an age when behavior problems most often spring up, when kids are maturing in their executive functioning skills and may act out when under stress from things such as academic challenges and peer pressure.

There is a lot riding on this area of research, partly because federal law requires public schools to provide students who have significant emotional and behavioral problems with services “to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment and independent living,” Cumming writes, citing the Individual with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA).

Yet Cumming says schools have found that the programs they have implemented have had little impact on improving the outcomes for students with significant behavior problems.

“There is no school-based program that specifically targets executive functioning, stress regulation and stress reduction,” she says.

Cumming hopes her research and follow-up studies result in new programs that will improve these kids’ chances for success. She adds that mindfulness training and cognitive behavior therapy are among the most promising tools for living that can help these children.

“It’s so important to give them the tools to be able to manage their own behavior and  — this is key — manage their behaviors when adults aren’t around,” Cumming says. “It’s something they can take with them throughout their entire lives. I’m pretty passionate about this.”

Michelle Cumming, assistant professor, UNLV College of Education
Stephen Smith, professor in the Special Education, UF College of Education

Writer: Charles Boisseau, 352-273-4449, 512-431-2269