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Emotional Distress Impairs Academic Success

Emotional Distress Impairs Academic Success – If your child is not performing well in school or if you have noticed a decline in their academic performance, it is possible he or she is suffering from emotional distress, such as depression or anxiety.  According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1 in 33 children may have clinical depression and 1 in 10 young people may have an anxiety disorder. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, suicide is the sixth leading cause of death for 5 -15 year olds and the third leading cause of death for 15-24 year olds. Mental health problems apparently affect about 1 in 5 young people and two-thirds of all young people with mental health problems are reportedly not getting the help they need.


The correlation of how emotional distress impairs academic success is well-known. Mental health issues do not exist in a vacuum, but have a relationship with and influence other areas of functioning.  Just as an adult with anxiety or depression may have trouble concentrating at work or relating to their spouse, a child with distress is likely to have difficulty functioning in school in some manner or problems with relationships.

There are many ways emotional distress impairs academic success. Mental distractibility is a typical finding resulting in a decline in academic performance. Problems with initiation, getting going in the morning, and thus getting to school on time are characteristic. A child’s behavior can be affected, and there could be acting-out behavior, agitation or oppositional behavior. Psychomotor slowing is commonplace with depression, making school-related tasks, especially with time constraints, challenging. Insomnia often occurs with emotional distress, which can make it hard to function the next day in school.

An emotionally distressed child may have decreased motivation and energy for school and may have a difficult time focusing and attending to tasks. Psychosomatic symptoms and physical health problems can result, which could lead to more visits to the pediatrician and thus more school absences. Social functioning is frequently affected, which could manifest with conflicted peer relationships, withdrawal behavior, or isolation. Low self-esteem could influence the ability to connect with peers.

The unfortunate result is that without treatment an emotionally distressed child is not likely to function at full academic potential. In many cases, a child with serious learning challenges and/or emotional distress is appropriate for accommodations (such as extra time) on classroom work and standardized tests like the SAT and ACT. However, if parents are unaware of the child’s challenges and do not seek treatment or resources, they are unable to obtain help for their children, such as by helping formulate an individualized educational plan to help their child perform better, or helping them obtain adaptive coping skills. Or having psychological testing done to determine the need for standardized test accommodations. If you think your child is experiencing mental health issues, talk with them and determine if you think they might benefit from seeing a mental health professional like a psychologist.  You can always consult with a professional if unsure as to whether you should seek psychological treatment for your child.

It is important to stay in touch with your child’s teacher to understand strengths, weaknesses and overall performance and progress. We should address psychological issues and emotional distress early in life for primary preventive purposes (especially because as we age our issues can become more longstanding). It also seems shrewd to teach adaptive coping and problem resolution skills before maladaptive ones are learned. If we want to afford our children with the most sophisticated tools to deal with life challenges, and hope they become prosperous and well adjusted, we must appreciate their mental health, understand how it affects their daily living and academic success, and provide them with psychological resources if necessary. After all, emotional distress impairs academic success.

Dr. Weitzman Zoref is a licensed clinical psychologist with a private practice in Birmingham, Michigan.  She works with children, adolescents and adults in individual and conjoint psychotherapy, as well as conducts psychological and psycho-educational testing. She is a member of the American Psychological Association, the Michigan Psychological Association and the Michigan Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.  She is recognized by the National Register of Health Service Providers in Psychology, in addition to being a CAQH (Counsel of Affordable Quality Healthcare) provider.

For more info on how Emotional Distress Impairs Academic Success, contact…

Marcie Weitzman Zoref, Psy.D.
950 East Maple Road, Suite 207
Birmingham, MI 48009

This Emotional Distress Impairs Academic Success article was contributed to OaklandCountyMoms by Dr. Marcie Weitzman Zoref, Psy.D. – originally posted in 2011.

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