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Research at Boston University

Reading the Signs
of Stress

By Maggie Bucholt
Early Childhood

From the concept of sharing, to the hurdles children face in learning to read, faculty across Boston University are examining how early experiences shape children’s lives and the ways in which they learn. As parents, teachers, and caregivers strive to instill the emotional and cognitive skill sets needed for children to succeed, these three researchers are demonstrating that simple modifications to the ways we teach can have a profound impact on the ways we learn.

Photo by
Frank Curran

Stress and anxiety can take many forms, most of them difficult to observe, especially in young children. These feelings can influence many areas of their lives, including reading skills.

"For many kids, anxiety has a strong cognitive component," says Amie Grills-Taquechel, assistant professor of counseling & human development in the School of Education, who studies anxiety in various contexts of children’s lives. “They’ll say to themselves, ‘I can’t do this’ or ‘I’m going to fail again.’ These kinds of thoughts can interfere with their learning or with applying learned skills in the classroom.”

A licensed clinical psychologist, Grills-Taquechel is the recipient of the Mentored Clinical Scientist Research Career Development Award for 2009–2014 from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). She has investigated bullying and friendship; parental anxiety; and stress, achievement, and attention in learning and has published her findings widely. She is a coauthor of Phobic and Anxiety Disorders in Children and Adolescents, published in 2012, and is working on a second book, Bullying and Peer Victimization in Youth, a collaboration with Melissa K. Holt, another assistant professor at the School of Education.

"The beauty of my current NICHD grant is that I can study what I’m passionate about, and I was able to join an outstanding research program at the Texas Center for Learning Disabilities in Houston."

In her studies, Grills-Taquechel has found children in every possible combination of anxiety level and reading skill. But the children who had better reading comprehension tended to be less nervous than those who did not, and the children with moderate harm-avoidance anxiety (“I try to do everything right. I always obey.”) tended to perform better.

"If a child is anxious, that anxiety can interfere with the ability to deal with academic material," she says. "Then there is the other possibility, that the difficulty they’re having learning to read generates anxiety. We have found that for some kids who aim to please, anxiety can seem motivating, but when it gets too high, it’s a problem."

Grills-Taquechel and her colleagues have published their findings in Child Psychiatry and Human Development and in Anxiety, Stress, and Coping, the official journal of the Stress and Anxiety Research Society. She is currently working on a project that applies what has been learned from their past work on anxiety and reading interventions. The next set of studies will include an expanded component proposed by Nathan Jones, assistant professor of elementary, early childhood & special education, who is interested in teacher stress and affective responses to teaching.

"If they can learn to manage their stress, kids can focus and do better, instead of focusing on their anxiety; this is one of the goals of our work now," Grills-Taquechel says.

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