STRESS: TOXIC TO THE BRAIN AND LEARNING LITERACY SKILLS

This blog post by Noel Foy was featured in Keys to Literacy’s November 2018 Newsletter and its Literacy Lines Blog. Noel is an expert on learning and the brain and has just published a children’s book about anxiety titled “ABC Worry Free.” In her post, Noel discusses how stress affects learning literacy skills. Stress is a topic typically associated with adults, but with the increase in anxiety disorders among children over the last ten years, its impact on their ability to learn literacy skills is worrisome. Neuroscience research reveals the brain can experience stress as feelings of anxiety, anger, frustration, boredom or lack of personal relevance. Unfortunately, many students in classrooms across the country find themselves in at least one of these negative states on a chronic basis, causing the amygdala, the brain’s personal watchdog for potential threats, to activate the stress response. Why is this a problem? When students are in the throes of flight, fight or freeze, it blocks information from reaching the “thinking” parts of the brain and inhibits learning, memory and critical thinking. The lesson a teacher just gave on how to syllabicate, use a comprehension strategy or write a complete sentence never entered that child’s brain for processing or later retrieval. This is sobering news, especially for a country that spends more per student than most other advanced, industrial nations but ranks around the middle of the pack in Reading and Science and below average in Math, according to the most recent results from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). What does fight, flight or freeze look like in the classroom? Students in...

How Emotions Impact Learning: What We Feel, Say and Do Matter

What story do you tell yourself? Our thoughts, feelings, language, experiences and physical sensations activate thousands of neurons to form neural networks, which in turn influence how we think of ourselves as learners. In 1949, Canadian Neuropsychologist Donald Hebb first used the saying, “The neurons that fire together wire together” to reinforce what happens in the learning process. When we learn a new skill—academic, athletic, musical, social or otherwise—neural pathways form. The more we practice, the more we stimulate and strengthen these neural networks. We often experience “emotional” moments—positive or negative—that lay the foundation for healthy or unhealthy narratives about ourselves as learners. For example, students with negative learning experiences may lack interest in a skill, avoid challenges, feel frustrated while learning or fear making mistakes. On the other hand, learning that prompts positive thoughts, emotions and multi-sensory experiences develop efficient networks that can boost retrieval of information and build confidence and resilience. Good news! It isn’t too late to reframe old, adverse patterns. By reframing thoughts and taking more productive actions, new neural networks form, which can result in the development of skills you never thought possible. For example, if you have a history of repeated failures in Math, perhaps you think to yourself, “I’ll never be able to do this math problem! I’ve always hated math. This teacher is horrible.” You might feel irritable or tense, which leads you to put your head down on your desk, distract others with off task comments, or escape to sharpen your pencil multiple times. Your behaviors may be misinterpreted as signs of laziness or reluctance, when in fact your stress...

Stress: Toxic to Learning and the Brain

The disturbing rise in stress among children is wreaking havoc in the classroom and inhibiting their ability to learn. Neuroscience research reveals that the brain experiences stress as feelings of anxiety, anger, frustration, boredom or lack of personal relevance. Unfortunately, many students in today’s classrooms find themselves in one or more of these negative emotional states on a daily basis. When in these states, the amygdala, the brain’s personal watchdog for potential threats, activates and floods the bloodstream with stress chemicals. Before students can say “no brainer,” they’re in the throes of flight, fight or freeze. When this happens, it blocks information from reaching the “thinking” part of the brain and won’t be available for processing and later retrieval, which explains why some students don’t remember the subject matter they were just taught. This is sobering news, especially for a country that spends more per student than most other advanced industrial nations but ranks around the middle of the pack in Reading and Science and below average in Math, according to the most recent results from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). Eric Jensen, author of Teaching with the Brain in Mind reminds us, “The human brain loves to learn. Our very survival, in fact, is dependent on learning.” Similarly, our stress response system is designed for our survival. Even though saber tooth tigers no longer chase us, our stress response can kick into overdrive when faced with modern day stressors such as school. For example, when children are anxious to raise their hands in class, frustrated by repeated mistakes, bored by monotonous worksheets or worried about being...