Students with Learning Problems at Risk in Middle School: Stress, Social Support, and Adjustment

Article excerpt

The changes that occur in early adolescence occur within almost every domain of the student's life--physical, social, educational, and familial. Most of these changes are gradual and have different timetables and magnitudes for different adolescents. However, one change that has a predictable timetable for the entire peer group is the educational move into middle school. This change brings with it increased academic demands and social challenges that can lead to stress and adjustment problems for some adolescents (Eccles et al., 1993; Elias et al., 1992). We believe that one group that is at particular risk for stress and adjustment problems in middle school are students with learning problems due to specific learning disabilities or mild mental retardation.

Students with learning problems come to the middle school period with a history of academic and social problems (Center & Wascom, 1986; La Greca & Stone, 1990; Wigle, White, & Parish, 1988). These preexisting difficulties may be compounded in middle school because, in comparison to elementary school, middle school generally means a more complex learning environment. The complexity of the new learning environment increases both academically, in terms of grading practices and the amount of material that the student must organize and master, and socially, in terms of negotiating larger and more fluctuating peer groups, and more conflictual student-teacher relationships (Eccles et al., 1993; Elias, Gara, & Ubriaco, 1985). Further, while the difficulties that students with learning problems experience with academics and peers may not be new, these difficulties likely become more stressful as students seek to develop greater autonomy, more intimate peer relationships, and a sense of identity.

While few studies have examined adolescents' with learning problems experience of stress (Geisthardt & Munsch, 1996; Helms, 1995; Strubbe, 1989; Zetlin, 1993), most have shown that they do represent a group at risk. For instance, in middle school, students with learning problems have been found to experience significantly more school stress than those without disabilities (Strubbe), and in later adolescence, students with learning problems have been shown to have concerns that go beyond the norm, relating specifically to their having a learning problem (Zetlin). Only one study found little difference in the stress experienced by adolescents with and without learning problems (Geisthardt & Munsch), although that study narrowly defined student stress. Clearly, it would be useful to establish not only whether students with learning problems experience more stress in middle school than those without learning problems, but also, to identify the specific nature of the stressors they experience.

While students with learning problems may experience more stress in middle school, they may also experience less social support. Social support from family, friends, and adults outside the home has been found to be a critical aspect of how students deal with stress and adjust to their expanding environment (Compas, Slavin, Wagner, & Vannatta, 1986; Hirsch & DuBois, 1992). Although social support in adolescents with learning problems in middle school has rarely been studied, recent studies of preadolescents with learning problems have shown that these students view their friendships as less positive and supportive, and turn to their families less for problem-solving support than preadolescents without learning problems (Morrison, Laughlin, Smith, Ollansky, & Moore, 1992; Wenz-Gross & Siperstein, 1996; 1997). Research also suggests that in later adolescence, students with learning problems continue to experience less social support from peers and others in their network (Geisthardt & Munsch, 1996; Park, Tappe, Cameto, & Gaylord-Ross, 1990) than those without learning problems. Therefore, we could expect that students with learning problems may not only experience more stress in middle school, but also less social support, particularly from peers. …