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...

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...