UH Psychology Professor Focusing on Anxiety's Effect on Learning

Thousands of children are burdened by not being able to read. Learning disabilities are often to blame for such classroom challenges, but University of Houston researcher Amie Grills-Taquechel is exploring another factor that may hamper reading skills.

Grills-Taquechel, UH research associate professor of psychology, is investigating how anxiety inhibits children's learning and how children who have trouble learning to read may develop difficulties with anxiety. She recently received a $620,000 National Institutes of Health Mentored Clinical Scientist Research Career Development Award that will support this five-year investigation. It is funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD)

"Anxiety is among the most common difficulties experienced by children, and people often don't realize how it can impact a child in the classroom," she said. "Many times, teachers think that a student who is having trouble in the classroom has attention or learning problems. Sometimes, these students might be anxious. A child might seem inattentive, but it might be because he or she is worried and thinking about all of their fears. This causes them to be distracted, miss schoolwork and get behind. They also might do poorly on schoolwork even when they know the answers. They might be so distracted by their anxieties that they will have difficulties completing exams or meeting deadlines."

Throughout her study, Grills-Taquechel will work with researchers in the Texas Center for Learning Disabilities (TCLD).

"I will look at anxiety and other similar socioemotional factors such as depression and self-concept as they relate to learning in young children," she said. "All of these areas are important because they may interact and impact the child's overall learning experience. For example, self-concept can come into play if the child feels badly about himself if he's struggling with reading. Does he become self-conscious around others while reading in class? It's not about the reading problem but how the reading problem impacts his self-worth in that case."

Grills-Taquechel hopes this research will, elucidate ways to better help children whose emotions are interfering with their learning, or who are developing negative feelings about themselves because of their learning struggles.

"In the future, we may be able to add to existing instructional interventions with strategies that help address kids' negative feelings, such as with anxiety-reduction and positive self-concept building skills," she said.

Students participating in Grills-Taquechel's study will be observed starting in first grade. Further assessments will be conducted as the same sample group completes second and third grades. Several groups of students from the Houston and Austin areas will be involved in the study, and the students' teachers and parents will also be asked for their comments.

Throughout the study, Grills-Taquechel will receive consultation from a committee of three veteran researchers, who all contribute their energies to TCLD: Jack Fletcher, Hugh and Lillie Roy Cranz Cullen Professor of psychology and director of the TCLD; David Francis, a Hugh and Lillie Roy Cranz Cullen Professor and director of the Texas Institute of Measurement Evaluation and Statistics (TIMES) and Sharon Vaughn, University of Texas at Austin professor of education.

TCLD combines the talents of researchers from UH's department of psychology, TIMES, UT-Austin and the UT Health Science Center at Houston. It is one of only four NICHD-funded research centers in the country dedicated exclusively to learning disabilities.