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College Park, MD—A new University of Maryland study examined how the negative impact of stress on dual language learners’ achievement in elementary school is mediated by grit and engagement. The study found that stress reduced student engagement in school, which, in turn, negatively affected later literacy achievement, although the study did not find that grit played a mediating role.
Led by Colleen O’Neal, assistant professor in the University of Maryland College of Education, the study, published in School Psychology International in January 2018, is one of few to examine the link between stress and achievement in a diverse, low-income elementary aged population. Previous research has not examined how socioemotional factors like grit and engagement may mediate the effect of stress on achievement.
“Students who are low-income, dual language learners from an ethnic minority background may face a significant amount of stress,” Dr. O’Neal said. “This study demonstrates how stress may hinder a student’s engagement in the classroom, which undermines their performance in school.”
The study’s 142 participants were 3rd-5th grade students from a suburban elementary school that served low-income students, with 95 percent of students receiving free or reduced price meals. All of the study participants were dual language learners, who spoke a language other than English with at least one parent, and the majority were Latino/a.
The short-term longitudinal study occurred over a four-month time period in 2014, with students self-reporting stress at the start of the study. Classroom teachers’ reports of student grit (one’s perseverance towards long-term goals) and engagement (how students react emotionally in a positive manner to school) levels midway through the study were used to examine how these factors explained the effect of stress on achievement. Literacy achievement was evaluated at the end of the study time period via a reading performance task. Testing controlled for initial levels of the mediators and literacy outcome.
“This research highlights the importance of social and emotional factors in achievement at school, as well as the need for considering the role of stress and cultural factors in dual language student success,” Dr. O’Neal said.
Dr. O’Neal’s research focuses on emotions, stress, and resilience among U.S. ethnic minority and immigrant students, as well as educational systems for international refugee students.