Understanding Internalizing Behaviors: Implications for Students

Guest Blogger - Tammy Stephens, PhD. Guest Blogger - Tammy Stephens, PhD.   |   November 29, 2018

Talking out, non-compliance, out-of-seat behavior, and fighting are all behaviors typically listed when teachers are asked to name their students’ most challenging behaviors. While extremely challenging for the teacher, externalizing behaviors are visible and can be addressed by the teacher and other school personnel. On the other hand, internalizing behaviors, those not readily visible, are the most difficult to recognize and address. In fact, because of this, some would say they are the most detrimental to the student.

Students who experience internalizing behaviors typically do so in silence; making it difficult for others to offer assistance. Consequently, these students suffer alone and in silence. Internalizing behaviors are associated with problematic internal feelings, such as anxiety, sadness, reticence, fearfulness, and oversensitivity (Davis, Young, Hardman, & Winters, 2011). While there are many side effects of internalizing behaviors, they are especially detrimental to students’ academic performance, physical health, future psychological adjustment, and future employment opportunities (Merrell & Walker, 2004).

Although externalizing behaviors dominate a teacher’s attention, it is important for teachers to understand and recognize those students exhibiting internalizing behaviors. Further, teachers who are aware of students who are withdrawn, anxious, fearful, and unassertive can help school teams identify them so that early interventions can be put in place. Many of the internalizing behaviors co-exist with one another, making it difficult to pinpoint the student’s main problem. The following are a list of the most prevalent internalizing behaviors:

  • Depression is a serious medical condition in which a person feels very sad, hopeless, and unimportant and often is unable to live in a normal way. Children who are depressed may pretend to be sick, refuse to go to school, cling to a parent, or worry that the parent may die. Older children may sulk, get into trouble at school, be negative, act grouchy, and feel misunderstood.
  • Anxiety is a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome. Anxiety disorders also often co-occur with other disorders such as depression, eating disorders, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
  • Social Withdrawal is defined as secluding or isolating oneself from others. Social withdrawal is fear of, or withdrawal from, people or social situations.  Shyness becomes a problem when it interferes with relationships with others, in social situations, or other aspects of a child’s life. Further, social withdrawal may occur in students who are also depressed or anxious.
  • Somatic/Physical complaints is the tendency to experience and communicate somatic symptoms that are unaccounted for by pathological findings, attribute these to physical illness, and seek medical help. Students with somatic complaints often speak of headaches, stomach aches, etc. on a daily basis. Somatic complaints may occur in students who are depressed or anxious.

The identification and understanding of students exhibiting internalizing behaviors is an important role of teachers and other school professionals. In order for early identification and intervention, schools should use school-wide or class-wide behavior screenings to help identify those students exhibiting such behavior. Implementation of such screeners is a more proactive approach to identification allowing for teachers to intervene much earlier, thus providing students the help they need in a timelier manner.

Once a student has been identified as exhibiting internalizing behaviors, teachers and other school personnel should intervene immediately. Various strategies are available which could help the student. Gaining a comprehensive understanding of the student’s condition will allow the teacher and other school personnel to make the most appropriate decision regarding intervention selection. The following are strategies that might be implemented:

  • Social Skills Training: Gain information regarding the student’s ability to interact with peers and adults. Observe the student in various environments. If the student’s anxiety or withdrawal symptoms appear to be a result of poor social skills, include the student in social skills training. Focus on the areas of social interaction where the student is struggling. Building the student’s confidence will result in improved social interactions.
  • Student Education: Teach the student ways to identify early warning signs of an anxiety attack or feelings of depression. Assist them in identifying triggers and coping strategies. Teachers should work closely with the school counselor or school psychologist to solicit ideas.
  • Staff Education: Teachers should ensure that other teachers and school personnel who interact with the child exhibiting internalizing behaviors are educated and understand the behaviors. Solicit information from other school personnel regarding the student’s behavior in other environments. Encourage consistent strategy implementation in all environments.
  • Involve Parents/Caregivers: School personnel should always maintain an open line of communication with parents/caregivers regarding students. Solicit input from parents/caregivers regarding the student’s behaviors at home. Encourage parental/caregiver suggestions. Additionally, encourage parents/caregivers to utilize the strategies used at school with their child at home. Request and provide frequent feedback on progress.
  • Cognitive Behavior Training: Cognitive Behavior Training researchers believe a student’s mood is connected to the student’s pattern of thoughts. Encourage the student to keep a journal of thought processes. This will allow the student to recognize negative, irrational thoughts and replace them with positive thought processes. The teacher should work closely with the school counselor, school psychologist, and the parents in this effort.


The identification of students exhibiting externalizing behaviors is an easy task for teachers. Identifying students exhibiting internalizing behaviors is a much larger challenge. All too often students experiencing internalizing behaviors suffer in silence and go unnoticed. It is important that teachers and other school personnel be educated and proactive in identifying and intervening with these students.


Davis, S., Young, E., Hardman, S., & Winters, R. (2011). Screening for emotional and behavioral disorders. Principal Leadership, 12-17.