The Brain, Learning, and Stress
We have learned a tremendous amount about the brain and learning this past decade. Research shows that students can process information more effectively in a safe, low-stress environment. School performance can be improved with lowered stress.
Stress can come from a variety of sources. Young people can have traumatic life experiences that result in lowered school performance. This can include the death of a loved one, a divorce, a move, or other difficult life experiences that can cause a loss of concentration or concern about schoolwork. Students experiencing trauma often fall behind, compounding the problem. Another stress affecting school performance is school safety. Students often experience peer pressure, bullying and social isolation, making learning difficult.
We have learned through research that our brain cells are impacted by stressful events. We have learned that these brain cells are either in a constant state of growth or are working to protect themselves. If they are in a state of growth, they are replenishing themselves and creating new neural connections. If there is stress or a perceived threat, all neural energy is focused on protection. Our brain cells cannot protect themselves and grow at the same time. Think of the brain under stress as if it has caught on fire. You can’t put out the fire and learn math at the same time. The fire has to be extinguished first. If the learner is always busy putting out fires, they miss the learning opportunities that are going on around them.
Some brains are fragile and more susceptible to having fires. If the student has ADD, anxiety, sensory integration disorder, school failure, is being bullied, or has any number of neurological challenges, they will be more susceptible to fires in the brain. The fire must be put out before learning can take place. A fragile brain can be set on fire by any number of interactions in a day. A calming environment with an awareness of the challenges a fragile brain encounters, is more able to get the fire out quickly and help the learner grow neurologically.
Collaboration, small class size, and individualizing are all ways we can lower anxiety and stress. When students no longer have to perform in front of peers and are free to ask questions of their teachers privately, their anxiety is reduced and they understand more of what they are taught. A collaborate relationship with teachers and other students offers an environment that creates the greatest opportunity for every student to reach his/her potential.
Emotional safety needs to be the highest priority in school. We must have high standards for student behavior. We need to take great care to nurture a culture of acceptance and wellbeing for everyone in the school community. Students will respond to the modeling that they experience in their environment. As adults, we are responsible for providing a safe environment for children, both at home and at school.
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What others say about stress in school:
Jane Bluestein, Ph.D., writes in her book, Creating Emotionally Safe Schools:
Safety in schools is about more than violence. It’s an issue for the student terrified of being called on in class or the child afraid of being harassed on the playground. It’s an issue for children who don’t test well, for children who learn by touching and moving, for children whose strengths lie in areas not assessed or valued in schools. It’s an issue for the child who is not noticed, the child nobody will play with, and for the child that looks different. We sacrifice safety when we fail to notice a child in distress or ignore hurtful behavior or when we use tests or grades to punish.
A safe environment is one that reduces these and other stressful occurrences. Under stress our bodies cannot function at their best. If students always have their defenses up to protect themselves there is very little energy left for schoolwork or any other meaningful activities. Stress and anxiety block learning. When responding to stress or a perceived threat, chemicals, such as cortisol, are released into the system. This causes mental static, sabotaging the prefrontal lobes, keeping them from maintaining working memory. You have probably experienced what it feels like to not be able to “think straight” when you are upset. Many other physiological symptoms may occur including dry mouth, increased heart rate, intestinal distress, and dizziness, just to name a few.
According to Daniel Goleman in his book, Social Intelligence, the brain reacts strongly to a perception of malice:
Cortisol levels rise if a contact is considered a negative social judgment, taking an hour to return to normal. The social brain makes a distinction between accidental and intentional harm and reacts differently. Natural disasters have less impact on PTSD than acts of maliciousness. The after effects of trauma are worse if the person feels more personally targeted.
One exposure to a traumatic incident can bring about a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Students with PTSD are constantly in a state of hyper vigilance. They are always surveying their environment for danger. Other symptoms may include lying, aggression, sleep problems, impulsivity, fear, confusion and unhappiness. It’s no wonder they are unable to concentrate on anything else.
Jenifer Fox states in her book, Discover Your Child’s Strengths:
Strong lives are those that are marked by a sense of purpose, connectedness, resilience and fulfillment…no matter what their personalities and characteristics children will not develop their true talents or discover their real strengths without a process of encouragement, nurturing and sustained approval.