Learning Disabilities and Academic Procrastination

Let's focus more on emotional intelligence please!

Posted Mar 28, 2014

Frustrated learner
Students with learning disabilities face special frustrations with academic tasks and they often develop maladaptive academic behavior. They report stress, anxiety, self-doubt, diminished persistence, lower expectations for success and negative emotions associated with school work. Of course, procrastination may also be a problem. A new study explores procrastination in relation to students with learning disabilities.

Although the authors of this study don’t have a very good grasp of the procrastination research literature, their study does provide an unique focus with a comparison of students identified with learning disabilities to those who do not. In particular, they pick up on the role of emotional intelligence—a focus that my students and I have emphasized in terms of understanding procrastination. Our research has shown us that the more emotional intelligence we have, the less we tend to procrastinate.

Emotional intelligence involves the ability to identify and use emotions to regulate our behavior. As the authors summarize in their article, “Emotionally intelligent individuals are often described as well-adjusted, warm, genuine, persistent and optimistic” (p. 117). Of course, some of these facets make it obvious why there is an association with procrastination and perhaps with learning disabilities. Persistence is the antithesis of procrastination, and it’s hard to be persistent and optimistic when we struggle with academic tasks due to learning disabilities.

Taken together, it’s pretty obvious that a better understanding of and intervention for academic procrastination, and perhaps more so for students with learning disabilities, will involve emotional intelligence. To date, however, very few studies have explored emotional intelligence and learning disabilities, and none have done this in relation to procrastination. That’s where the current study makes a contribution.

The purpose of their study was to “. . . better understand the role of EI [emotional intelligence] and its relevance to academic procrastination and academic performance (GPA), in both LD and non-LD students” (p. 118).

Details about the study

The researchers collected their data as a convenience sample (willing volunteers) of 2nd year undergrads from Tel-Hai Academic College in Israel. Of their sample of 287 students, 86% were women (which is a significant limitation in this study in terms of generalizability or understanding LD in males).  The average age was 25 years. Thirty five percent of the students had been formally identified as having some sort of learning disability and they received academic accommodations (e.g., extra time on exams, frequent breaks) with their studies, although all had normal or above IQ.  Most of the learning disabilities on campus are classified as ADHD or dyslexia (note: students in this study did not have to report on their specific LD).

These students completed self-report measures of emotional intelligence, academic self-efficacy (how competent they felt with academic tasks) and academic procrastination, as well as self-reporting their grade point average (GPA).  These self-report data were analyzed using Structural Equation Modeling comparing LD and non-LD students, the details of which are not something I will blog about. It will suffice to summarize their overall findings.

What they found

Their research revealed that, in comparison with non-LD students

  • LD students have lower self-report emotional intelligence and self-efficacy,
  • LD students reported higher procrastination, however
  • There was no difference in GPA.

The authors note that these basic findings replicate previous research where students with learning disabilities were found to have poorer self-regulated learning behaviors, lower academic self-efficacy and higher academic procrastination.

Their analyses of the relation among these variables revealed that emotional intelligence was related to academic procrastination (as my students’ research has found in the past) and that this is an indirect effect mediated through academic self-efficacy. In other words, higher emotional intelligence leads to greater academic efficacy, and, as a result, is related to lower procrastination and higher GPA. 

Most importantly, this relation of emotional intelligence to procrastination working through efficacy is stronger for students with learning disabilities. The authors conclude that, “This finding may suggest that for LD students the ability to regulate their emotional states is crucial for less academic procrastination and for better performance on academic tasks” (p. 122).

The authors also note that previous research has shown that LD students in higher education use more emotional coping strategies (than non-LD students) to achieve their academic goals.

The take-away message and concluding thoughts

The authors of this study conclude that this research and previous work “. . . strengthen the argument that LD students in higher education need emotional support and emotional regulation, in addition to learning strategies and other accommodations, to improve their academic experience and performance” (p. 122). 

I couldn’t agree more.

As an educator who has taught in elementary, secondary and post-secondary institutions for over 25 years, it is obvious to me that emotion regulation is a central component of student success. However, in higher education, we don’t always focus on this.

I remember a time back in the early 1990s, when I was both a “supply teacher” for the local school board and a sessional lecturer at the university. On one memorable, if not exhausting, day, I taught grade 5 in the morning, high school in the afternoon and lectured at the university in the evening. There were many uncanny similarities across these three learning environments. However, the distinct difference was that the university environment neglected the “whole student” more than the elementary and high school classrooms. It was more of a “neck up” focus on cognitive development, not emotional processes, at the university.  My gut told me that this was short-sighted, my later research reinforced this.

From the standpoint of nearly 20 years of procrastination research in conjunction with my work as a teacher, I clearly understand the central role of emotion regulation to self-regulation and academic success. I have written about that extensively in this blog in fact.

However, it’s one thing to know that emotional support and the development of emotional regulation skills is important, and it’s another to know how to facilitate this development in ourselves and others. My daughter, age 8 in grade 3, has very recently been identified with a learning disability. She has exceptional verbal ability and very weak reading and spatial skills. Honestly, I think she’s just like her dad, poor kid.

We have her doing work on improving her binocular vision, phonics work with a tutor, lots of supported reading at home and individual assistance in the classroom at school. All this is important, yet my own focus and interest is on the further development of her emotion-coping skills.

It’s a developmental process. It’s a slow process. It requires finding those teachable moments throughout the day where I can help her identify her emotions and her response to them.  Of course, these are not always easy conversations. What is a “teachable moment” for me is often a potential “freak out” moment for her. And, of course, reactions of others evoke reactions in us, and it requires my own emotional regulation to “do the right thing.”

Research and teaching is one thing. Parenting is another thing altogether. It’s not a single study of a convenience sample of strangers or a student in your classroom for one year. It’s your son or daughter in whom we invest so much and for whom we hold so much hope.  It’s a complex dance between whole beings in a rich and dynamic context.

Wish me luck. We’re all in this together.


Hen, M., & Goroshit, M. (2014) Academic procrastination, emotional intelligence, academic self-efficacy, and GPA: A comparison between students with and without learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 47, 116-124.