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Making Mistakes: Emotional Adaptation and Classroom Learning

by Mary McCaslin, Christine C. Vriesema & Susan Burggraf - 2016

Background: We studied how students in Grades 4–6 participate in and emotionally adapt to the give-and-take of learning in classrooms, particularly when making mistakes. Our approach is consistent with researchers who (a) include cognitive appraisals in the study of emotional experiences, (b) consider how personal concerns might mediate situational experiences, and/or (c) examine the interplay of emotion generation and regulation in emotional adaptation.

Purpose of Study: Our aim was to better understand how students think, feel, and cope—their emotional adaptation—when making mistakes in the pursuit of classroom learning and how this might impact their relationships with peers. We explored the possibility of individual and contextual differences in students’ emotional adaptation dynamics and considered how they might uniquely coregulate students’ coping with making mistakes in classrooms.

Participants: Participants were fourth- through sixth-grade students who attended one of five schools within a single district. Schools were labeled as relatively high or moderate in poverty density, defined by the percentage students receiving free or reduced lunch support.

Research Design: Students’ self-conscious emotions and coping strategies were measured with the School Situations (SS) inventory, a pencil-and-paper measure of children’s self-conscious emotions in three classroom social/instructional contexts: private, small group, and whole class. SS assesses how students experience (generate) and cope with (regulate) self-conscious emotions (guilt, pride, shame) in response to situations they commonly encounter or witness in classrooms. SS was administered in November and again in May after students completed a mathematics pretest and posttest, respectively.

Findings: Findings revealed the importance of context—cultural (poverty density), social (classroom social/instructional format), and personal (readiness)—in the coregulation of students’ self-conscious emotions and coping. It is difficult for students with fewer resources (due to school poverty density or readiness to learn) to cope with negative emotions when making mistakes and to realize pride upon success. Further, an exploratory factor analysis based on students who participated at both pretest and posttest revealed five unique emotional adaptation subscales—Distance and Displace, Regret and Repair, Inadequate and Exposed, Proud and Modest, and Minimize and Move On—that are relatively stable across the school year and linked with readiness and learning.

Conclusions: The stability of students’ emotional adaptation profiles suggests that students develop characteristic emotional adaptations to classroom learning demands. Further, the modest strength of these relationships supports the conclusion that students’ emotional adaptations are malleable and open to intervention.

A sense of personal competence is saturated with an awareness of self and other, time and place, and feeling and fronting up; each such sense seems central to, yet not considered a determinant of, academic achievement. Emotional adaptation is what we call this constellation of self-awareness and relationships, situations and tasks, challenges and affirmations, emotions and coping strategies. We study students emotional adaptation in late elementary through middle school for three reasons. First, a primary task for students during this period is to master the demands of schooling in ways that positively influence their confidence in the learners they are and wish to become (Erikson, 1968). The social nature of classrooms presents a second task: to successfully navigate and negotiate relationships with others that can mutually support a sense of shared purpose, place, and valued participation. Third, students in Grades 46 have logged a considerable amount of classroom seat time. Their real-time information coincides with an increased capacity for self-awareness and reflection. Self-conscious emotions (e.g., guilt, pride, shame) are the by-products of experience coupled with self-awareness and reflection. Self-conscious emotions and how students cope with them contribute to how they learn competence, form relationships, and experience classrooms. We view these emotions as central to emotional adaptation and the development of productive learning, healthy relationships, and student well-being.

Academic challenges related to students first task, maintaining confidence in themselves as learners, can be met with coping strategies that undermine the social demands of the second task, valued participation by and with peers. Students can struggle with their emotional adaptation as they juggle beliefs about competence, realized achievement, and their place in the give-and-take of learning with peers in classrooms. The process and product of this fusion of personal and social challenges is learning how to cope with making mistakes along the way. The purpose of the present research is to better understand how students think about, feel about, and cope with making mistakes in the pursuit of classroom learning while navigating relationships with peers.

In this study, we examined students self-conscious emotions and coping strategies in three classroom social/instructional contexts: private, small group, and whole classusing a School Situations (SS) inventory developed for that purpose. The inventory was administered to students in Grades 46 as part of a larger teacher professional development project in mathematics. Participants attended two schools within a single district that varied in socioeconomic status (SES), and this SES variable was studied as well. The context for our investigation is informed by the following discussion of related theory and research.


Our work adopts a coregulation perspective rooted in Vygotskian (Vygotsky, 1962, 1978) and neo-Vygotskian theory (McCaslin, 2009). A basic assertion is that learners are social by both nature and nurture (Baumeister & Leary, 1995); they have a basic need for participation and validation (McCaslin & Burross, 2008). Learners differ, however, in what they bring to given situations, in how and what they participate, and in what that adaptation means for their present and future well-being. Cultural and social opportunities and personal resources are not evenly distributed, and students differ in how they negotiate the reciprocal press among them (e.g., Blair & Raver, 2012).

The coregulation model differs from some other sociocultural or situative perspectives (e.g., Greeno, Collins, & Resnick, 1996; Hickey, 2003; Nolen & Ward, 2008). It asserts a personal as well as social and contextual historical perspective. The coregulation model posits individual differences among students that also can mediate how they adapt to different contexts, relationships, and opportunities. The present study examines both possibilities; the foregrounding of context in organizing student (as group) engagement, and individual mediation and adaptation within and across contexts. Consistent with a Vygotskian perspective, adaptation involves the fusion of the affective and intellectual in emergent interaction with social and cultural sources of influence. Again, we refer to the constellation of this fusion and the coregulation press among sources of influence emotional adaptation.


The current study focuses on how students participate in and adapt to the give-and-take of learning in classrooms. Of course, however, preceding and co-occurring with emotional adaptation in the classroom are the biological factors that students bring with them, such as emotional reactivity and attention regulation (e.g., Calkins, & Makler, 2011), as well as parent socialization practices and home learning (Blair & Raver, 2012; Eisenberg, Hofer, & Vaughan, 2007; Perry, Nordby, & VandeKamp, 2003). Our work is consistent with that of other researchers who study emotion (Frijda, 1988, 2008; Gross & Thompson, 2007; Lewis, 2008; Weiner, 2005, 2010) in asserting the role of cognitive appraisals in emotion experiences. Scholars with a cognitive appraisal perspective vary in concern for individual disposition (e.g., Lewis, 2008) versus situational differences (e.g., Weiner, 2010) in emotion appraisal and experience. Frijda (2008) integrated the person-situation perspectives and discussed the potential role of emotional dispositions, concerns, or interests in the situational experience of an emotion episode. In this perspective, students are assumed to have individual concerns and corresponding threats to those concerns. The threats capture student attention, which then affords opportunities for appraisal (or interpretation). This line of thinking informs our own. Potential individual differences in what students might care about (e.g., competence, affiliation, power) and the situations or contexts that might sensitize those concerns (e.g., learning in private, small group, whole class) are of strong interest in the present study.

Emotion researchers in the cognitive appraisal approach also differ in if and when it is useful to distinguish the generation of emotion from the regulation of it and the sequencing of components in an emotional episode (e.g., Gross, Sheppes, & Urry, 2011). The current study introduces the School Situations inventory, a pencil-and-paper questionnaire designed to assess self-conscious affective responses to situations commonly encountered in three elementary school contexts: private, small group, and whole class. This measure assesses both emotion generation and regulation strategies in a student self-report format. We explore the possibility of individual and contextual differences in the generation and regulation of self-conscious emotions (and their potentially unique co-occurrence and stability).


Lewis (2008) and Tangney (2002) took the lead in expanding the study of emotion to include self-conscious emotions (e.g., pride, guilt, shame) within the individual disposition tradition. Tangney developed a TOSCA (Test of Self-Conscious Affect) instrument that will be discussed later on. The theory is that self-conscious emotions, or moral emotions, are triggered by transgressions against internalized cultural standards, rules, or goals (SRGs) and thought to emerge later than the basic emotions (e.g., happy, sad, angry). As moral emotions, shame and guilt fuel acts of good or ill (e.g., Tangney, 2002). Of the two moral emotions, guilt typically is considered more prosocial and moral than shame because guilt fuels a desire for reparation, whereas shame fuels a desire to escape. Cohen, Wolf, Panter, and Insko (2011) disagreed with that assessment, however, and argued that shame is multifunctional. In their research, only (maladaptive) shame that fuels behavioral withdrawal is harmful. In comparison, shame that results in negative self-evaluation functions similarly to guilt in ethical decision making. These distinctions appear aligned with emotional intensity considerations (e.g., embarrassment vs. shame; regret vs. guilt) on the impact of moral emotions on personal adjustment (Lewis, 2008). Orth, Robins, and Soto (2010) conducted a cross-sectional study of self-conscious emotions across the life span (ages 1389). Shame and hubris (exaggerated pride), which generalize across situations (and thus share a globality attribution structure, for example, Lewis, 2008), were consistently and negatively related to psychological well-being. In contrast, (shame-free) guilt and authentic pride, which are tied to specific acts (rather than globally experienced), were positively related to personal well-being. This suggests that the personal and social effects of emotional adaptation are similarly experienced across the life span. It underscores the importance of identifying and intervening as necessary in the generation-regulation dynamics of self-conscious emotion habits as they are formed in order to prevent the development of potentially unhealthy characteristic adaptations. Thus, we consider elementary school an important context in which to study these dynamics as students develop ways of regulating and adapting to self-conscious emotions.


As noted by Pekrun and colleagues (Pekrun, Goetz, Titz, & Perry, 2002; Schutz & Pekrun, 2007), historically, anxiety has been the dominant emotional concern of classroom researchers. For (at least) 50 years of school reform initiatives, accountability demands have put considerable pressure on students and teachers. Concerns about the potential cumulative harm resulting from chronic anxiety in response to constant stress emerged early on and remain (e.g., Hill & Wigfield, 1984; Sarason, Davidson, Lighthall, & Waite, 1958). Other school achievement-related emotions of concern have included the tedium of boredom and the frustration of difficulty within the adaptive learning (or self-regulated learning) tradition (e.g., Rohrkemper & Corno, 1988); as well as the impact of shame, pride, anxiety, and hope experiences on academic goals in the goal theory tradition (e.g., Linnenbrink & Pintrich, 2002; Middleton & Midgely, 1997). In general, and typically in research with college students, the consensus is that positive emotions (e.g., enjoyment, hope, pride) and negative emotions (e.g., anger, anxiety, shame, boredom, hopelessness) are both related to motivation and academic engagement (e.g., Boekaerts, 2011; Pekrun, Goetz, Frenzel, Barchfeld, & Perry, 2011). In brief, positive emotions typically correlate with higher achievement in more capable students, whereas negative emotions relate to lower achievement in the less capable students.

Attribution Theory

Attribution theory, primarily associated with the work of Weiner (2005, 2010) and colleagues, tends to restrict concern to situational (rather than dispositional) determinants of cognitive appraisal, emotion, and response patterns. Thus, globality (i.e., personality) attributions, which are key to the dispositional and maladjustment work of Lewis (2008), are not a primary concern. Attribution theory posits two working hypotheses relevant to emotions in school. The first hypothesis is intrapersonal; that is, it informs student self-conscious emotions, and these are typically studied in relation to achievement outcomes. The second hypothesis is interpersonaland concerns those attributions that inform emotions related to studentteacher and studentstudent dynamics. Both hypotheses begin with an outcome or event, particularly one the individual views as negative, unexpected, or important. Weiner asserted that attributional appraisals consist of three dimensions: the perceived (1) locus or source, (2) stability or predictability, and (3) individual controllability of the situation or event. In our current study, we foreground students controllability assessments in self-conscious emotions related to classroom learning demands. Our hypothesis is that these controllability assessments have potential impact on coping in classroom relationships.

Intrapersonal controllability beliefs inform situational self-conscious emotions such as pride, guilt, and shame. Guilt and pride, although differing in valence, are comparable in and triggered by perceived intrapersonal controllability. These two emotional responses are informed by a sense of choice and, thus, a students assumption of personal responsibility and ownership of results. Both guilt and pride contrast with the belief that triggers shame, which is uncontrollable. Control-emotion relationships are more fully examined by Pekrun (2006) as they relate to school learning.

Control-Value Theory

Pekruns (2006) control-value theory (CVT) of achievement emotions is an expectancy-value theory that prioritizes the controllability dimension of attribution theory. CVT takes into account the complexities of task demands, control factors (e.g., expectancies and attributions), and values (both extrinsic and intrinsic). Specifically, Pekrun distinguished between activity emotions, those experienced as intrinsic to schoolwork, and outcome emotions, those experienced as corollaries to the results of schoolwork.

Self-conscious emotions are considered outcome emotions that involve controllability and value. For example, guilt in reaction to failure, and pride in reaction to success can both involve high controllability and high value. Shame in reaction to failure, however, is typically considered an outcome of low control and high value. Shame in reaction to failure, especially public failure in academic work shared by peers, can result from high value and, depending on group composition, either high or low controllability. In the current study, we foreground the role of specific social/instructional (S/I) classroom contexts (private, small group, and whole class) or protypical situations (Lewis, 2008) that coregulate students experiences of self-conscious emotions and how they cope with them. In addition, we expect individual differences in math readiness and achievement to be differentially related to these contexts, consistent with differences in perceived control.

Coregulated Attributions

Intrapersonal and interpersonal attribution perspectives typically are presented as two separate processes; however, students intrapersonal dynamics are not necessarily private affairs. The social nature of classrooms means that privacy can be a scarce resource, and student responses to self-conscious emotions can radiate to others. The interpersonal attribution hypothesis informs how that might proceed. In interpersonal theory, the introspection of intrapersonal search is turned outward (Weiner, 2005). Using controllability attributions in particular, an observer decides or judges if the protagonist is responsible for an event. In the case of a negative event, judgments of controllability inform emotionsfor example, angerwhich fuel rejection or punishment responses. In contrast, uncontrollability judgments support sympathy, pity, and assistance. These dynamics have been found in research with elementary school students and teachers (e.g., McCaslin, 2004).


Learning difficulties and peer conflicts, large or small, are the stuff and stress of elementary and middle school (e.g., Humphrey, 2004; McCaslin & Murdock, 1991; Sotardi, 2013), yet how students cope with them is insufficiently studied (Matheny, Aycock, & McCarthy, 1993; Sotardi, 2013). Sotardi (2013) referred to these stressful episodes as moments of tension and relief that fluctuate throughout the school day. Theories of stress and coping (e.g., Lazarus & Folkman, 1984) consider how individuals appraise a problem and coordinate their efforts to reduce stress, and how these problem representations and solutions influence the social environment (Skinner & Zimmer-Gembeck, 2007), both directly (e.g., displacement) and indirectly (e.g., peer modeling).

Cultural-Personal Dynamics

Blair and Raver (2012) applied a psychobiological model to study children who live in poverty. In this model, biology and typically occurring experiences combine to promote and extinguish specific abilities. Blair and Raver argued that children who live in poverty continuously confront the adversity of scarce resources (see also Berliner, 2013; Biddle, 2014) and parental stress. Coping strategies that parents may engage often are not witnessed by their childrenfor example, managing scarce resources, finding multiple routes to desired goals, and juggling competing demands within limited time constraints (e.g., Newman, 2006). Thus, children raised in poverty are exposed to stress but can be limited in their exposure to ways to practice coping skills. This in turn alters their stress response physiology, which influences neural systems involved in self-regulation, which results in tendencies to be more reactive to experience. One behavioral result is the development of hypervigilance to cues that signal threat.

Hypervigilance supports biased attributions that allow quick and decisive reactions that are necessary in actual threat situations. Indeed, in realized threats, these decisive actions are rewarding to the individual and likely rewarded by others. One cost of being decisive, however, is the increased likelihood of overresponding in general, even to potentially benign events, an outcome that can damage interpersonal relationships. Blair and Raver (2012) noted that school in particular can be a difficult setting for these hypervigilant students.

The stress of poverty is magnified when it co-occurs with living in a high-poverty area. Poverty density exacerbates the likelihood of poor housing, higher crime rates, fewer job opportunities, and less preparation to participate in the workforce. According to the U.S. Census Bureau (Bishaw, 2014), 60% of people aged 25 or older who lived in poverty and also lived in a high-poverty area (defined as at least 20% living in poverty) during 20082012 did not complete high school. The current study was conducted in a state in which 64% of people living in poverty also lived in high-poverty areas. Participating schools primarily serve families who live in poverty. Within this, the density of school poverty differs, allowing an examination of how poverty density might be related to students emotional adaptation in Grades 46. Perry and McConney (2010) studied SES factors at the school and individual level in Australia, which they considered a moderate rather than an ideal or extreme case of the issues of quality and equity in schooling (p. 1140). They found that the average SES level of the school predicted individual student achievement better than the individual students family SES level. The U.S. public education system tolerates more segregation by level of economic advantage (and therefore ethnicity) than the Australian system. Thus, we expect school-level SES data to serve a similar function in individual student achievement and emotional adaptation. Namely, school poverty density will affect the achievement and emotional adaptation of students.

Social-Personal Dynamics

How students stress-reduction strategies might affect the social environment from the observer perspective is informed by interpersonal attribution theory (Weiner, 2005). Just as students are not all on the same tension-relief page (Sotardi, 2013), neither are they, as protagonists and observers, privy to the same controllability attribution assessments. However, research suggests that when they do experience stress, be it due to self-involved or other-involved factors, students cope by relying on available cognitive, emotional, and social resources, and that this coping is a way of seeking relief (e.g., Band & Weisz, 1998; Compas, Connor-Smith, Saltzman, Thomsen, & Wadsworth, 2001; Matheny et al., 1993).

Band and Weisz (1988) studied coping and stress management by interviewing children aged 6, 9, and 12 about everyday stress across six domains. Participants reports of coping with difficulty in peer relations and school failure are of particular interest. Students primary coping strategies included direct problem solving, problem-focused aggression, and problem-focused avoidance. Coping with difficulty in peer relationships such as aggression was correlated with age: Older children were more likely to report the need to cope with aggressive behavior than 6- year-olds. In contrast, older children were less likely than 6-year-olds to tackle school failure problems aggressively. These patterns suggest that context and development matter in childrens use of coping strategies.

In our present study, we did not have specific developmental expectations. However, we did expect our participants to cope with self-conscious emotions in ways that differed by context. Namely, we expected more varied (Sotardi, 2013) and aggressive coping to be observed in small-group contexts because these contexts embed peer relationship challenges in classroom learning. We also expected the peer relationship component to be more salient than the learning and task demands for most students. Third, we expected private contexts to be associated with the least amount of aggressive coping strategies because students focus more narrowly on the learning difficulty. Within these general context affordances, we considered the possibility that competence-related concerns might differentiate student responses. Thus, although we hypothesize that self-conscious emotions are coregulated relatively more by S/I context, self-conscious emotions may be dispositional for some students.

Personal-Social Dynamics

Skinner and colleagues (e.g., Skinner, Edge, Altman, & Sherwood, 2003; Skinner & Zimmer-Gembeck, 2007) conducted extensive reviews of research on coping. They identified 12 families of coping strategies, their assessment, and how they change with child and adolescent development. Of particular interest is the reported use of escape (cognitive or behavioral) in childrens coping.

Escape. Although escape is the second most frequently studied child strategy, some researchers have found that escapeeither overt or covertis the strategy that students are least likely to report (e.g., Band & Weisz, 1988). However, self-conscious emotion researchers include the desire to disappear or escape as integral to the definition of shame. This raises the possibilities that (a) shame is an infrequently experienced emotion, (b) the situations in which students coping has been studied do not trigger shame, and (c) escape is not a controllable option. The SS measure (Burggraf, 1993) can inform these possibilities. We expect that students will vary (a) in whether or not they endorse shame responses; (b) in how they cope with that feelingthrough covert withdrawal and disappearance desires and/or outsourcing the feeling by externalizing on objects or others; and (c) in the extent to which they endure negative emotion without relief.

Coping in school. Research on childrens coping highlights the importance of viewing coping behavior in relation to both context and age. Sotardi (2013) addressed both variables by interviewing students in Grades 35 who attended a predominantly Latino school. She identified unique stress and coping patterns associated with learning difficulty, performance expectations, and teacherstudent relationships. Students strategies for coping with peer conflict were the most variable, however. Students reported that they tried to behave aggressively, ignore the problem, or withdraw from a situation as a way to resolve peer conflict; yet, they said they did not believe these strategies were successful. The current study considers the possibility that peer conflict arises in part because of student struggles with the learning demands of varied S/I contexts in classrooms.

Perhaps one source of peer conflict is the high value and low control (Pekrun, 2006) that students may experience when high academic achievement is expected. Caring about learning or performance can come at a cost. Intrapersonal attributional understanding of learning-related mistakes or failures may be the source of self-conscious emotions such as shame and of ineffective coping with that emotion by behaving aggressively, attempting to ignore the problem, or withdrawing from the situation. Coping strategies that create peer conflict trigger interpersonal attributional search, emotion, and behaviorand on it goes. Struggling learners, like children who confront the chronic adversity of poverty, may overrespond to mistakes and poor grades, thus compounding their learning difficulties with actions that invite peer rejection and/or punishment, adding realized rejection and isolation to the learning difficulty mix.


Building on Frijda (2008), our research addresses the interplay of dispositional propensity and context affordances through a coregulation sociocultural lens (McCaslin, 2009). We organize the research along three dimensions of influence and consider how the press among them informs students emotional adaptation: (a) cultural norms and challenges that define probable expectations for students, as manifested in schools that serve relatively moderate (M = 70%) and relatively high (M = 92%) concentrations of families living in poverty; (b) social opportunities and relationships that are practicable in classrooms and can influence how students cope and adapt, as manifested in three classroom S/I contexts (private, small group, and whole class); and (c) the personal potential of readiness to learn that students bring to the classroom, as manifested in their prior math achievement. We expect that some students will struggle more, in part because they care more, know less about a subject, have underdeveloped stress management strategies, and/or are more reactive to academic or interpersonal failures (see also McCaslin & Vega, 2013). Coping with those individual concerns can invite interpersonal difficulties as well. Our research highlights the role of controllabilityof the self and of othersin the underlying structure of attributional search and considers the potential interplay of these factors in students emotional adaptation.



School Situations (SS) (Burggraf, 1993) consists of 12 school-related vignettes (see Appendix A) that most notably vary in the potential of others awareness of the protagonists mistake (no one, some, all). Vignettes also vary in the relative importance (peer and/or learning) of the event for some students and the role of social influences (e.g., Baumeister, Stillwell, & Heatherton, 1995) and resources on students experience of and coping with self-conscious emotions.

Nine of the 12 vignettes portray troublesome situations; three portray individual success situations (one success vignette includes besting a friend academically; thus, it also is potentially troublesome). The vignettes also vary in essential context: private (n = 3), small-group (n = 5), and whole-class settings (n = 4), the trifecta of classroom S/I settings. Individual success situations were not the primary purpose of the instrument and are restricted to three vignettes. As a result, success vignettes are confounded with context; that is, there is only one success vignette for each of the individual, small-group, and whole-class settings. Each vignette is followed by behavioral and affective response options for self-conscious emotions and coping strategies, and students are asked to rate each response independently. Self-conscious emotions include guilt (n = 12; 7 with explicitly stated emotion), shame (n = 12; 7 with explicitly stated escape wish), and pride (n = 3); coping strategies include externalize (blame something/someone else; n = 12) and normalize (make the event relatively ordinary; n = 9).

Each negative situation vignette is followed by four sentences representing a shame, guilt, normalize, and externalize response option (presented in varied order). Each positive situation vignette is followed by four sentences representing pride, shame, guilt, and externalize response options (in varied order). Each sentence is followed by a 5-point Likert-type scale labeled both by column and within rows with increasing circle sizes to represent magnitude. Students use the scale to rate the likelihood that they would respond in a particular way if the situation was to happen to them, and they are asked to respond to each of the four sentences (rather than only responding to the one that most applies to them). For example, one vignette portrays a small-group incident: While working in your small group, you are talking loudly and your whole group gets blamed. Students then rate (using the 5-point Likert scale) each of four sentences for their personal likelihood: a) You feel ashamed that you caused so much trouble (shame); b) You feel like the teacher is making a big deal out of nothing (externalize); c) You decide to be quieter so your group doesnt get in any more trouble (guilt); d) You remember that all kids are loud sometimes (normalize).

Note that in this example, the shame sentence does not provide a sense of escape or covert relief from the feeling of shame (an outcome that is theoretically consistent with the emotion). In all, five of the shame sentences leave the respondent to dwell on the emotion; seven also provide some form of fantasy escape (e.g., you feel really embarrassed and wish you could go home now). The guilt response sentence in this example conveys a behavior that repairs the damage caused by the protagonist without inclusion of a feeling bad emotion word. Five of the guilt sentences contain only a repair attempt; seven also include emotion words along with repair strategies (e.g., you feel guilty and worry about replacing the book). Response component differences within the shame and guilt items allow the examination of whether or not cuing a release from shame or focusing directly on restitution rather than personal guilt are useful in understanding nuances in students coping with mistakes. Here, we explore these nuances with exploratory factor analyses of the reports of students who participated.

SS is an adaptation of the Test for Self-Conscious Affect (TOSCA), which was originally generated from adult-reported emotional experiences. Subsequently, Tangney and colleagues developed a version for children (Tangney, Burggraf, & Wagner, 1995; Tangney & Dearing, 2002; Tangney, Dearing, Wagner, & Gramzow, 2000). An essential difference between the TOSCA and the SS instruments is that Tangney and colleagues considered the TOSCA scales dispositional measures. Burggraf and colleagues, however, deliberately examined the potential role of classroom social context in students self-conscious emotions. SS vignette events are systematically situated in classroom challenges and instructional formats that students experience. This allows the possibility of both personal disposition across situations and characteristic adaptation to context to emerge in the data.


This study addressed two primary questions. First, we used the School Situations (SS) instrument to examine student-reported emotion and coping strategies. We assessed the theoretical alignment of student reports and asked how they might differ within the contexts of sociocultural resources, classroom social/instructional situations, and individual differences in student readiness. Emotion and coping scale analyses on the full sample available at each data administration address research question 1: Are there context and individual differences in how students experience (generate) and cope with (regulate) self-conscious emotions?

We were also interested in how students might integrate their responses across emotion and coping strategy scale items. That is, if and how emotion generation and regulation might co-occur in students coping with making mistakes. If obtained, we considered these patterns indicative of individual differences in students emotional adaptation to classroom demands. We then examined obtained patterns for stability, or the potential of students emotional adaptations to become characteristic over the school year. In research question 2, we ask: Do students self-conscious emotions and coping strategies form unique profiles that are relatively stable over time?

In addition to participants, procedures, and psychometric information, the remainder of this method section includes the analysis plan, and preliminary (general trends) findings. Preliminary findings serve as the backdrop against which the inferential results associated with the two research questions can be considered in more detail as results.


Participants were studentsN = 413 at time one (209 males, 202 females, 2 unknown); 472 at time two (244 males, 225 females, 3 unknown)in Grades 46 who attended school in the fall and/or spring semesters during a single school year. Students attended one of five schools within a single school district in the Southwest that was participating in a teacher professional development project focused on improving mathematics instruction of rational numbers (fractions, decimals, and percents). Consistent with the National Math Panel Report (Hoffer, Venkataraman, Hedberg, & Shagle, 2007, in Good et al., 2013), one reason students have difficulty in learning algebra is that they lack sufficient foundational understanding of rational numbers. To address this issue, Good et al. (2013) developed an in-service program designed to help teachers (N = 140) of students (N = 2845) in Grades 35 teach rational numbers in ways that anticipated student misconceptions and targeted both conceptual and procedural knowledge. Changes in student pretest and posttest percent correct revealed large and significant gains in student understanding of rational numbers. Subsequently, Good et al. turned attention to the potential of online materials, their reach to remotely located schools and teachers, and the feasibility of self-pacing in professional development. The research presented here is part of that effort. We argued that, in addition to quality of teacher instruction of rational numbers concepts and procedures, students nonability determinants of coping with setbacks, frustration, and making mistakes was part of the math achievement problem. To that end, the current work was designed to capture baseline data on student emotional adaptation as a first step in identifying if and how student emotional adaptations to stressors in classroom learning contexts might mediate their opportunity to learn and subsequent achievement.

School-level SES, defined by percentage of students receiving free or reduced lunch, ranged from 63% to 97%. School-level data were aggregated to allow comparison of students who attended two schools that served a relatively moderate concentration of families living in poverty (77%, 63%; n = 273) with three schools that served a relatively high concentration of families living in poverty (89%, 91%, 97%; n = 199). Students classroom teachers administered the mathematics achievement tests and survey instrumentation in the fall and spring of the school year.


Procedures were identical for the pre (early November) and post (early May) data collections. Classroom teachers were asked to distribute and collect upon completion (a) a grade-level specific math test on rational numbers and (b) the SS survey, which students completed after the test. Tests consisted of items expected to assess prior knowledge and forthcoming curriculum objectives for the larger teacher professional development project. The tests served two purposes for this study: (a) to prime concern for making mistakes prior to taking the self-conscious emotions inventory and (b) to approximate student readiness to learn math. Students could choose the survey instrument in either English or Spanish; in practice, 98% selected the English version.

Teachers read a standard description of the purpose of the study, confidentiality assurances, and the survey instructions to the students. Teachers completed the practice sample items with students as a class, reviewing the response options, and answered vocabulary and procedure questions about the survey if asked. Finally, teachers were asked to collect completed instruments, return them to a large manila envelope, place them in a box with the completed math tests, and deliver them to the principals office. Researchers picked up completed materials from the principals offices.


Student responses to the SS instrument were examined for reliability estimates at each administration.

Internal Consistency

Internal consistency for each of the five SS scales is based on Cronbachs alpha procedures applied to the 12 vignettes and the full samples at pretest (N = 413) and posttest (N = 472) administrations. The guilt, shame, and externalize scales are represented in 12 items, normalize in 9 items, and pride in 3 items. Cronbachs alpha coefficients were: guilt (.707 pre; .721 post), shame (.746 pre; .779 post), externalize (.630 pre; .714 post), normalize (.564 pre; .448 post), and pride (.585 pre; .610 post), respectively. These alpha coefficients were comparable with previous findings (McCaslin, Burggraf, & Olson, 2011), with one exception. Normalize items, self-talk examples that make events less unique and important (no use crying over spilt milk), were less well organized in this sample compared with the original. We suspect that was due in part to differences in regional colloquialisms; the original sample was Midwestern, the current Southwestern. Overall, grade-level patterns were minor fluctuations on consistent themes, indicating that the instrument was useful across grade levels four through six in the present sample.

SS internal consistency results compare favorably with those reported by Tangney and colleagues (2000) for the TOSCA-C (for children) for two samples, IG90 (N = 380 fifth graders) and PGKID91 (N = 324 fourth through sixth graders). The similarity of the SS results reported in McCaslin et al. (2011), the present findings, and the TOSCA-C results suggests that SS is an acceptable (and shorter) addition to the instrumentation literature that attempts to capture students awareness of and coping with self-conscious emotions in three classroom contexts: private, small-group, and whole-class settings.

Test-Retest Stability

Table 1 contains the sample size and correlation information for those students who were present for both the pretest and posttest administrations. Emotion reports are more stable than reported coping strategies. Within this, normalizing reports are the least stable, consistent with expectations that these responses are more situation dependent. Stability correlations are modest yet substantial, suggesting that self-conscious emotions can be considered as dispositions that are malleable and open to intervention.

Table 1. Paired-Samples Correlations for School Situations Scales








< .001




< .001




< .001




< .001




< .001


Pretest and posttest achievement was assessed with tests designed explicitly for evaluation of a mathematics professional development program for the teaching of rational numbers, specifically fractions, decimals, and percentages (Good et al., 2013; complete curriculum, test, and staff development procedures are available on request). In subsequent analyses, achievement is represented as percentage correct. Students were administered grade-level specific exams, with the number of items differing across grade levels (35 items for fourth and fifth grade; 38 items for sixth grade). Therefore, percentage correct was used rather than raw score to control for that variation. Pretest results serve as a proxy measure of student potential or readiness to learn rational numbers; posttest results represent end-of-school-year achievement in rational numbers. In both cases, the experience of taking a criterion-referenced test prior to completing SS was meant to prime concern about learning, accountability, and making mistakes.


Data were subjected to descriptive and inferential analyses that did not utilize listwise deletion procedures (in which only those students with complete data at each administration are included in analyses). Listwise deletions did not seem a defensible strategy given our concerns with self-conscious emotion and coping: What you do not consider is potentially just as informative as what you will consider. Thus, all participants were included in the analyses regardless of whether they completed all items. Subsequent examination of differences in missing data across scales provides anecdotal support for this decision. The highest number of missing responses was related to the shame scale (15.2% at pretest, 10.17% at posttest), lending support for the assertion that shame leads to a desire to avoid. In contrast, only 5.1% of pride scale responses were missing at pretest and 2.5% at posttest. The final vignette contained a pride item, suggesting that reading ability, fatigue, or tedium were not primary factors in the missing data differences.

Two sets of analyses were conducted to address the central research questions described previously; the first question addressed the theoretical coherence of SS and potential role of context and individual differences in self-conscious emotion and coping, and the second assessed students response patterns across scale items and the stability of these patterns across the school year. Analyses related to the first question included all students at each of the two points of data collection: pretest (N = 415) and posttest (N = 473). These analyses allowed us to consider the relationships among variables without concern for vagaries such as student mobility, absenteeism, and changing classroom participation rates in the fall and spring of the school year. Analyses related to the second question, the potential for students emotional adaptation to become characteristic of their coping with classroom demands, included only the subsample of students who participated at both pretest and posttest administrations (N = 295).


School Situations

Table 2 contains the pretest and posttest means and standard deviations of student responses by scale; the shame and guilt subscales, as previously described, are also included. Results indicate that when given the opportunity to do so, students reported feeling pride the most, followed by guilt; students reported feeling shame and externalizing the least of the five scales. Repeated measures analyses of variance (ANOVAs) indicated that each scale is independent from the others at both pretest, F(4, 1624) = 382.38, p < .001, and posttest, F(4, 1868) = 573.73, p < .001.

Table 2. Means and Standard Deviations for SS Scales at Pretest and Posttest







M (SD)


M (SD)

Guilt (overall)



3.20 (0.68)

3.21 (0.64)

       With emotion



3.18 (0.78)

3.23 (0.72)

       Without emotion



3.22 (0.78)

3.17 (0.75)

Shame (overall)



2.55 (0.77)

2.48 (0.75)

       Shame with fantasy



2.48 (0.91)

2.39 (0.91)

       Shame without fantasy



2.64 (0.79)

2.60 (0.76)




2.65 (0.60)

2.60 (0.65)




2.89 (0.68)

2.91 (0.57)




4.00 (0.93)

4.08 (0.85)


Average percent correct scores suggest that the tests were challenging (as intended) at the pretest (40%) and posttest (44%). Students varied in initial readiness and end-of-year achievement. Overall and grade-level scores are presented in Table 3. Change score analyses of pretest and posttest achievement provided some information on the amount learned in the interim.

Table 3. Average Achievement Scores at Pretest and PosttestOverall and by Grade Level  






M (SD)


M (SD)




0.40 (0.14)

0.44 (0.15)

       Grade 4  



0.37 (0.09)

0.40 (0.10)

       Grade 5



0.44 (0.16)

0.48 (0.18)

       Grade 6



0.39 (0.15)

0.47 (0.16)

Note. Achievement scores are represented as percentage correct. Fourth- and fifth-grade tests had 35 items, and sixth-grade tests had 38 items.

Students who participated at pretest and posttest and had achievement scores at both time points (N = 247) were categorized into one of three relative achievement levels. Low (n = 92), moderate (n = 76), and high (n = 79) achievement groups were created based on pretest percentile rank (percentile ranges for each group were 033, 3466, and 67100, respectively). Pretest to posttest change scores were computed and subjected to ANOVA and Cohens d procedures (see Table 4 for means and standard deviations). Change scores significantly differed across groups, F(2, 244) = 12.843, p < .001. Students in the low achievement group had the greatest gain from pretest to posttest (d = 1.15), followed by the moderate achievement group (d = 0.48). In contrast, students in the high achievement group showed the least gain (d = 0.05). Achievement gains between test administrations did not alter group relative achievement levels. The average posttest score of the low achievement group was less than the average pretest score of the moderate group. Similarly, the average posttest score of the moderate group was less than the average pretest score of the relatively high-achieving students.

Table 4. Achievement Score Means, Standard Deviations, and Cohens d for Low, Moderate, and High Achievement Levels  

Achievement level



M (SD)


M (SD)


M (SD)

Cohens d



0.26 (0.07)

0.35 (0.09)

0.09 (.10)




0.38 (0.03)

0.42 (0.11)

0.04 (0.11)




0.57 (0.10)

0.58 (0.16)

0.01 (0.11)


Note. This table depicts data for students who had achievement scores at both pretest and posttest.


General data trends suggest, first, that students who attend schools that primarily serve families who live in poverty are heterogeneous with respect to self-conscious emotions, coping strategies, and achievement. They distinguish among self-conscious emotions and coping strategies and differ in readiness, learning gains, and ultimate achievement. Second, gain scores were inversely related to relative achievement level yet did not reorganize those levels. Thus, student self-conscious emotion and coping strategy responses associated with pretest readiness and end of year achievement (presented subsequently) likely are more about characteristic aptitude beliefs and prototypical experiences (Lewis, 2008) than actual progress in learning. Third, differences in student readiness and achievement are not isomorphic with student engagement. Students who were relatively less ready to learn apparently were nonetheless engaged in learning.


Results are organized by the two primary research questions. Within research question 1, results are presented by context and include a related considerations section.


Data presentation begins with concerns about the potential impact of cultural norms and challenges, represented by the concentration of family poverty that participating schools served, on students reported self-conscious emotions and coping. Second, we examine the effects of practicable issues of classroom S/I contexts on students reports. Third, we examine the role of student potential, defined as readiness to learn and end-of-year achievement, in self-conscious emotion dynamics.

School Socioeconomic Status

Students who attended schools that served a relatively moderate concentration of families living in poverty (77%, 63%; n = 273) were compared with those who attended schools that served a relatively high concentration of families living in poverty (81%, 91%, 97%; n = 199).

Emotion and coping scale results. School poverty concentration mattered in both the pretest and posttest administrations. At pretest, students in high-poverty-density schools reported significantly more externalizing, t(410) = -2.19, p = .029, and less pride t(378.65) = 2.12, p = .035, than students who attended relatively moderate-poverty-density schools (assumption of equal variances was violated for analysis involving pride; thus, corrections were presented). At posttest, students in high-poverty-density schools reported significantly more shame, t(467) = -2.83; p = .005, more guilt, t(471) = -1.98; p = .048, and less pride, t(470) = 2.16; p = .031, than students attending relatively moderate-poverty-density schools.

Achievement results. There were no significant relationships between school poverty density and student achievement on either the pretest or posttest (r = -.08, p = .131; r = -.06, p = .301, respectively).

Considerations. We did not have specific hypotheses regarding SES within a group of schools that, by definition, served considerable numbers of families who reside in poverty. It seemed reasonable to be concerned, however, that economic resources might be confounded with personal resources in ways that higher school poverty density affords lower student achievement (e.g., more likely parent[s] did not complete high school) and more reactive emotional adaptation (e.g., due to heightened threat alert). Our achievement concerns were not realized. Student pre- and posttest achievement were not related to density of school poverty.

Student-reported emotion and coping, however, were related to poverty density. Students attending schools that served relatively higher concentrations of families living in poverty reported more negative and less positive self-conscious emotions. The change from externalizing strategies at pretest to negative self-conscious emotions at posttest warrants continued study of the impact of sociocultural resources on students self-conscious emotions and coping strategies when making mistakes and experiencing failure.

Classroom Social/Instructional Context

Emotion and coping scale results. Repeated measures ANOVAs revealed that the overall models for S/I context were significant at both pretest and posttest (see Table 5 for means, standard deviations, and significance between contexts). Context analyses for each scale except pride violated the assumption of spherecity at both pretest and posttest; thus, results with Greenhouse-Geisser corrections are presented where necessary. All pretest and posttest context models are significant at p < .001. Specific results for overall pretest models are: F(1.97, 803.67) = 46.84 for guilt; F(1.96, 789.08) = 60.54 for shame; F(1.96, 790.79) = 159.13 for externalizing; F(1.77, 709.73) = 290.84 for normalizing; and F(2, 786) = 22.88 for pride. Results for posttest models are: F(1.92, 563.57) = 53.71 for guilt; F(1.96, 569.32) = 81.15 for shame; F(1.92, 561.53) = 168.82 for externalizing; F(1.79, 521.47) = 370.23 for normalizing; and F(2, 578) = 39.47 for pride. Figure 1 illustrates how context mattered in students reported self-conscious emotions and coping strategies.

Table 5. Scale Means and Standard Deviations for Whole Class (WC), Small Group (SG), and Private (P) Contexts







M (SD)


M (SD)


M (SD)



M (SD)


M (SD)


M (SD)



3.19 (0.84)a

3.36 (0.82)a

2.94 (0.89)a


3.10 (0.79)c

3.42 (0.75)c

2.95 (0.81)c


2.40 (0.97)a

2.81 (0.83)a,b

2.29 (1.04)b


2.30 (0.94)c

2.76 (0.83)c,d

2.19 (0.99)d


3.05 (0.81)a

2.23 (0.75)a

2.78 (0.84)a


2.99 (0.83)c

2.15 (0.74)c

2.75 (0.83)c


3.54 (0.94)a

2.74 (0.83)a

2.14 (1.00)a


3.75 (0.87)c

2.73 (0.79)c

1.98 (0.90)c


4.05 (1.21)a

3.79 (1.26)a

4.26 (1.11)a


4.15 (1.07)c

3.72 (1.29)c

4.35 (1.02)c

Note. Superscripts indicate statistical significance; a and b for pretest, c and d for posttest.  Within each row, identical notation indicates that variables are significantly different from each other. All are significant at p < .001 except for the following pairs: at pretest, WC and SG pride (p = .001), WC and P pride (p = .008); at posttest, WC and P guilt (p = .001), WC and P pride (p = .002).

Figure 1.  Context effects in students emotional adaptation


Considerations. Figure 1 displays posttest means; however, similar results were obtained at both pretest and posttest and are consistent with the pretest and posttest administrations in previous research (McCaslin et al., 2011). In general, of the three S/I formats, private contexts in particular are associated with the most pride, the least shame and guilt, and the least endorsement of (suggesting the least need for) normalizing and externalizing coping strategies. In contrast, Small Group contexts are associated with the least pride (although pride is, nonetheless, well represented), the most guilt and shame, moderate endorsement of normalization coping strategies, and the least expression of externalization (suggesting that outsourcing blame to others or objects is not feasible or wise in these contexts). In comparison, whole-class contexts are particularly notable for the endorsement of normalization coping strategies (suggesting one source of students thick skin in classrooms) and the relative reduction of expressed shame.

As a group, students apparently have figured out how to be alone in a crowd in the classroom (Jackson, 1968) in ways that keep them emotionally safe. Not so in small groups. We infer from these relationships that context is an informative component of students experience of and coping with self-conscious emotions. This, in itself, does not preclude the potential for some students to experience a relatively more dispositional orientation to self-conscious emotions. We consider this possibility in the context of student readiness to learn.

Individual Differences in Readiness and Learning

Emotion and coping scale results. At pretest, readiness (percent correct) and reported guilt were significantly and positively correlated (r = .15, p = .005). At posttest, end-of-year achievement was significantly and negatively related to reported shame (r = -.12, p = .030) and externalizing strategies (r = -.12, p = .035). In contrast, reported pride was positively and significantly associated with posttest achievement (r = .11, p = .041).

Individual Differences in Readiness and Learning Within Social/Instructional Context

Emotion and coping scale results. Correlational analyses were conducted to determine if there was a relationship between achievement and the three S/I contexts within each scale. The purpose was to determine if particular classroom contexts might be more or less challenging for students who differ in relative readiness and end-of-year achievement. At pretest, readiness was positively related to normalizing in whole-class settings (r = .14, p = .008) and reported guilt in small-group contexts (r = .10, p < .001), suggesting the possibility that both strategies support achievement, respectively, in these social contexts. In comparison, readiness was positively related to reported pride (r = .11, p = .043) and negatively related to shame (r = -.18, p = .001) and normalizing (r = -.16, p = .004) in private contexts.

At posttest, end-of-year achievement was again related to normalizing in whole-class settings (r = .18, p = .001; however, reported shame was newly, negatively related to achievement (r = -.11, p = .044) in whole-class contexts. Reported guilt in small groups was again positively related to achievement (r = .15, p = .008). In comparison, achievement and private contexts were again positively related to pride (r = .12, p = .032) and negatively related to shame (r = -.19, p = .001), normalizing (r = -.18, p = .001), and (newly) reported externalizing (r = -.13, p = .020).

Considerations. Differences among students in readiness to learn math provide two important caveats about the general affordances of social/instructional contexts. First, students higher in readiness navigate making mistakes in varied S/I contexts in ways that provide self-support without risking peer relations. For example, in whole-class contexts, students who are relatively more ready to learn are more likely to cope with mistakes by reducing their personal significance. In contrast, these students are more likely to experience guilt and attempt to fix mistakes in small-group contexts, often seen as their job by less capable (or less achievement-oriented) peers (Vega, 2014). Their experience of pride, however, is more likely to be kept private, a context that avoids triggering the envy or irritation of others.

A second concern is the self-conscious emotions and coping strategies of students who are less ready to learn math, particularly in private situations. We expected that these students would report more shame as a habitual response to making mistakes because they likely have more experience not being able to control the results of their learning efforts. This personal background would mediate the vignette mishaps, rendering them more threateningthe rule rather than the exceptions of their experience. Private contexts allow greater focus on learning demands and personal competence because they involve relatively less social press on emotion generation and regulation. Thus, student reports in private contexts associated with lower levels of math readiness and ultimate achievement suggest an internalization of and struggle with loss of perceived personal value that is related to controllability. Coping with that loss through normalizing strategies is more conducive to well-being; however, externalizing strategies are likely to further remove the student who is relatively less ready to learn from potential peer supports.


In answer to research question 1, we found that student responses to SS were theoretically aligned and responsive to context. In research question 2, we ask if and how emotion generation and regulation might co-occur in students coping with making mistakes and, if so, to what extent those emotional adaptations are stable over the school year. First, we present the student emotional adaptation profiles identified through exploratory factor analysis procedures, their unique contributions to instrumentation, reliability and stability assessments, and related considerations. Second, we present how these profiles were associated with the three contexts of interest: school socioeconomic status, classroom S/I, and personal readiness and learning.

Individual Differences in Emotional Adaptation

Student pretest reports completed in November (N = 413) were subjected to exploratory factor analysis using principal components extraction with orthogonal varimax rotation procedures in SPSS (Aspelmeier & Pierce, 2009). The orthogonal solution provided uncorrelated, unique factors. Factor retention was determined by (a) a scree plot analysis of the variance accounted for by the factors, (b) the theoretical interpretative value of those factors that exceeded an eigenvalue of 1.0, and (c) an examination of the item loadings. Items that loaded higher than .35 (or less than -.35) were examined for interpretation of the factor. Standardized factor scores were created for each student based on this analysis. Of the 48 items, five cross-loaded on two factors; however, only one item cross-loading (shame) was higher than .40 (.457 Distance and Displace; .571 Inadequate and Exposed factors, respectively).

The first five factors were retained and accounted for 34.79% of the variance in student reports (see Table 6). The factors, in rank order, are: Distance and Displace; Regret and Repair; Inadequate and Exposed; Proud and Modest; and Minimize and Move On. The five example items for each factor in Table 6 are those with the highest loadings.

Table 6. Individual Differences in Emotional Adaptation


(% variance)



1.   Distance and


You are angry with your group for being so silly.



You pretend you didnt hear and wish they would stop laughing.



You feel like asking the teacher if you can change groups. You dont, but its hard to forget about it.



You are angry with them for not doing more of the work themselves.



You think that it was a stupid joke.


2.   Regret and  



You think about why you got so confused and decide to think about your answer first next time.



You remember this happens to other kids, too.



You worry about your best friend who worked hard, too.



You worry that you didnt give the other kids a chance to figure it out.



You tell him youre sorry and offer some of your lunch.


3.   Inadequate and


You feel like a total jerk.



You wish you could disappear.



You feel really embarrassed and wish you could go home now.



You feel stupid and embarrassed and wish you could stop reading.



You are angry with yourself for not giving the right answer.


4.   Proud and


You feel proud of yourself.



You are proud of how smart you are.



You think: I was really lucky!



You think that the test was really easy.



You say to yourself: I really did a good job.


5.   Minimize and  

      Move On


You think, its no big deal, it was just one math lesson.



You think: Shell get over it.



You feel like the teacher is making a big deal out of nothing.



You think the other kids are careless too so you shouldnt feel bad.



You feel like avoiding that classmate until she forgets about it.


Each of the five factors includes items from more than one scale that form a unique pattern of responses more appropriate to the emotional demands in classrooms than the simple emotion scales allowed. Unique factors suggest that how students cope with an emotion is a key feature of that emotional experience. For example, Distance and Displace comprised 10 items from the Shame (n = 5), Externalizing (n = 4), and Normalizing (n = 1) scales. The distance in this factor captures attempts to withdraw from the situation to care for the self when experiencing shame, and the displace refers to attempts to externalize or blame someone or something else to find relief. In comparison, the Regret and Repair factor integrates 12 items from the Guilt (n = 8) and Normalizing (n = 4) scales. In so doing, this factor merges attempts to repair the situation, a traditional definition of experienced guilt, with attempts to care for the self through normalizing the event. In contrast to both, the Inadequate and Exposed factor comprises six items, all focused on the pain of negative self-conscious emotion: shame (n = 4) and guilt (n = 2), in which the self assumes sole responsibility and blame for mistakes. There is no self-care and no off-loading.

The Proud and Modest factor presents a quite different pattern in which self-recognition is tempered with humility. In this factor, Pride (n = 3) and Externalizing (n = 3) items are fused into a modesty orientation that elaborates on how students might experience prosocial Pride without apology for good fortune (be it in luck or aptitude) and without hubris and alienating others. Finally, Minimize and Move On consists of nine items across four scales: Normalize (n = 4), Externalize (n = 2), Shame (n = 2), and Guilt (n = 1). The gist of this factor is the coping strategy that says to keep going, to not dwell, to look beyond the mistake.

Factors can be organized on two continua, the first on emotion generation, specifically the intensity of the emotion generated, and the second on regulation of emotion, specifically the productivity of the regulation attempt. The continua are inversely related. At one anchor, the intensity of Inadequate and Exposed emotion generation is not met with any regulation attempts; at the other anchor, Minimize and Move On prioritizes regulation with minimal emotional fuel.

Psychometric Properties of Emotional Adaptation Factors

Factor replication. Posttest responses (N = 295) of students who participated in the pretest administration were subjected to the same factor analytic procedures to assess factor stability. These again yielded five comparable factors, accounting for 37.46% of the variance in student reports. One difference between administrations, however, was a change in the strength of item loadings related to optimism. The level of optimism evidenced in the pretest results was not as evident at post.

Test-retest stability. Individual pre and post factor scores (based on the pretest factor structure) were subjected to correlational procedures to assess scale test-retest stability. Table 7 contains the paired sample correlations. Test-retest correlations were moderate (range = .42.58) and suggest some school-year stability in student emotional adaptation reports, especially as related to the Regret and Repair (r = .58) and Inadequate and Exposed (r = .51) factors. These factors most clearly align with self-conscious emotion theory and research. Regret and Repair contributes the notion of self-restoration to the regulation component of guilt. Inadequate and Exposed captures (maladaptive) shame and contributes the notion of the pervasiveness of bad feelings, whatever their controllability, without regulation attempts.

Table 7. Paired-Samples Means, Standard Deviations, and Correlations for Pretest and Posttest Factor Scores




M (SD)


M (SD)


Distance and Displace


2.28 (0.79)

2.12 (0.72)


Regret and Repair


3.44 (0.76)

3.47 (0.66)


Inadequate and Exposed


2.55 (0.88)

2.50 (0.87)


Proud and Modest


3.58 (0.80)

3.65 (0.75)


Minimize and Move On


2.23 (0.74)

2.16 (0.68)


*** p < .001.

Stability analyses suggest that SS is a useful instrument for assessing students unique emotional adaptations to the demands associated with life and learning in classrooms as represented in 12 vignettes representing commonly experienced classroom events. Further, results indicate that the factor analytic derived scales (namely, Distance and Displace; Regret and Repair; Inadequate and Exposed; Proud and Modest; and Minimize and Move On) are useful in studying school-based emotions and coping strategies.

These adaptations may play a part in students resolution of the industry v inferiority crisis that informs a basic optimism about ones competence (Erikson, 1968) that in turn fuels ones identity as a learner. Identity is all about reciprocal validation, however, and some emotional adaptions invite valued participation with and by others, whereas other adaptations afford isolation, if not outright rejection. We explore these potential dynamics further as they relate to the mutual press among cultural expectations, classroom contexts, and student readiness and learning in math.

The Role of Context in Emotional Adaptation

We subjected factor score data for the 295 students participating at pre- and posttest administrations to analyses targeting three contexts: (a) school socioeconomic status; (b) classroom social/instructional contexts; and (c) student readiness, learning, and achievement in math.

School socioeconomic status. There were no significant differences in student emotional adaptation profiles related to school poverty density. However, at pretest, students who attended moderate-poverty-density schools reported more Proud and Modest emotional adaptation strategies (M = 3.66, SD = .76) than students who attended relatively high-poverty-density schools (M = 3.48, SD =.84), t(291) =1.94, p = .053. There were no differences in endorsement of Proud and Modest at posttest.

Classroom social/instructional context. Individual factors, and individual student factor scores, are not aligned with classroom instructional format in a manner that supports statistical analyses. Figure 2 illustrates how the items comprising each factor are distributed across contexts. Emotional adaptation differs such that Distance and Displace is particularly associated with small-group contexts, Regret and Repair with both whole-class and small-group contexts, and Minimize and Move On with private. The presence of Inadequate and Exposed in whole-class contexts is noteworthy. Previous scale analyses suggested that, in general, students had developed a relatively thick skin when making mistakes in whole-class situations. However, factor item composition suggests that what is relatively manageable for most is not for all. Those students who reported feeling Inadequate and Exposed are particularly vulnerable in whole-class contexts.

Figure 2.  Factor composition by context


Individual Differences in Readiness, Achievement, and Learning Gains

At pretest, percent correct was positively and significantly correlated with reported Regret and Repair emotional adaptation (r = .19, p = .002) and with being Proud and Modest (r = .16, p = .008). In contrast, reported Distance and Displace, and Minimize and Move On emotional adaptations were significantly and negatively corr:elated with percent correct (r = -.16, p = .007; r = -.15, p = .013, respectively).

At posttest, percent correct was positively and significantly related to Regret and Repair emotional adaptation (r = .14, p = .020). Distance and Displace and Minimize and Move On emotional adaptations were significantly and negatively correlated with percent correct (r = -.13, p = .028; r = -.13, p = .039, respectively).

Students learning gains, defined by changes in students percent correct from pretest to posttest, did not contribute to or modify results associated with readiness or end-of-year achievement.



Density of school poverty, within an overall context of relative poverty, is manifested in student self-conscious emotions and coping strategies, but not achievement. Thus, a typical study of the effects of school poverty would conclude that students attending these schools did not differ from each other (although likely would differ in comparison with more affluent schools). A narrow focus on achievement, however, belies understanding what it means to be poor, to attend school with others who are mostly poor, and the constraints on the shared pool of available personal and social resources that can result. Self-conscious emotions and coping strategies can exacerbate or attenuate personal and peer adversity in school. Density of school poverty appears to play a role in that distinction.

S/I contexts coregulate self-conscious emotions and coping strategies. As a group, students are most emotionally challenged in small-group contexts, consistent with the literature on coping with peers. In contrast to our expectations, however, students were relatively less likely to externalize or blame others for their mistakes in this context. Even so, results suggest that small groups may not be the best context in which to expect students to focus on learning tasks. Rather, private contexts appear better suited for attending to new learning demands. Students relative thick skin in whole class affords greater emphasis on knowledge display. Context affordances, however, do not mitigate differences in student self-conscious emotions and coping strategies related to student readiness to learn.

Self-conscious emotions, coping strategies, and achievement relationships change across the school year. At pretest, which was designed to capture student prior knowledge and readiness for planned content coverage, one significant relationship coincided with beliefs about the role of student motivation in learning in the attribution tradition. Namely, focusing a student on (a lack of) individual effort in achievement (rather than insufficient aptitude) induces student guilt, or at least a desire to repair, which yields increased student attempts to learn (e.g., Dweck & Molden, 2005; Weiner, 2010; Yeager & Dweck, 2012). The pretest relationship between achievement and reported guilt in this study suggests that over the long term, this may obtain for those students who are in fact ready to learn. The repair component of experienced guilt (e.g., I will study harder next time) is likely fueled with well-socialized optimistic and realistic expectations for subsequent success among more capable students.

However, posttest patterns indicate that student mediation of accountability for achievement is salient. Pretests are about teacher learning objectives and instructional plans; posttests are about student achievement of those objectives. One difference in student mediation of these opportunities is experienced pressure. Another is what some might argue is the risk of generic guilt-induction strategies(you need to) try harderintended to motivate student learning and beliefs in incremental intelligence. Namely, continued effort in the face of failure affords shame, presumably due to a change in attribution from controllable effort to uncontrollable ability as causes for that failure (McCaslin & Lavigne, 2010). Shame, in turn, is escapable if it can be outsourced, blamed on someone or something else. One problem with outsourcing responsibility for lower achievement as a coping strategy, however, is that it also serves to deny the feelings of pride: Either one is in control of ones learning, or one is not. Posttest achievement relationships suggest that those students who are relatively lower achieving at the end of the school year even though they have experienced gains in learning may be learning detrimental intrapersonal beliefs and counterproductive interpersonal strategies for coping with those beliefs. This dynamic contrasts sharply with the experience of higher achieving students, whose posttest achievement is met with pride, the feeling that accompanies controllable, realized aspiration.

In short answer to research question 1, results suggest that differences in S/I contexts and cultural and personal resources matter in student self-conscious emotions and coping strategies. They are important features of classroom learning. It is difficult for students with fewer resources, be it due to density of school poverty or less readiness to learn, to cope with negative emotions when making mistakes and to realize pride upon success. These difficulties are compounded by coping strategies that can hinder peer relationships as well, potentially serving to further impoverish and isolate students with fewer resources (see also McCaslin & Burross, 2011).


Students emotional adaptation results suggest that they experience and cope with self-conscious emotions in unique configurations, which are relatively stable across a school year. Three emotional adaptation patterns in particularDistance and Displace, Minimize and Move On, and Regret and Repairare consistently related to individual differences in student readiness and end-of-year achievement. Distance and Displace and Minimize and Move On emotional adaptations may serve to escape threat, but both are ultimately counterproductive to self and other. Not only do they not solve the current difficulty, but they can contribute to increased individual isolation by inviting peer resistance and rejection (Distance and Displace) and trivializing persons, tasks, or events (Minimize and Move On).

For some time, educators and scholars have attempted to disentangle the goodness is smartness problem in classroom beliefs and practices (e.g., Ames & Ames, 1985; Weinstein, 2002). Modern motivational scholars frame the solution as one of mindsets that are considered malleable, similar to learning, and which is also applied to intelligence. Beliefs or mindsets that intelligence is incremental (i.e., malleable rather than fixed) are fostered through foregrounding to students the role of effort in learning. The attributional structure of effort feedback is that effort is internal, unstable, and, most important, controllable (e.g., Dweck & Molden, 2005; Weiner, 2010; Yeager & Dweck, 2012). Controllable learning and incremental intelligence beliefs appear more aligned with the emotional adaptations of more capable students. The learning gains of students lower in readiness to learn and end-of-year achievement did not positively mediate their emotional adaptation reports. When dealing with chronic learning difficulty, even in the context of progress, students emotional adaptations are counterproductive, serving to deplete personal resources while potentially damaging relationships with others.

In the alternate form of this dynamic, students who are more capable in mathindependent of how much their learning actually progressesengage in Regret and Repair emotional adaptation that restores balance with both self and other by attending to the needs of each. Regret and Repair is more intrapersonally productive, advancing learning and promoting positive beliefs about self when making mistakes or attaining success. These students emotional adaptations are more productive interpersonally as well, serving to positively align themselves with peers in ways that warrant their valued participation.

The implications of these differing trajectories in achievement-related emotional adaptation are important to consider in any conceptualization of what it means to learn and to be that learner. Incremental intelligence approaches to fostering classroom learning may profit from consideration of the multiple sources of stress this approach can impose on learners. These include but are not limited to: (a) duration (how much time it takes to make progress and the real-world constraints on the availability of time (Carroll, 1963), (b) the motivational costs associated with that engagement (e.g., the proportion of effortful mistakes), (c) the likely outcomes that result (e.g., ratio of success to failure), and (d) the information that each, and taken together, provides to the students about the learner they are and likely will become. Learner caring and depletionone result of high value and low controllability (Pekrun, 2006)are part of the classroom learning equation.

The implications of individual differences in emotional adaptation are also important considerations for the organization of classrooms. For example, our findings, consistent with peer conflict and coping research (Band & Weisz, 1988; Sotardi, 2013), suggest that small-group learning, despite its popularity among educators, is a particularly challenging S/I environment for students because of the demands it places on social and emotional resources. In addition to the more obvious composition variables of affability and aptitude, assigning students to small groups would profit from consideration of the characteristic emotional adaptations of group members, which may co-vary with their achievement. Inclusion of Regret and Repair students with those who characteristically display Inadequate and Exposed emotional adaptation, for example, might unintentionally reaffirm ones sense of control and the others inadequacy rather than, or perhaps in addition to, the intended goal of improving achievement among a heterogeneous group of learners.

Finally, in short answer to research question 2, yes, stability analyses of factor analytic derived scales of student emotional adaptation profiles suggest that students do develop characteristic emotional adaptations to classroom demands. Further, the modest strength of these relationships supports the conclusion that students emotional adaptions to the demands of classroom learning are nonetheless malleable and open to intervention. The lack of differences in student emotional adaptation profiles associated with school poverty density lends support to this assertion. Arguably, those students who participated in November and again in May likely experienced more available school structural supports and safety nets that are contingent on attendance than did those students who participated only once. School poverty density did not organize the emotional adaptation profiles of this subgroup. Within this, however, individual concerns related to readiness to learn inform the generation and regulation of students self-conscious emotion habits.


This study attempted to capture baseline information on student emotional adaptation as a first step in identifying if and how student emotional adaptations to stressors in classroom learning contexts might mediate their opportunity to learn and subsequent achievement. We believe that we have made progress toward this goal; however, much remains to be accomplished. For example, the SS instrument represents hypothetical situations that are based on working with children and classroom observations of and interviews with elementary school students. Thus, although we believe in the ecological validity of the instrumentation for elementary students as a group, it is unknown if individual students in fact have experienced or witnessed the experience of the events portrayed in the vignettes. Similarly, it is unknown if the rational numbers achievement pretest and posttest similarly served to prime student concerns with making mistakes for individual students. Indeed, our results suggest that it may well have served as a more powerful prime for those students who struggle with learning. Verbal report data further restrict our representation of emotion generation to verbal representation of emotional experiences that may not be isomorphic or even congruent with the felt, visceral reality of them. Similarly, emotion regulation reports may overrepresent students capabilities to self-regulate in the heat of the moment. Taken together, these limitations suggest the need for real-time research on student classroom experiences in an array of SI contexts to better understand the how, when, and potential cost of student emotion generation and regulation strategies. Real-time data can in turn inform how students might be supported to develop healthy characteristic emotional adaptations to classroom demands that promote personal well-being, facilitate interpersonal relationships, and support achievement.

Given that this study was part of a larger project involving online professional development, we were unable to capture those real-time classroom experiences. Furthermore, student participants came from classrooms of teachers who volunteered to take part in the larger project and who were willing to administer the SS measure; not all of the participating teachers administered the instrument in their classrooms. Self-selection may have limited the variability in students reported emotional adaptation across classrooms and schools if all volunteer teachers shared a common concern for student emotion and strategy use. This further illustrates the importance of capturing real-time classroom data, particularly with larger samples that would afford the statistical power necessary to use nested analytical procedures. Nesting would allow the systematic identification of classroom- or school-level differences that impact student emotional adaptation. The potential to identify classroom effects is especially important to inform hypotheses about the interpersonal costs and benefits of intrapersonal coping dynamics.


The School Situations (SS) instrument presented in this article aligns well with self-conscious emotion theory. SS also is able to identify nuanced distinctions in student emotional adaptation in classroom contexts. In general, our results align with more recent conceptualizations of self-conscious emotions that suggest that guilt and shame are social rather than private emotions (Baumeister et al., 1995; Tracy, Robins, & Tangney, 2007). However, students self-conscious emotions associated with classroom learning are more than social phenomena. Students emotional adaptation is better considered co-regulated (McCaslin, 2009) by the mutual press among varied simultaneous sources of influence: cultural (e.g., poverty density), social (e.g., social/instructional classroom formats), and personal (e.g., readiness to learn). Findings from factor analyses suggest that attention to the co-occurrence of emotion generation and emotion regulation is a useful approach to understanding individual differences in students emotional adaptation.

Student emotional adaptation results suggest that there may be important differences in the quality and salience of student emotional adaptation based on different self-conscious emotion profiles. Students who Distance and Displace in response to making mistakes likely further isolate themselves from peers and, through displacement, invite peer rejection as well. In comparison, students who cope with making mistakes with Regret and Repair responses likely facilitate their continued and valued participation with others even as they attenuate self-blame. These differences in emotional adaptation also likely reduce (e.g., Regret and Repair) or escalate (e.g., Distance and Displace) the emotional adaptation demands placed on peers. They also differ in signal strength (Hareli & Hess, 2012; Segal-Andrews, 1994) for teacher assistance: Distance and Displace more readily brings student distress to teacher attention; in contrast, Regret and Repair emotional adaptation can help students stay under the teachers radar but, if noticed, engender teacher respect.

Relationships between emotional adaptation and readiness to learn are provocative and point to the need for continued study. At present, we do not know enough about how instructional context and emotional adaptation mediate learning and achievement. Grades 46 provide an important window for the study of these complex factors. Helping students cope with self-conscious emotions related to achievement, especially achievement in the presence of others, has rarely been a focus of formal school learning. Our results suggest it is time to change that. We believe that SS is a useful instrument that can be adapted for curriculum development and teacher classroom use to support student emotional adaptation and learning. Those are the next steps in our research on these matters.

Finally, it is important to remember that all participating students in the present study attended schools that primarily serve families living in poverty. The U.S. Census Bureau recently reported (Bishaw, 2014) that 45 million people in the United States lived in poverty during 20082012. Of these, 54% also lived in a poverty area. This is a 9% increase from 2000. In the state in which this research was conducted, those numbers are 64% (people in poverty who also lived in poverty areas) and 10% (increase since 2000), respectively. Poverty, poverty density, and the adversity that accompanies them likely will continue. However, the individual adaptations that help sustain that prediction (e.g., nationally, failure to complete high school within this group has increased 11% since 2000) need not continue. Current results help identify points and possibilities for intervention in student emotional adaptation dynamics that can support students who live in these conditions to nonetheless reach for their potential as learners and social beings. We encourage others to study how to target and optimize the emotional adaptations of those students who live in poverty and struggle, along with family, teachers, and peers, to negotiate the adversity of the present in the pursuit of a better future.


The authors would like to acknowledge and thank Tom Good and Amy Olson for their support of and assistance with this project, Francesca López for Spanish translation of School Situations, and Bernadette Mora for her helpful comments on an earlier version of this article.


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School Situations*

1) A teacher that you really like asks a question in class. You raise your hand and give the wrong answer.

a) You are angry with yourself for not giving the right answer.  (Guilt, Inadequate and Exposed)

b) You wish you could disappear.  (Shame, Inadequate and Exposed)

c) You remember that everyone is wrong sometimes.  (Normalize, Regret and Repair)

d) You think that the question was too hard.  (Externalize)

2) You accidentally spill your milk on another students sandwich while you are telling a joke at lunchtime.

a) You say to yourself that the kid shouldnt put his sandwich near your milk.  (Externalize, Distance and Displace)

b) You feel like a total jerk.  (Shame, Inadequate and Exposed)

c) You say to yourself: There is no use crying over spilt milk.  (Normalize, Minimize and Move On)

d) You tell him youre sorry and offer some of your lunch.  (Guilt, Regret and Repair)

3) You and your best friend do separate projects for a competition. You win.

a) You feel proud of yourself.  (Pride, Proud and Modest)

b) You think: I was really lucky!  (Externalize, Proud and Modest)

c) You wish you didnt have to go to the award ceremony.  (Shame, Minimize and Move On)

d) You worry about your best friend who worked hard, too.  (Guilt, Regret and Repair)

4) While reading aloud in the classroom, you make a mistake and some of the other kids laugh.

a) You wonder why your teacher didnt stop them.  (Externalize)

b) You keep going and forget it happened.  (Normalize, Regret and Repair)

c) You feel stupid and embarrassed and wish you could stop reading.  (Shame, Inadequate and Exposed)

d) You decide to practice reading aloud so it doesnt happen again.  (Guilt, Regret and Repair)

5) You lose a classmates library book and she blames someone else.

a) You think: Shell get over it.  (Normalize, Minimize and Move On)

b) You feel guilty and worry about replacing the book.  (Guilt, Regret and Repair)

c) You think she shouldnt let other people use her books.  (Externalize)

d) You feel like avoiding that classmate until she forgets about it.  (Shame, Minimize and Move On)

6) You took an important math test and you did much better than you expected. As you look at the paper:

a) You think: I really didnt deserve to do so well.  (Guilt, Minimize and Move On)

b) You worry others will be surprised you did so well and you want to hide your paper.  (Shame, Distance and Displace)

c) You think that the test was really easy.  (Externalize, Proud and Modest)

d) You say to yourself: I really did a good job.  (Pride, Proud and Modest)

7) Your small group is working on an assignment and you accidentally rip the answer sheet. The rest of the group was busy and no one saw you do it.

a) You think: It really wont matter if the answers are right!  (Normalize, Minimize and Move On)

b) You tell the group and try to fix it. If they are angry with you, you deserve it.  (Guilt, Inadequate and Exposed)

c) You think the other kids are careless too so you shouldnt feel bad.  (Externalize, Minimize and Move On)

d) You hide it and worry about what the other kids might think if they knew.  (Shame, Distance and Displace)

8) One student from each small group is asked to explain to the class what his or her group is doing for their math project. You are the one from your group, and you try to tell about the project, but you mess it up. The teacher calls on someone else from your group to tell what it is about.

a) You think she should have given you more time.  (Externalize, Distance and Displace)

b) You feel really embarrassed and wish you could go home now.  (Shame, Inadequate and Exposed, Distance and Displace)

c) You think about why you got so confused and decide to think about your answer first next time.  (Guilt, Regret and Repair)

d) You remember this happens to other kids, too.  (Normalize, Regret and Repair)

9) While working in your small group, you are talking loudly and your whole group is blamed.

a) You feel ashamed that you caused so much trouble.  (Shame, Regret and Repair)

b) You feel like the teacher is making a big deal out of nothing.  (Externalize, Minimize and Move On)

c) You decide to be quieter so your group doesnt get in any more trouble.  (Guilt, Regret and Repair)

d) You remember that all kids are loud sometimes.  (Normalize, Regret and Repair)

10) You are working on math problems in your small group. You really feel like you understand how to do the work, and you explain it to the rest of your group. You find out later that you were wrong.

a) You apologize to the group and think about it a lot that day but then you forget about it.  (Guilt, Regret and Repair)

b) You feel like asking the teacher if you can change groups. You dont, but its hard to forget about it.  (Shame, Distance and Displace)

c) You think, its no big deal, it was just one math lesson.  (Normalize, Minimize and Move On)

d) You are angry with them for not doing more of the work themselves.  (Externalize, Distance and Displace)

11) While working in your small group, another student tells a joke. Everyone but you understands it.

a) You pretend you didnt hear and wish they would stop laughing.  (Shame, Distance and Displace)

b) You think it was a stupid joke.  (Normalize, Distance and Displace)

c) You are angry with your group for being so silly.  (Externalize, Distance and Displace)

d) You ask another student to explain the joke and feel a little foolish for not getting it at first.  (Guilt)

12) You really understand the work today and help your small group to finish early.

a) You think the teacher gives work that is easy.  (Externalize, Proud and Modest)

b) You worry that you didnt give the other kids a chance to figure it out.  (Guilt, Regret and Repair)

c) You are proud of how smart you are.  (Pride, Proud and Modest)

d) You wonder whether the other kids in your group like you.  (Shame, Distance and Displace)

*School Situations inventory with instructions and response format available on request.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 118 Number 2, 2016, p. 1-46
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 18226, Date Accessed: 11/27/2021 10:00:28 PM

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About the Author
  • Mary McCaslin
    University of Arizona
    E-mail Author
    MARY MCCASLIN is Professor and Head of the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Arizona. Her scholarship focuses on the press among cultural, social, and personal sources of influence that co-regulate student adaptive learning, motivation and emotion, and emergent identity. Related publications include “Co-regulation of Student Motivation and Emergent Identity” in Educational Psychologist (2009) and “School Reform Matters” a special issue of Teachers College Record co-edited with Thomas Good (2008).
  • Christine Vriesema
    University of Arizona
    E-mail Author
    CHRISTINE C. VRIESEMA is a doctoral student in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Arizona. Her scholarship focuses on the integration of motivation, self-regulation, and emotion.
  • Susan Burggraf
    Naropa University
    E-mail Author
    SUSAN BURGGRAF is professor of contemplative psychology at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. Her research interests include the intersection of self-conscious emotions and learning.
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