Fact Sheet: The impact of stress on learning and behavior
Here are a few things to remember about the impact of stress on the brain, and on an individual’s ability to function effectively—academically and behaviorally—in a learning environment, where the climate and energy within is affected by a wide range of factors. While originally developed for educators, this information is also relevant to parents, and applies to all learners, regardless of age.
• Children vary in sensitivity to environmental stimuli: sights, sounds, odors, physical sensations, as well as the emotional energy in the classroom and the teacher’s emotional state.
• The emotional climate in the classroom (or home) can have a strong impact on the degree to which factual information can be processed, retained, and recalled.
• Emotion is necessary for learning. Emotional impact makes memories clear and long-lasting.
• Context is a factor. Emotions experienced in one setting or environment tend to be carried to similar settings and situations. For example, a teacher’s angry reaction to a mistake in one class may create a negative anticipation in a different class with a different teacher covering similar content. A stressful experience while trying to do a certain activity at home can trigger a similar response when a similar activity is assigned in school.
• When our “shields” are up, other systems may be down (inaccessible, closed channels, etc.) We shift into a lower level of functioning when we feel threatened, which makes higher-level functions difficult if not impossible.
• Our interpretation of events creates the reaction in our brain.
• When the brain perceives an experience as positive, pleasantly exciting and fun, it releases certain chemicals that assist learning and recall.
• When input is experienced as negative or threatening, the chemicals that are released can have a negative affect on learning and retention. (Fight-or-flight survival response.)
• Stress reactions vary from child to child: What’s challenging and curiosity-provoking to one student can trigger paralyzing fear in another. These responses can also vary from day to day, and can be influenced by other situations in the child’s life (something going on at home, in the hallways, or on the playground, for example, or pain or illness the child is currently experiencing).
• Anxiety responses can include physical reactions, such as sweating, dry mouth, shallow breathing, headache, pounding pulse, intestinal distress, weakness, incoordination, or “freezing” or “going blank.”
• Anxiety can also provoke behavioral reactions such as panic, irritability, depression, agitation, worry, inattention, forgetfulness, or distractibility, not to mention disruptive and sometimes hurtful outbursts.
• Downshifting: A neurological “shift” when under perceived threat from being able to access cognitive (more rational) parts of the brain to functioning from the survival center (emotional, midbrain).
• Stress changes chemical and electrical activity in the brain.
• Stress hormones affect the hippocampus, inhibiting the growth of new dendrites (or actually causing dendritic branches to die off), leading to decreased memory and learning. Chronic stress (such as growing up in a war zone, violent home, or neglectful environment) can negatively affect neural development (brain size, number of neural networks).
• Excess cortisol, a chemical released under trauma and stress, leads to hippocampal damage, and can result in memory lapses, anxiety, and difficulty regulating attention and emotional outbursts in a classroom setting. (Long-term effects can impact the immune system, blood pressure, and protein metabolism.)
• Under stress, our weakest channels get weaker, and even our stronger modalities can be compromised. For example: if you’re strong visually, think of a time you were rushing to leave and opened the closet to get a jacket you couldn’t find, even though it was right in front of you.
• Children under stress are less able to absorbed what is being said to them, shown to them, or asked of them, and are likely to misunderstand or distort what they do receive. The resulting downshifted, or survival behaviors can result in additional anger, punishment, failure, or alienation from the adult, a cycle of reactions that compounds the problem. For many young people, it’s just easier to shut down and drop out.
The brain’s main job is prioritizing information relevant to our survival. Anything that suggests the possibility of danger, whether real or imagined, becomes a higher priority than anything else that is going on at that moment. This data is processed first, shifting our attention from cognitive processes down to the faster-acting limbic system, while more complex cerebral operations shut down. Survival always overrides problem-solving, analyzing, remembering, pattern-detection and other rational processes.
People simply learn better in an environment of encouragement, respect, and caring; when they know that they can try something new and make mistakes without encountering anger, shaming, impatience, or even disappointment; and when their individual learning preferences are accommodated. A sense of connectedness with the teacher is one of the most valuable assets at our disposal. Not only do kids do better in classrooms when they believe the teacher cares about them, but they’re far more likely to cut us some slack when we are having a bad day.
Excerpted from Creating Emotionally Safe Schools, by Dr. Jane Bluestein (Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc, 2001)
© 2001, 2013, 2022, Dr. Jane Bluestein
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