September 11, 2008

Perceived Control and Adaptive Coping: Programs for Adolescent Students Who Have Learning Disabilities

By Firth, Nola Frydenberg, Erica; Greaves, Daryl

Abstract. This study explored the effect of a coping program and a teacher feedback intervention on perceived control and adaptive coping for 98 adolescent students who had specific learning disabilities. The coping program was modified to build personal control and to address the needs of students who have specific learning disabilities. The teacher feedback program emphasized use of effort and strategy in the face of difficulty. One-way analyses of covariance of student responses indicated a greater perceived control of external situations and increased use of productive coping strategies for the group who received the coping program. There was no change in internal control of feelings or of use of non- productive coping. These results were maintained over the two-month follow-up period. The study provides preliminary evidence that it is possible to facilitate positive change in both sense of control and coping patterns for students who have learning disabilities.

It is increasingly acknowledged that, even with skilled teaching, students who have learning disabilities are likely to experience lifelong difficulty in some areas of academics, such as reading and spelling (Raskind, Golberg, Higgins, & Herman, 1999; Reiff, Ginsberg, & Gerber, 1995). Consequently, there is a call for a focus, not only on literacy or numeracy, but also on building the coping resources and sense of personal control that are known to be crucial to achieving school and life success for those who have learning disabilities (Raskind, Goldberg, Higgins, & Herman, 2002; Rodis, Garrod, Sc Boscardin, 2001; Westwood, 2004).

Research in the fields of self-regulation, academic motivation, and attribution has also shown the importance for students who have learning disabilities to be proactive in response to difficulty (Alexander, Graham, & Harris, 1998; Borkowski, Weyhing, & Carr, 1988; Nuftez et al., 2005). Importantly, such responses are being found to be independent of level of learning disability (Hellendoorn & Ruijssenaars, 2000; Nuftez et al., 2005; Raskind et al., 1999; Sideridis, Mouzaki, Simos, & Protopapas, 2006).

A major determinant for success for adults who have learning disabilities has been found to be the ability to cope adaptively, and in particular to take personal control in the face of the challenges their learning disabilities present. In their research involving successful adults who had learning disabilities, Reiff et al. (1995) found that such "taking control" was the key factor for this successful group. This finding has been corroborated by a longitudinal study of people who have learning disabilities (Raskind et al., 1999). The successful adults in both studies set goals, persevered, accessed help when they needed it, used effective strategies for coping with stress, and were self-aware and creative in finding alternative strategies in the face of difficulty (Goldberg, Higgins, Raskind, & Herman, 2003; Raskind et al., 1999; Reiff et al., 1995). The success achieved by these people occurred in spite of continuing difficulties with reading, spelling, and some areas of mathematics (Raskind et al., 1999; Reiff et al., 1995). According to Raskind et al. (1999), the attributes listed above are more powerful predictors of success than "numerous other variables, including IQ, academic achievement, life stressors, age, gender, ethnicity, and many other background variables" (p. 48).

Although sense of control is likely to be a key psychological resource for students who have learning disabilities, many of these students are at risk of passivity in the face of difficulty, which manifests as learned helplessness (Bender, 1987; Borkowski et al., 1988; Nunez et al., 2005; Sideris et al., 2006). Students who have learning disabilities frequently attribute success to luck rather than to their own ability or effort (Miranda, Villaescusa, & Vidal- Abarca, 1997). Dweck (2000) found that such attributions held by low- achieving students created a helpless rather than a mastery orientation to coping with future difficult circumstances. In their recent study of students who had learning disabilities, Sideridis et al. (2006) noted the contrasting profile between those who were high in motivation and those who were low in motivation and presented as helpless. Nunez et al. (2005) also found this difference among students who had learning disabilities and that a proactive rather than helpless attributional style was associated with positive outcomes. Again, the choice of helpless or adaptive attributions made by this group of children was independent of the level of the learning disabilities themselves.

Studies in the coping field also suggest that many students who have learning disabilities have a passive, helpless approach to coping with difficulty. Such studies suggest a higher-than-average use by students who have learning disabilities of passive coping strategies such as self-blame, worry, and failure to cope, and a low use of productive coping strategies such as working at solving the problem and positive thinking (Cheshire & Cambell, 1997; Geisthardt & Munsch, 1996; Greaves, 1998; Shulman, Carlton-Ford, & Levian, 1994). Associated risks are disruptive behavior problems (Bender, 1987; Chan & Dally, 2000; Prior, 1996) and social withdrawal (Bryan, 2005; Pearl, 2002; Wong & Donahue, 2002).

Based on these findings, there is a growing recognition of the need to identify effective ways to assist young people who have learning disabilities in developing adaptive coping resources (Aune, 1991; Durlak, Rose, & Bursuck, 1994; Grainger & Fraser, 1999; Margalit, 2003; McGrady, Lerner, & Boscardin., 2001; Raskind et al., 2002; Reiff et al., 1995; Rodis et al., 2001; Westwood, 2004) before lifelong, maladaptive coping patterns are established (Raskind et al., 1999). However, despite a focus on the development of psychosocial resources for the general student population (Wyn, Cahill, Holdsworth, Rowling, & Carson, 2000), there has been less response in this regard for students who have learning disabilities. For example, a recent national enquiry into learning difficulties in Australian primary schools contained little reference to addressing the emotional needs of students who have learning disabilities (Louden et al., 2000). Behavior problems, such as lack of self- regulation, exhibited by students with learning disabilities, were reported as frequently being managed by psychostimulant medication rather than by school-based interventions (Chan & Dally, 2000). Concerns with regard to such medicated control include the side effects of the medication (Purdie, Hattie, & Carroll, 2002) and the fact that the medication approach further reduces students' sense of control and personal responsibility (Alien & Drabman, 1991; Chan & Dally, 2000; Reid & Borkowski, 1987; Weiner, 1979).

Thus, there appears to have been little investigation of the particular coping skill needs of students who have learning disabilities or of interventions that are specifically designed to cater to the access needs of these students. This study, therefore, investigated the effect of two interventions on perceived control and coping style of adolescent students who had learning disabilities: a coping skills program specifically modified for optional access by students who have learning disabilities and a teacher feedback intervention that aimed to develop student strategy use instead of a focus on ability. The coping skills program taught the efficacy of taking control by using informed choice of productive coping strategies and learning to use positive thinking and assertion. The teacher feedback intervention was based on achievement attributional studies (Dweck, 2000; Nunez et al., 2005; Weiner, 1979) and involved teacher feedback to students that emphasised use of effort and strategy in the face of difficulty rather than self-blame and passive acceptance.

Adolescence was chosen as an optimum developmental stage in which to receive such coping interventions (Frydenberg & Lewis, 2002; Skinner & Wellborn, 1997), as coping strategies internalized at this stage of development are likely to have significant influence on the development of later coping patterns (Seiffge-Krenke, 2000). This also addresses Deshler's (2005) stress on the importance of not concentrating on early learning disabilities intervention programs to the exclusion of adolescent programs and research.

The research question for the study was as follows: What is the effect on student perceived control and coping of the coping program and of the teacher feedback program.


Participants and selection procedure are described, followed by a discussion of the measures, interventions, procedures, and data analysis techniques used in the study.


Ninety-eight adolescent students from four coeducational secondary schools and with varying specialist educational support participated in the study, along with their parents and teachers. The four schools were (a) a high socio-economic independent regional school with weekly specialist educational support classes, (b) a medium-level socio-economic government regional school with no specialist support, (c) a medium socio-economic Catholic rural school with weekly individual specialist support for some students, and (d) a low socio-economic government regional school with some specialist in-class support. Table 1

Group Size and Gender

Consent to participate was originally obtained from 129 students and their parents and teachers. Of these students, 98 students from the four school groups (N = 24, 26, 27, 21) were chosen to take part. Although teachers believed 124 of the students had learning disabilities, when the researcher assessed them, some were found not to fit the definition of learning disabilities used in the study and were excluded from the study. A cut-off age of 16 years also resulted in the exclusion of some students.

The study design involved dividing the four school groups into four subgroups consisting of those who received the teacher feedback program, those who received the coping program, a group that received both interventions, and a wait list control group. Each school received all four treatments. This design allowed some accounting for effect of school culture as well as analysis of the interaction between treatments. While schools were asked to avoid selection bias and, where possible, to randomly allocate students to groups, school schedules and teacher availability influenced the selection.

Groups were thus made up of combinations of intact class groups and/or students from different classes, and numbers and gender composition in the groups varied somewhat from school to school (see Table 1). Teachers were assigned to condition on the basis of interest and availablity. Therefore, the grouping was not random, but it was not biased towards any particular grouping of students. Additionally, the statistical analysis methodology adjusted for baseline differences between the groups.

Student ages ranged from 12 to 16 years (M =13.8). Forty-two students were female and 56 were male. Students and their parents from all the schools were primarily Australian born and of Anglo/ European background. Exceptions were one student with a Chinese background, one Middle Eastern migrant student and parent, and two migrant parents of Italian origin. Teachers were Australian born and of Anglo/European background.

Selection Criteria

In Australia there is widespread confusion among teachers and the community surrounding the terms learning difficulties and learning disabilities (Knight & Scott, 2004; Louden et al., 2000). An Australian Commonwealth Government enquiry in 1976 argued against the existence of specific learning disabilities as a phenomenon intrinsic to the child (Elkins, 2000; Select Committee on Specific Learning Difficulties, 1976). Consequently, a diagnosis of specific learning disabilities has not been a basis for educational support funding. Louden et al. (2000) noted that many terms are used interchangeably to describe various groups of students (e.g., students at risk, specific learning difficulties, learning disabilities). Students who have specific learning disabilities mostly, therefore, attend mainstream classes in regular schools where they may be pulled out with other students for supplementary literacy teaching (Louden et al., 2000).

Prior's (1996) definition of specific learning difficulties provided the precision needed for selection, comparison, and replication of this research study. Prior defined specific learning difficulties as occurring when a student has an IQ score greater than 80 and has deficits in at least one area of academic achievement such as reading, spelling, or mathematics, and specific cognitive impairments such as short-term memory problems or poor auditory discrimination ability. This discrepancy definition allowed inclusion of the various subsets of students who have learning disabilities (Kavale, Holdnack, & Mostert, 2006; Scott, 2004) and of those who have high ability in addition to their learning disabilities (Kavale et al., 2006). It also allowed comparison to previous studies where the discrepancy definition was used.

All students included in the study were assessed with an IQ score greater than 80 and scores of two or more years below chronological age in at least one area of academic achievement, such as reading, spelling, or mathematics. Results of The Wechsler Intelligence Test for Children (Wechsler, 1991) were available through school records for many students, and these were used to establish IQ scores. This test is administered by qualified psychologists and remains stable over time (Prifitera & Saklofske, 1998; Smart, Prior, Sanson, & Oberklaid, 2001). It is standard policy in Victorian schools in Australia to include a description of the results rather than exact scores in students' reports. The description is in terms of relation to the average. Eighty is the cut off point listed on the test for low average. Any students who were reported as below low average were, therefore, excluded from the study.

Where a learning disability was suspected, but students were not already fully tested, the researcher assessed students using the Kaufman Brief Intelligence Test (Kaufman & Kaufman, 1996). The Wechsler Intelligence Test for Children (Wechsler, 1991) and the Kaufman Brief Intelligence Test are similarly constructed, using separate verbal and nonverbal segments. The manual of the Kaufman Brief Intelligence Test indicates that full-scale scores resulting from that test are closely correlated (0.80) with those from The Wechsler Intelligence Test for Children. The researcher undertook full or partial assessment of all the students at two schools and approximately a third of the students at the other two schools.

Results from Australian normed, individually or group- administered spelling, reading, or mathematics tests given by teachers within the past two years were used to establish levels in reading, spelling, or mathematics (e.g., The Neale Analysis of Reading Ability, Neale, 1999; Tests of Reading Comprehension, Australian Council for Educational Research, 2003; The South Australian Spelling Test, Westwood, 1999). The study was not concerned with investigating matters related to literacy or numeracy acquisition per se but with teacher interventions that may change students' attitudes to experiencing academic difficulty. Consequently, results from normed tests from various subsets of learning disability were accepted. Where students had not been so assessed, the researcher assessed students using The South Australian Spelling Test (Westwood, 1999).


Two measures of perceived control and one measure of coping were used in the study.

The perceived control measures. The perceived control measures used in the study were The Locus of Control Scale for Children (Nowicki & Strickland, 1973) and the Children's Internal Coping Self- Efficacy Scale (Cunningham, 2002; Pallant, 2000). The latter scale focuses on the specific domain of internal state control; the former is a general perceived control measure.

The Locus of Control Scale for Children (Nowicki & Strickland 1973) is a widely used 40-item generalized perceived control scale that measures children's locus of control orientation (Mamlin, Harris, & case, 2001; Richardson, Bergen, Martin, Roeger, & Allison, 2005) that has been shown to be amenable to change in response to programs (e.g., Firth, 2001; Gomez, 1997). The scale measures the extent to which individual children feel they have control over their lives (internal locus of control) as distinct from being controlled by external circumstances (external locus of control). The scale focuses on the contingency or outcome expectancy aspect of control. Higher scores reflect a higher sense of external control, whereas lower scores indicate a higher internal sense of control. Example items from the scale are: Do you believe that wishing can make good things happen, When you get punished does it usually seem that it's for no good reason at all, and Do you usually feel that you have little to say about what you get to eat at home? The Cronbach alpha in the study increased over the three data collection times from 0.65 at pretest to 0.73 at posttest, to 0.77 at follow- up.

The Children's Internal Coping Self-Efficacy Scale (Cunningham, 2002) is a 15-item domain specific scale that measures the extent to which individual children feel overall that they have self-efficacy over their thoughts and feelings. The scale was adapted by Cunningham (2002) for use with children from Pallant's Perceived Control of Internal States Inventory (Pallant, 2000). Items elicit responses on a 4-point scale of "very wrong,""wrong,""right," and "very right." Some items from the adapted scale are: When bad things happen I have a number of ways that help me think more clearly about them, If I start to worry about something I can usually get my mind off it and think of something nicer, and I have a number of ways that help me relax when I get uptight. The Cronbach alpha in this study was 0.88 at pretest, 0.91 at posttest, and 0.86 at follow-up.

The coping measure. Coping responses were assessed using the productive and non-productive coping sections of the Adolescent Coping Scale (Frydenberg & Lewis, 1993), which has been used extensively with adolescent students in schools within Australia. Responses are on a 5-point Likert scale ranging from "never" (1) to "often" (5) and relating to how the student deals with his/her concerns. Productive coping strategies included in the scale are working hard, working at solving the problem, relaxing, keeping fit and healthy, and thinking positively. Non-productive coping strategies are ignoring the problem, self-blame, not having a way of coping, tension-reduction activities such as screaming or drinking alcohol, worrying, keeping problems to oneself, and wishful thinking. Examples of the 66 items from the scale are: Work at solving the problem to the best of my ability, Work hard, Look on the bright side of things and think of all that is good, Keep fit and healthy, Worry about what will happen to me, see myself as being at fault, and Shut myself off from the problem so I can avoid it. In this study the Cronbach alpha for productive coping was 0.84 at pretest, 0.93 at posttest, and 0.83 at follow-up. For non- productive coping it was 0.89 at pretest, 0.83 at posttest, and 0.92 at follow-up.

The Reference to Others section of Adolescent Coping Scale (Frydenberg & Lewis, 1993) was not included in the study. Since students who have learning disabilities may use high dependence on others such as teachers (Greaves, 1998), the relationship of this coping style to perceived control and adaptive coping for these students is less clear (Greaves, 1998).


The two interventions used were a coping program and a teacher feedback program.

The coping program. The Best of Coping program (Frydenberg & Brandon, 2002) was modified for use in this research. This EI- session program was developed in Australia from within a coping theoretical framework for general classroom use by adolescents in secondary schools. It utilizes the Adolescent Coping Scale (Frydenberg & Lewis, 1993) as a springboard for giving students knowledge of a broad range of possible coping strategies and the expected consequences of their deployment and also develops productive coping skills such as positive thinking, assertion, goal setting, and problem solving as alternatives to non-productive strategies such as self-blame. Several studies attest to the efficacy of Best of Coping when used with Australian adolescents in secondary school settings (Frydenberg et al., 2004). Additionally, the program has been successfully used with some Australian "at risk" students (Bugalski & Frydenberg, 2000).

The inclusion of positive cognitive restructuring was expected to counter negative global attributions associated with learned helplessness. Additionally, although positive cognitive restructuring programs do not appear to have been tested yet with students who have learning disabilities, positive thinking programs have been shown to be effective in changing negative attributional thinking (Cunningham & Walker, 1999; Roberts et al., 2003).

The perceived control needs of students with learning disabilities were expected to be addressed by the assertion component in the program. Assertiveness programs have been found to be effective in increasing adolescents' internal locus of control orientation (Waksman, 1984a, 1984b) and assertion skills (Wise et al., 1991). An assertiveness program designed specifically for students who have learning disabilities has also been successfully tested with students who had learning disabilities (Firth, 2001).

The program content, structure, and process were modified to incorporate best-practice processes for students who have learning disabilities and to increase the focus on perceived control. Best- practice processes include explicit instruction (Purdie & Ellis, 2005; Westwood, 2001), teaching of strategies (Deshler, 2005; Gresham, 1998; Meltzer et al., 2004; Vaughn et al., 2000), opportunity for metacognitive reflection (Borkowski & Muthukrishna, 1992; Vaughn et al., 2000), clear structure, opportunity for intensive revision, opportunity for generalization of skills (Borkowski & Muthukrishna, 1992; Gresham, 1998; Westwood, 2001), emphasis on student motivation (Gresham, 1998), and the use of print- free media (Firth, 2001).

Clarity of structure, opportunity for intensive revision and metacognitive reflection were achieved by reducing program modules to include only awareness and choice of coping strategies, positive thinking, and assertiveness training. Additionally, increased time was allocated to each of the retained modules, and duration of the program was increased by 1-11 weeks. Each component was introduced and interspersed with explicit teaching of the efficacy of taking control as well as the strategies of positive thinking and assertion. To increase student motivation and opportunity for generalization, the program was restructured to center on goals individually set by students and to include behavioral activities such as role-plays. A home practice schedule was also introduced to further generalization of skills. This involved practicing a small number of specific, chosen strategies that related to each student's goal. Finally, the print content was reduced to a minimum and replaced by drawing, acting, or handouts that contained only a few key words.

The program begins with a discussion of the importance to successful adults who have specific learning disabilities of taking control in the face of difficulty. Students gain awareness of their current coping style by completing the Adolescent Coping Scale (Frydenberg & Lewis, 1993). This scale yields an individual coping profile for each student and is, thus, a basis on which to make future decisions about coping choices. Students are encouraged to be flexible in choosing their coping responses and to use active, productive coping strategies such as thinking positively and working directly on the problem rather than non-productive responses such as self-blame and ignoring the problem. Students choose personal goals, one of which relates to academic work, and they are encouraged to use coping strategies that are likely to lead to achievement of these goals. Progress towards these goals is monitored at the beginning of most sessions, and goal-setting and problem-solving steps are taught within this context. Students are also taught positive cognitive restructuring strategies. These include recognition of the link between thought and feeling, avoiding overgeneralizing difficulty into the future or across domains, and replacing negative self-talk with more realistic and empowering self- talk.

Examples of activities in this section of the program include creation of a personalized positive self-talk sticker and peer coaching for challenging negative self-talk about the personalized goals. The final assertion component of the program involves activities to develop awareness of the differences between assertion, aggression, and passivity, and role-playing assertive verbal responses and assertive body language. The content and sequencing of the modified program is summarized in Figure 1. Further details of the modified program are available in the manual (see Firth, 2007).

Teacher Feedback Program

Strategy-based feedback involved feedback by teachers to individual students that emphasised a strategy used by, or available to, the student, rather than the student's ability. The program involved teachers encouraging students to use effort to find alternative strategies in the face of difficulty and praising successful use of both effort and strategies. Rather than immediately advising individual students on a solution or strategy, teachers encouraged students to independently find and use strategies. Although students were encouraged to be flexible and find their own individually appropriate strategies in the face of difficulty, teachers were directed to provide strategies if the students were unable to find an effective solution. Teachers used variations on the following questions or comments: What strategy could you use to help you here? What did you do to achieve that? That strategy was an effective one, and your hard work has paid off.

Teachers consciously used these questions, comments, and general approach to convey to students the following assumptions: There is the possibility of positive change; failure and difficulty are normal, and it is better to spend time and energy immediately searching for new strategies than in depressive rumination; many alternative strategies are already available or can be discovered; students who have learning disabilities may have strategies available to them that use their areas of strength (e.g., social skills or high comprehension); and intelligence is a dynamic rather than a fixed process and depends on many conditions, including effort and time.

In a mathematics class, for example, the teacher might see that a student who has specific learning disabilities has not begun to work on the questions set for the class and has her hand up to request assistance. Instead of immediately telling the student how to do the problem, the teacher might ask her whether she has any idea of how to begin to solve the first problem. If the student finds a strategy, the teacher leaves her to work independently. However, if the student has no idea of a strategy, the teacher may suggest that she find a similar problem that she has completed correctly and ask her to explain how she achieved the result. If she can articulate how she completed the problem, the teacher would then tell her that the strategy she used was an effective one and that the effort she put into that problem has resulted in success. He would then ask if she feels she now has a strategy to begin the current problem. If the student is still unable to do so, the teacher would then demonstrate an appropriate strategy and guide her in its use.

Figure 1. Content and sequence of the modified Best of Coping program.

Another example would be a teacher asking a student who has specific learning disabilities to explain to her individually or to the whole class the strategies that were used to design, construct, or otherwise create something that is already achieved and is of high quality. This could be implemented in relation to a variety of achievements such as a piece of art, a method of defense in a soccer game, or an articulate oral or written presentation. Following the student's response, the teacher would point out that the student's own strategy and effort have yielded a successful outcome. For further description of the intervention and examples of diary entries by teachers regarding their implementation of the intervention and student responses, see Firth (2007). Procedure

Students completed perceived control and coping measures pre- and post-program and at 10 weeks following completion of the program. All test and questionnaire items were read aloud to the students.

The two programs continued concurrently for 10 weeks. The coping program involved eleven 50-minute lessons. Students in the combined coping program and teacher feedback group, like those in the feedback-only group, received the teacher feedback during their regular classroom experience, but these students also attended the coping program sessions. Class teachers delivered the interventions in each of the four schools. Two of the four coping program teachers had received training in special education.

The strategy-based feedback intervention was delivered by 12 core class teachers who taught the students at least four times each week. These teachers were directed not to change the number of times they interacted with students and to only use the feedback with the students who were assigned to them. They were also given a diary in which to record their interactions with the students.

The coping program and strategy based-feedback teachers participated in professional development sessions of approximately two hours' duration. Teachers of both programs were also given on- site weekly support during the 10-week intervention period. Coping program teachers were provided with a manual.

Fidelity with regard to the intervention delivery was monitored by regular visits to the schools, including to the coping program sessions and the classes where teachers were implementing the teacher feedback. A field diary was written up after each visit to the school, and particular attention was given to the fidelity of the intervention programs. Discussions with the teachers recorded in the field diary and the teacher feedback diaries also served this purpose.

Data Analysis

Missing values were replaced using the full information maximum likelihood (FIML) method (Enders & Bandalos, 2001). If more than 25% of items were missing from a scale response, it was not included. Enders and Bandalos (2001) have shown that this procedure produces the least bias. Further, Byrne (2001) demonstrated that up to 25% of data can be imputed in this way without compromising the analysis.

The assumptions of normality, constant variance, and baseline interaction were tested. The tests for normality and constant variance were acceptable, and the tests for interaction were not statistically significant. Analyses of covariance (ANCOVA) were conducted to compare the means of the groups at pre- and posttest and pretest and follow-up while controlling for differences in these groups at pretest. The model was a main effects model with group as a factor at four levels and the pretest score as a covariate. No adjustment was made for multiple comparisons (Perneger, 1998; Rothman, 1990). Pre-, posttest, and follow-up means shown in Tables 2-4 were calculated using data from subjects in the corresponding ANCOVA. Therefore, they vary slightly due to missing data. The sample sizes (N) shown are for the analysis reported in each case.


Changes to Perceived Control

Significant change in perceived control associated with the interventions occurred in one of the two perceived control scales and for the coping program group only. Results of the analysis of covariance for The Children's Locus of Control Scale (Nowicki & Strickland, 1973) showed that the coping group reported a strong trend of a more internal locus of control at posttest, and this was significant at follow-up testing. In contrast, the control group mean for locus of control became higher (more external) at posttest, and this increased at follow-up.

Table 2

Results of Analysis ofCovariance at Posttest and Follow-Up for External Perceived Control on The Children's Locus of Control Scale

Variation in the means for the other intervention groups was not significant. At posttest, the overall test among the four groups, adjusted for pretest scores, was not statistically significant, F(3, 84) = 1.28, p = .28, but the coping group showed a trend in the direction of increased internality with a mean of 14.15 (p = .06) in comparison with the adjusted control mean of 16.80. At follow-up, however, the overall test among the four groups, adjusted for pretest scores, was statistically significant, F(3, 78) = 2.99, p = .04. Mean scores adjusted for differences at pretest were 17.56 for the control group, 13.51 (p = .008) for the coping group, 16.94 (p = .66) for the teacher feedback group, and 15.27 (p = .13) for the combined feedback and coping group. Table 2 shows the complete posttest and follow-up mean scores (adjusted for pretest scores).

No significant difference was found in the means on the Children's Internal Coping Self-Efficacy Scale (Cunningham, 2002; Pallant, 2000) between the intervention and the control groups when compared at preand posttest, and at pretest and follow-up.

Changes to Coping

There were no significant differences between the groups in comparison to the control group for overall productive coping style. However, the coping group reported an increase in the productive coping strategies of working hard and working at solving the problem.

The strategies that comprised productive coping included working at solving the problem, working hard on the problem, relaxing, physical recreation, and focusing on the positive. At posttest with regard to working hard, the overall test among the four groups, adjusted for pretest scores, was not statistically significant, F(3, 85) = 2.44, p = .07. However, at follow-up the overall test, adjusted for pretest scores, was significant, F(3, 78) = 2.85, p = .04. The control group adjusted mean at follow-up was 3.30, the coping group mean increase was at 3.72 (p = .02) (see Table 3). Follow-up responses also indicated that the coping group reported higher use of working at solving the problem than the control group. The overall test was significant, F(3, 78) = 5.22, p = .002. The control group adjusted mean was 2.70 for this strategy and the coping group mean was 3.39 (p = .001) (see Table 4).

Table 3

Results of Analysis of Covariance Post-Program and Two-Month Follow-Up for the Productive Coping Strategy of Work Hard on the Adolescent Coping Scale (ACS)

While the contrasts between the adjusted means for non- productive coping style were in the expected direction, none was significant either at posttest or followup. Analysis was undertaken to compare means of the non-productive coping strategies of not coping, worrying, tension reduction, wishful thinking, ignoring the problem, self-blame, and keeping problems to oneself. Investigation of these non-productive coping strategies also showed no significant differences.

Table 4

Results of Analysis of Covariance Post-Program and at Two-Month Follow-Up for the Productive Coping Strategy of Solve the Problem on the Adolescent Coping Scale (ACS)


Changes in the intervention groups were definitive for the coping program group only. Indicators of changes in perceived control associated with the interventions occurred in one of the two perceived control scales for the coping program group only. At posttest, this group reported a strong trend of increased internality of locus of control, as measured on the Children's Locus of Control Scale (Nowicki & Strickland, 1973); that was significant at the follow-up data collection. This outcome suggests that the coping program was effective, at least to some extent, in increasing sense of control over external events.

The pattern of change associated with coping was similar to that for changes in perceived control in that changes in coping associated with the intervention also occurred in relation to productive coping strategies by the coping program group. Results of the Adolescent Coping Scale (Frydenberg & Lewis, 1993) indicated that the coping group reported a trend of increased use of the strategies of working hard and solving the problem, and these were significant at the follow-up data collection. There was no change in non-productive coping associated with interventions.

Although the students who received both interventions reported change in the expected direction, this change was not statistically significant. It is possible that combining the two programs reduced the effect of increased personal control. Perhaps, contrary to expectations, the increased exposure to teachers' input increased students' dependency. Further research involving larger numbers of students and more intensive application of the interventions with increased fidelity control may clarify this anomaly. The relatively small sample size of this study meant that effects had to be relatively strong to clearly establish statistical significance (Compas et al., 2001). In a larger study, the trends observed for the intervention groups may have been statistically significant.

The findings also indicated that, contrary to expectations, there was no difference between the control and any of the intervention groups with regard to internal control of thoughts and feelings, as measured by the Children's Internal Coping Self-Efficacy Scale (Cunningham 2002; Pallant, 2000). A likely explanation for this outcome, as given by teachers and recorded in the field diary, is that the interventions were insufficient in duration and/or intensity to effect change in this area. It may also be that there was insufficient fidelity with regard to that aspect of the program. The positive thinking section of the coping program directly addresses control of feelings. Similar positive thinking programs have been associated with change in internal self-efficacy (Cunningham, Brandon, & Frydenberg, 1999), and this may have been due to longer and more intensive implementation. A further explanation with regard to the strategy-based feedback intervention may be that, in contrast to the coping program, the strategy-based feedback did not explicitly target control of thoughts and feelings. Effective interventions for students who have learning disabilities may however need such explicit strategy teaching for change to occur (Purdie & Ellis, 2005). Teachers indicated in conversations recorded in the field diary that the programs needed to be longer and more intensive for change to be well established. If the changes were just beginning, as teachers suggested, it is likely that students who were not self-aware and likely to attribute success to luck (Dweck, 2000) would fail to recognize and report them. A related problem, noted particularly by the teachers of the strategy-based feedback program, was lack of time to implement the lessons because of other school priorities. Field diary entries also noted that several teachers wanted more time to build their own skills in using the intervention and understanding the concepts (e.g., understanding the connection between thoughts and feelings in the positive thinking section of the program). It appears likely, therefore, that, despite the in-class follow-up support provided, more training and longer program duration would have been beneficial. Finally, further modifications to the coping program may increase engagement by those for whom the program was less effective. For example, teachers suggested inclusion of attractive, computer-based modules especially for the homework components of the coping program.

The study was strengthened by the fact that program evaluations took place within the constraints of everyday school settings and the programs were implemented by different teachers at participating schools rather than by the researcher or by only one teacher (Sandier, Wolchik, MacKinnon, Ayers, & Roosa, 1997). This "real- world" research provided a contrast to interventions that show positive effects when implemented by highly committed researchers in ideal circumstances but fail to be reproduced in real-school settings (Schumaker & Deshler, 2003). Yet, despite its inherent strengths, the real-life setting of the study did affect experimental control and group numbers. Grouping was according to school programming rather than allocated at random. The factors of competing concerns and limited time are common difficulties in educational research (Schumaker & Deshler, 2003). Variables such as the effect of first-time delivery of the interventions (Wehmeyer, Palmer, Agran, Mithaug, & Martin, 2000), school environment in which programs were delivered, teacher relationships with the students, group size, and teacher delivery style were not investigated. Even though the number of teachers involved was designed to moderate such variables as well as control for some variation with regard to program fidelity, these variables may have influenced the results (Frydenberg et al., 2004; Harnett & Dadds, 2004).

Additionally, the efficacy of the interventions for particular subgroups of students who have learning disabilities such as personality, grade level, gender, IQ, and academic achievement and effect of the interventions on academic as well as psychological outcomes was not investigated. For example, the intelligence and achievement measures used to identify the sample were not uniform; thus, means and standard deviations for the groups were not available. As a result, it was not possible to assess whether level of intelligence scores may have been associated with the outcomes of the study.

Further studies using larger samples and involving subgroups of students who have learning disabilities may clarify and confirm the findings. Sample selection based on initial assessment of low perceived control and/or use of non-productive coping strategies would also allow a focus on the efficacy of the interventions for students with a clearly demonstrated need in these areas. Finally, investigation of the effects of more intensive exposure to the programs would clarify the extent to which the element of longer duration is crucial.

Implications for Practice

Replication of the study and further research that takes careful account of the study recommendations with regard to research design and program development is needed. However, the study has produced some evidence that it is possible to facilitate positive change both in sense of control and coping. In particular, a coping program designed to meet the needs of students who have learning disabilities has been shown to be worth pursuing.

Implementation of such programs at a younger age may be particularly beneficial. There may be the advantage of less experience of failure at this age level. Additionally, at this stage of school, where students have fewer teachers, there may be increased opportunities for skill generalization. It is becoming clear that coping programs need ongoing reinforcement (Frydenberg, 2004). This is especially likely to be the case with children who have learning disabilities (Gresham, 1998). Indeed, some researchers involved in investigating interventions to facilitate self- determination recommend that such interventions be in place throughout the school years (Algozzine, Browder, Karvonen, Test, & Wood, 2001).

Such additional time allocation would require that high priority be given to the program by participating schools. Intensity of exposure to the programs and program fidelity may also be related to priority of the program within the schools. A problem noted particularly by the teachers of the strategy-based feedback program of lack of time to implement the lessons because of other school priorities is common for many single-issue curriculum programs (Kaftarian, Robinson, Compton, Watts Davis, & Volkow, 2004; Owens & Murphy, 2004). Thus, higher fidelity may require more integration of the program into overall school priorities (Glover & Butler, 2004; Greenberg, 2004; Trickett, 2005).

In view of the link that has been made between adaptive coping and academic and life success, such programs, if shown to be efficacious and sustainable in school environments, would be of great practical benefit to students who have learning disabilities.


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NOLA FIRTH, Ph.D., Centre for Adolescent Health, Murdoch Children's Research Institute, Parkville, Victoria, Australia.

ERICA FRYDENBERG, Ph.D., The University of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.

DARYL GREAVES, Ph.D., The University of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.

Please address correspondence to: Nola Firth, Centre for Adolescent Health, Murdoch Children's Research Institute, 2 Gatehouse St., Parkville, Victoria, Australia 3052; e-mail: [email protected]

Copyright Council for Learning Disabilities Summer 2008

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