- Ellen SkinnerEllen SkinnerPortland State University
- and Emily SaxtonEmily SaxtonPortland State University
Academic coping describes the profile of responses children and adolescents utilize when they encounter challenges, obstacles, setbacks, and failures in their scholastic work. Coping is one of multiple strands of research from a variety of subareas within educational and developmental science that share a common interest in this topic, including work on academic resilience, buoyancy, mastery versus helplessness, tenacity, perseverance, and productive persistence, as well as adaptive help seeking, self-regulated learning, and emotion regulation. These approaches focus on the responses (including emotions and goal-directed behaviors) students actually undertake on the ground when they encounter academic difficulties in their daily lives; patterns of action can be contrasted with the belief systems, motivations, or skill sets that underlie these responses.
Since the mid 1980s, several dozen studies have examined academic coping in children and youth from 2nd to 12th grade (ages 7–18), including samples from 29 countries (Skinner & Saxton, 2019). These studies have identified multiple adaptive ways of dealing with academic stress, including problem solving, help seeking, and comfort seeking. These responses are considered productive because they allow students to gather resources and strategies, and so re-engage in demanding tasks with renewed purpose, vigor, and effectiveness. Multiple maladaptive ways of coping have also been identified, such as escape, rumination, or blaming others. These are considered unproductive because when enacted in response to academic demands, they are more likely to trigger disaffection, amplify distress, or provoke negative reactions from social partners.
In general, research indicates that students normatively show a profile of coping that is high in adaptive strategies (especially problem solving, help seeking, and support seeking) and low in maladaptive responses. Studies find that students’ adaptive coping is linked to their academic functioning and success, including their educational performance, engagement, persistence, and adjustment to school transitions. In contrast, maladaptive coping is linked to a pattern of poor academic performance, disengagement, and school-related burnout. Students cope more adaptively when they possess motivational assets (such as self-efficacy, relative autonomy, or sense of belonging) and experience interpersonal supports from their parents, teachers, and peers. Studies documenting developmental trends suggest normative improvements in the coping repertoire during elementary school. However, over the transition to middle school in early adolescence, many adaptive ways of coping decline while reliance on maladaptive responses generally increases. Starting in middle adolescence, these problematic trends stabilize, and some studies indicate renewed improvement in coping, especially problem solving.
Current research on academic coping faces theoretical, methodological, and applied challenges: (a) theoretically, more comprehensive conceptualizations are needed that integrate coping perspectives with social contextual, motivational, and developmental approaches; (b) methodologically, standard measures are needed that focus on core categories of academic coping, and that utilize allocation scoring; and (c) to further applied work, additional studies are needed that describe and explain normative and differential age-graded changes in adaptive and maladaptive coping across childhood and adolescence. Researchers who study academic coping believe that this work has much to offer educational theories, research, and interventions aimed at understanding how to help children and adolescents develop the capacity to deal constructively with the obstacles and problems they will inevitably encounter during their educational careers.