Creative Education
2010. Vol.1, No.3, 196-201
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. DOI:10.4236/ce.2010.13029
Appraisal of School-Based Stressors by Fourth-Grade Children:
A Mixed Method Approach
Anjeli Agrawal1, Rashmi Garg2*, Diana Urajnik3
1 Gulf Breeze Elementary, Santa Rosa County, Florida, USA;
2Psychology Department, Laurentian University, Sudbury, Canada;
3Department of Public Health Sciences, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada.
Email: r garg@laurent
Received August 23rd, 2010; revised Sept ember 1st, 2010; accepted September 7th, 2010.
This study examined appraisals of school-based stressors made by fourth-grade students. A mixed method ap-
proach was taken. School-based stressors were identified through focus group discussions and categorized into
four domains (Academic, Peer Interaction, Teacher Interaction, and Discipline) through content analysis. A
stress inventory was then constructed and administered to 54 fourth-grade students to assess the prominence of
the identified stressor domains as well as any relationships between the stressor domains, academic standing,
and gender. Results indicated that, on average, Peer Interaction and Discipline stressors were rated significantly
higher than Academic and Teacher Interaction stressors. Furthermore, concerning all academic ability groups,
girls rated stressors in all domains higher than boys. This higher rating proved to be significant for girls com-
pared to boys with average academic ability regarding Peer Interaction stressors. The challenge for educators
and policy makers is to identify situations that lead to stress as early as possible and design coping programs that
will facilitate healthy development.
Keywords: School Based Stressors
Intr oduction
Stress has been defined as a reaction to a perceived imbal-
ance between environmental demands and one’s ability to deal
with such demands (Lazarus & Launier, 1978; Veno & David-
son, 1978; Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). Biologically, this reac-
tion is an activation of neurobiological systems in an attempt to
preserve allostasis, or a balanced state in the body (Gunnar &
Quevedo, 2007; Swearingen & Cohen, 1985; Pareek, 1997).
Although certain “optimal” levels of stress have been found to
be beneficial, enhancing achievement and success (Selye, 1956),
ongoing and unmanaged stress may increase an individual’s
risk for physical, emotional, mental, and behavioral problems
(Gunnar & Quevedo, 2007; Swearingen & Cohen, 1985; Pareek,
The notion that young people experience stress and that stress
reactions are directly related to their development, adjustment,
and physical and emotional well-being, has been well documented
in educational and clinical literature (Gunnar & Quevedo, 2007;
Kra ag, Zeegers, Kok, Hosman, & Abu-Saad, 2006; Carson,
Swanson, Cooney, Gillum & Cunningham, 1992; Blom, Cheney,
& Snoddy, 1986; Johns & Johns, 1983; Schultze & Heuchert,
1983; Phillips, 1978). One area that has received increased
attention is the stress experienced by children in their school
environment (D’Aurora & Fimian, 1988; Omizo, Omizo, &
Suzuki, 1988; Humphrey, 1990; Barrett & Heubeck, 2000;
J ones -Sears & Milburn, 1990; Karr & Johnson, 1991; Bauwens
& Hourcade, 1992; Grannis, 1992). Researchers have reported
that many children feel stressed about different aspects of
school life (Greene, 1988; Bauwens & Hourcade, 1992; Heu-
beck & O’Sullivan, 1998). School-related demands, both aca-
demic and social, may be placed upon students by schools,
parents, teachers, and peers (Omizo et al., 1988; Bauwens &
Hourcade, 1992). Some of these demands include: the evalua-
tion process; difficulty understanding schoolwork; bullying;
disciplinary procedures; adult expectations for success; and
peer interactions.
School-based stressors have typically been categorized into
different domains (Omizo et al., 1988; Bauwens & Hourcade,
1992; Grannis, 1992; Barrett & Heubeck, 2000; Philips, 1978).
Phillips (1978) classified school-based stressors into two major
categories: achievement stressors (such as, not receiving ex-
pected grades, teacher expectations, and comparisons with oth-
er students) and social stressors (such as, peers being unfriendly,
or being teased or bullied by peers). Bauwens and Hourcade
(1992) classified school-based stressors into eight categories
including: school work; social interactions; treatment by teach-
ers; discipline and classroom management procedures; extra-
curricular activities; public performances; and miscellaneous.
Grannis (1992) classified school based stressors’ frequency and
appraisal into three categories in grade eight students: academic
troubles (such as I could not finish work in class), physical and
personal assaults (such as someone was picking at me) and
general school disruptors (such as people in the classroom
would not get quiet). Students reported general school disrup-
ters as occurring more often than academic troubles, which they
perceived slightly more often than physical and personal as-
saults. However students felt least upset by general school dis-
rupters, most upset by physical and personal assaults, and al-
most as upset by academic difficulties.
The effects of school-based stressors on children’s adjust-
ment have not been well researched. The limited studies found
investigating children on this subject (i.e., Heubeck &
O’Sullivan, 1998; Barrett & Heubeck, 2000) suggested that
school stressors are highly related to children’s anxiety and
conduct problems.
Gender and cultural differences in students’ appraisals of
s c hool-based stressors have been noticed. According to Grannis
(1992), females appraise stressors as more upsetting than males
on subscales of academic troubles, physical and personal as-
saults, and general school disruption, and males’ appraisals of
stressors are significantly correlated with mean grade point
average, but not females’. Regarding cultural differences,
Grannis found that minority students generally experience more
s c hool-related stressors than mainstream students.
Studies demonstrating the negative effects of school stressors
on students. Heubeck & O’ Sullivan, 1998; Barrett & Heubeck,
(2000) suggested that school stressors are highly related to
children’s anxiety and conduct problems. The effectiveness of
school programs targeting stress management have mostly been
based on early adolescent (middle school) and adolescent (high
school) populations (i. e., Piekarska, 2000; Kraag et al., 2006;
Meadows, Brown, & Elder Jr., 2006). Although early adoles-
cence has been viewed as a highly stressful period due to phys-
ical, cognitive, and social changes, Gunnar and Quevedo (2007)
proposed that ages 7 through to 17 can be a “stress-hy pore-
s ponsi ve” period. This study focused on a population of ele-
mentary school children (grade 4) because it was believed that
the nature and salience of school-based stressors for elementary
school children may in fact be different from middle school and
high school students.
Very few standardized instruments are available to measure
s c hool-based stressors. Of the few, School Situation Survey
(SSS) by Helms and Gable (1989) uses an inventory of 34
items to assess four sources, and three manifestations, of
s c hool-related stress in grade 3 to grade 12 students. However,
Gable, Ludlow, and Wolf (1990) questioned the construct va-
lidity of the SSS scale, saying it tends to lack differentiation
among items, particularly with regards to the Academic Stress
scale. Most other instruments have been adapted from life
change experience inventories, personality and clinical scales,
or they have been constructed by researchers for particular
studies (Swearingen & Cohen, 1985; Elias, Gara, Clabby, &
Schuyler, 1986; Dubow, Schmidt, McBride, & Edwards 1993;
Grannis, 1992; DeWolfe, 1995).
In this study, a mixed method approach (using both qualita-
tive and quantitative methods) was used because qualitative
inquiry facilitated an exploration of children’s experiences of
s c hool-based stressors and quantitative method enabled us to
test the salience of these stressors for males and females. In
recent years, the mixed methods approach has gained accep-
tance and is now considered an important strategy of inquiry
( C resw ell, 2007). According to Stewart and Shamdasani (1990),
the qualitative method of the focus group is particularly useful
for exploratory research when there is little known about a
phenomenon. This special type of group interview brings par-
ticipants together to focus on, and explore the researcher’s topic
of interest in a guided way. Such group discussions are particu-
larly effective because they involve a direct interaction between
the participants, allowing the researcher to probe further into
whatever issues arise in their conversation. Additionally, group
dynamics can motivate group members to participate more
openly compared to individual interviews (Stewart & Shamda-
sani, 1990). In this study, focus groups were considered an
ideal method of inquiry because they would allow children to
speak freely about their experiences from their own under-
standing, personal beliefs and experiences. It was also believed
that children would feel more comfortable in small group set-
tings apposed to individual interviews.
Thus, this exploratory, descriptive, mixed method study was
designed with two major aims. First: to gather fourth-grade
children’s descriptions of school-based stressors as they expe-
rience them; to use content analysis to categorize the stressors
into themes or domains; and to construct a relevant question-
naire to be used as a tool to measure the relative importance of
the stressor domains for children; and to assess any relation-
ships between the stressors and children’s academic standing
and gender.
Met hod
Participants were 54 fourth-grade students (29 boys and 25
girls aged 9-10 years) taken from two classrooms of an ele-
mentary school located in the town of Pea Ridge, Florida.
Twenty six students (14 boys and 12 girls) in the first class-
room participated in focus group discussions, from which an
inventory of school-based stressors was constructed. Fifty four
students (29 boys and 25 girls) in two classrooms completed
the inventory.
Qualitative Method
After parental consent was obtained, 26 fourth-grade students
were divided into four focus groups of five to seven participants.
One of the focus groups was used for pilot testing. Any prob-
lems encountered in terms of procedure and scheduling, etc.,
were addressed prior to the actual data collection. The aim of
the focus group component was to facilitate open discussion on
what “bothers” or “worries” children when they are at school.
The researcher remained open at all times to all concepts and
variables that emerged during the discussions. Students were
encouraged to talk to each other on the topics rather than al-
ways addressing the researcher. Their comments were explored
in detail to make sure that the meaning had been understood.
The aim was to “dig below the surface” of the topic and to dis-
cover any new ideas or themes that were not anticipated at the
beginning of the research project. Each focus group session
lasted for 40 to 50 minutes. Groups were led by a researcher
and audio taped with the permission of the participants. At the
end of each group session, participants were given the opportu-
nity to speak with the researcher privately. None of the partici-
pants did so.
Content analysis was used to organize focus group data into
prevalent themes of school stressors. The frequency with which
the domains emerged was noted. Domains that were supported
at least three times were used to develop a 33-item, three-point
scale, questionnaire addressing school stressors. The question-
naire was pilot tested on seven students from the focus group
for clarity of language and appropriate revisions were made. A
panel of three judges categorized stressors into the following
domains on a rational and intuitive basis: Academic, Peer Inte-
raction, Teacher Interaction; Discipline; and Miscellaneous
(Fairbank & Hough, 1979; Lindenthal & Mayers, 1979), as
cited in Newcomb (Huba & Bentler, 1981). Inter-rater reliabil-
ity of .92 was derived from the categorical placement of items
by the panel of judges.
Quantitative Method
The 33-item questionnaire was administered to a second
group of 54 fourth-grade students. Each item was read aloud by
the researcher while students followed the printed statements.
The children were asked, “if this happens to you, how much
would you be bothered by it?” One of the following choices
could be selected: (1) it would not bother me; (2) it would
bother me a little; (3) it would bother me a lot. An example of
an item is “I do not make a good grade in my test”. Administra-
tion time was approximately 30 minutes. Two weeks later,
subjects were retested in the same way with the same stress
inventory. Test-retest reliability was found to be .80. For each
participant, a stress index value for each item was calculated by
averaging responses from the two administrations. Results are
based on these stress indexes.
In addition to questionnaire responses, the students’ grades
on six subjects (reading, math, language skills, spelling, science,
and social studies) of a recently taken standardized test (Com-
prehensive Test of Basic Skills) were obtained. Academic
standing was calculated by averaging the grades of the six sub-
jects. Three academic levels were created: (1) above average, or
top one third; (2) average, or middle one third; and (3) below
average, or bottom one third.
R esults
Descriptive statistics for each domain of school-based stres-
sors (Academic, Teacher Interaction, Peer Interaction, Discip-
line, and Miscellaneous) and for the 33 individual questionnaire
items are presented in Table 1. Mean stress values for the Peer
Interaction and Discipline domains were similar (2.68 and 2.50,
respectively), while mean stress values for the Teacher Interac-
tion and Academic domains were similar (2.05 and 2.0, respec-
tively).Internal consistency (Cronbach’s alpha) for the entire.
Table 1.
Descriptive statistics for the school stress categories and 33 stress items (Based on n = 54 subjects)**.
School Event Mean(S D)
Academic 2.01 (.26)
1. I did not make a good grade on my test
2. I could not get my work done because other kids were talking and cutting up 2.61(.58)
3. I felt that other students understood the material being taught and I did not understand
4. I was unable to complete my class work assignment 2.52(.59)
5. My teacher made me stand up in the class to make a presentation in front of everybody
6. I missed classroom instruction because I was either absent or tardy 1.48(.73)
7. My weekly papers went home and I had to show them to my parents
8. I had to take a test 1.30(.56)
9. I had to do projects and reports at home
Peer Interaction 2.67(.32)
10. Someone talked behind my back and said things about me which were not true
11. Someone blamed me for something I did not do
12. Someone called my mother, father, brother, or sister a name
13. Kids talked nasty and used cuss words at me
14. Someone made fun of me and put me down
15. Someone stole my things like money, pencils, or crayons
16. I was unable to make friends easily in school
17. My best friend did not want to talk to me anymore
18. someone pushed me or hit me for no good reason
19. Kids called me names
20. I was walking in line and other students tripped me
Teacher 2.05(.47)
21. My teacher made fun of me or teased me in front of others
22. My teacher likes another student in the class more than she likes me
23. My teacher yelled at me
24. My teacher corrected me in class
Discip line 2.50(.43)
25. I was put in detention as a punishment for something I did and my parents had to come and get me
26. My teacher sent a ‘bad’ note home for my parents
27. The principal or assistant principal called my home to talk about a problem and complained about me
28. My teacher received a complaint about me from special area school teachers like PE, Art or Music
29. I had to go to the principal’s office because of a problem
30. My teacher punished me in class
31. I received a ‘check’ mark on my conduct sheet
Mi s cel la neo us 1.99(.40)
32. The school bus driver accused me for something I did not do
33. I was taught by a substitute teacher
** The items were randomly organized for the students.
inventory was .83. Alpha coefficients were reasonably high for
Peer Interaction (.70) and Discipline (.80) domains, but were
moderate to low for the Academic (.47) and Teacher Interac-
tions (.43) domains. This could be due to the small sample size
and relatively smaller number of items in these categories.
Since no significant differences were found in two classes of
grade four students with respect to any of the domains, the re-
sults are based on combined group of two classes.
One -way repeated analysis of variance (ANOVA) was per-
formed on four domains of stressors (Academic, Teacher Inte-
raction, Peer Interaction, and Discipline). The category of Mis-
cellaneous stressors was dropped as it had only two items (“I
was taught by a substitute teacher”; “Bus driver accused me of
something which I did not do”). Results showed a significant
difference among appraisals for the four domains of stressors,
with 59% of the variance explained (F3,159 = 31.04, p < .001,
Eta square = .59). Post-hoc pair-wise comparisons with ad-
justed alpha of .008 showed that children’s appraisals of stres-
sors were significantly higher for Peer Interaction and Discip-
line categories compared to Academic and Teacher Inter- action
categories. Notably, most of the ten most highly app- raised
school stressor items were located within the Peer Interaction
domain (# 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15), while three fell within the
Discipline domain (# 25, 26, 27) and one fell within the Aca-
demic domain (#1). Likewise, half of the ten lowest apprais-
als of items fell within the Academic domain (# 5, 6, 7, 8, 9),
while three events fell within the Teacher Interaction domain (#
22, 23, 24) and two fell within the Discipline domain (# 30,
A series of two-way analyses of variance (ANOVA) were
performed to determine if differences in appraisals existed
among the three academic levels (above average, average, and
below average) and between genders with respect to the child-
ren’s overall stress appraisal as well as stress appraisals in the
four domains. Results showed no significant appraisal differ-
ences between academic levels or genders with regards to over-
all stress appraisals. However, regarding the Peer Inter- action
domain, a significant gender by academic interaction was found
(F2,48 = 3.95, p < .05), as well as a significant main difference
between the three levels of academic standing (F2,48 = 3.60, p
< .05). Further analysis revealed that the below and above av-
erage ability groups appraised Peer Interaction stressors signif-
icantly higher than the average ability group. Additionally,
among the children with average academic ability, girls gave
significantly higher mean stressor appraisals than boys. How-
ever, since there was a small number of subjects in each gender
by academic level group, these findings should be viewed with
Dis cus sio n
The results of the present study confirm the existence of sev-
eral categories of school based stressors: Academic, Peer Inte-
raction, Teacher Interaction, Discipline, and Miscellaneous
(Barrett & Heubeck, 2000; Bauwens & Hourcade, 1992; Gran-
nis, 1992; Gable et al.,1990; Geisthardt & Munsch, 1996). Al-
though stressor items were independently categorized into do-
mains with a high degree of reliability, one should keep in mind
that domains were not confirmed through statistical analysis.
The size of the sample precluded a factor analytic investigation
using the total set of items. Results revealed that grade-four
children appraise stressors in Peer Interaction and Discipline
domains as being more stressful than Academic and Teacher
Interaction categories. Nine of the ten items with the highest
stress intensity values were located within the Peer Interaction
and Discipline categories. Grannis (1992) has shown that stres-
sors classified as “general disrupters” (such as noise in the
classroom) were rated by students as occurring most frequently,
but appraised as least upsetting, whereas assaults and academic
troubles were appraised as more upsetting. Phillips (1978) ca-
tegorized stressors into two categories, academic and social,
where academic stressors were rated higher than social stressor.
These results are contrary to the results found in this study.
This may be due to two factors. That is, in the past 25 years,
many changes in both social and family structure have taken
place, such as: North American societies have become more
multicultural; higher percentages of mothers are working
full -time, outside of the home; and the number of single-parent
households has increased. These factors may have influenced
the importance of peer interactions. Researchers have found
that students generally feel they have much more control over
cognitive spheres compared to social spheres (Bethea, 1990 as
cited in Grannis, 1992; Kragg et al., 2006). DeWolfe (1995)
found that fears related to social adequacy and acceptance by
peers prevail in school children. He reported the following three
stressors as top stressors in a sample of grade 5 and 6 students:
(1) being picked last for a team; (2) fear of peer disapproval;
and (3) fear of not passing into the next grade. Elias, Gara, and
Ubriaco (1985) found five categories of stressors, including:
conflict relating to adult authority figures and peers; substance
abuse; peer pressure and exclusion; rules for sociability relating
to dating; friendships, etc.; and academic demands. In a me-
ta-analysis of studies related to stress management in children
and adolescence, Kraag et al. (2006) have described 12 studies
dealing with stress management in elementary school children.
Nine of these studies have focused on social problem solving.
Table 2.
Means, standard deviations, and ANOVA results of appraisal of stress for different categories of stressors by gender and academic standing.
Components of stressors Gender Below Average Group Average Group Above Ave rage Group Academic
Standing Effect
E ffect
Academic Male female 2.02 (.30) 2.00 (.31) 1.89 (.29) 2.19 (.31) 2.03 (.23) 1.92 (.19) F2,48 = 0.09 F1,48 = 0.20 F2,48 = 1.10
Teacher Interaction M ale Femal e 2.08 (.58) 2.62(.18) 1.75 (.50) 2.19 (.13) 2.00 (.43) 2.06 (.43) F2,48 = 1.34 F1,48 = 2.95 F2,48 = 0.52
Peer Interactio n Mal e Female 2.78 (.17) 2.55 (.26) 2.18 (.47) 2.70 (.20) 2.78 (.19) 2.84 (.14) F2,48 = 3.60* F1,48 = 0.67 F2,48 = 3.95*
Disciplin2 M ale Femal e 2.54 (.51) 2.85 (.10) 1.86 (.25) 2.61 (.21) 2.71 (.38) 2.43 (.42) F2,48 = 2.62 F1,48 = 2.22 F2,48 = 3.14
Overall Male Female 2.33 (.28) 2.39 .(17) 1.92 (.27) 2.40 (.09) 2.38 (.17) 2.35 (.18) F2,48 = 1.98 F1,48 = 3.06 F2,48 = 2.62
* p<.05
It was expected that academic standing and gender may in-
fluence appraisals of overall stressors as well as the different
domains. In this study, a higher number of boys than girls were
in the below average academic category (50% versus 20%).
Appraised stress level was found to be higher for girls than for
boys in all domains. This higher rating was statistically signifi-
cant for children with average academic ability regarding the
Peer Interaction stressor domain. These findings support results
obtained by Grannis (1992) that girls appraised stressors (nega-
tive events) as more upsetting than boys and received higher
grades than boys. A weak correlation of .19 was found between
academic performance and overall appraisal of stressors.
Results of the present study must be interpreted with caution.
One cannot rule out the possibility of specificity of results to
the current sample of children. Since students were required to
respond to items based upon their own perceptions of stressful
school events, it is possible that the stressors may vary in exis-
tence and strength as a function of various factors (i.e., type of
school, particular teachers, SES, or personal variables). Results
need to be replicated with a larger sample, including several
classes of fourth-grade children from different schools in order
to rectify these concerns. Future studies should also include
information from different sources (teachers and parents, for
example) to validate the inventory presented.
Ultimately, the challenge for society, educators, and educa-
tional administrators and policy makers is to identify problems
that lead to stress for children as early as possible and to pro-
mote healthy development by teaching children about possible
coping strategies. This study provided further data on school-
based stressors and the salience of such stressors among child-
ren. This knowledge is valuable for future developments of
stress prevention programs for children.
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