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).

Tired school boy with hand on face sitting at desk in classroom. Bored schoolchild sitting at desk with classmates in classroom. Frustrated and thoughtful young child sitting and looking up.

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 ridiculed for a wrong answer, these threats can produce a virtual stop sign in the brain that not only inhibit learning but allow the emotional part of the brain to hijack the “reflective, thinking” part, resulting in students who act out or zone out in class or respond to questions or performance tasks with “deer in the headlights” stares.

As Daniel Goleman, PhD, and author of several bestselling books about emotional and social intelligence explains, “{Stress} handicaps our abilities for learning, for holding information in working memory, for reacting flexibly and creatively, for focusing attention at will, and for planning and for organizing effectively.” Knowing the critical importance of these skills to success in school, sports, jobs, relationships and life in general, it’s time to empower teachers, children, parents and coaches with information and strategies to decrease the impact of stress on learning so children can maximize their potential.

Next to parents, teachers spend the most amount of time with school-aged students, (Hall, 2009) making it imperative for teachers to develop “brain literacy” about the neuroscience of learning—how the brain learns and responds—to inform their instructional practices. The neuroscience of learning encompasses the cognitive, emotional, social and physical aspects of learning and recognizes optimal results occur when these areas work in sync. Neuroeducation approaches learning holistically, as the brain does not solely intake information in an isolated manner but within the context of its environment.

Teachers shape students’ brains, and therefore must be informed about brain development and basics such as:

1. Neuroplasticity-the brain’s ability to change for better or worse based on the quality of instruction, experiences and practice
2. The impact of stress on learning and how to reduce it in the classroom
3. The Neuroscience of Learning and how to implement teaching practices supporting how the brain learns best.

Teachers can use this information to their advantage in the classroom by learning how to align their lesson designs with brain-friendly strategies that remove stressful barriers to learning and boost attention, memory, processing, engagement, motivation, collaboration, metacognition and critical thinking. As Neurologist turned teacher Judy Willis asserts in A Neurologist Makes the Case for Teaching Teachers About the Brain, “When teachers know about the brain’s reactions to the stressors that promote the low brain control state of involuntary, reactive behavior, they become more aware of how much they can influence students’ successful brain processing.” https://www.edutopia.org/blog/neuroscience-higher-ed-judy-willis

Using proven neuroscience to our benefit in the classroom empowers teachers and students. Teachers spend less time re-teaching, students more time learning and both reap the benefits of working in a less stressed, more enjoyable environment. If children are required to memorize the bones and muscles in their bodies, shouldn’t they learn how to maximize their most amazing organ? Teachers have an awesome opportunity to shape students’ brains in the best possible ways and will do so more effectively when they’re equipped with key information and strategies to decrease stress and boost engagement and learning.

Image source: Ridofranz

Noel Foy

A former classroom teacher and Learning Specialist, Noel is a neuroeducator and founder of AMMPE™ Neuroeducational Consulting. She serves K-college administrators, teachers, athletic coaches and students, specializing in workshops about the neuroscience of learning, executive function, how to decrease stress and boost student engagement, learning and performance. Noel also does speaking engagements and is the author of ABC Worry Free, a children’s book with an engaging story and actionable approach to process challenges and manage anxious feelings. She posts information and inspiration related to learning, the brain, stress and wellness on her AMMPE Facebook page and @neuronoel on Instagram.

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