In the past few decades, neuroscience has shed light on the impact that stress has on the brain, particularly when it comes to memory and learning. A little stress in the right circumstances has been shown to increase mental alertness and help children deal more effectively with stressful events in the future. After all, stress is the body’s natural reaction to a challenge or demand. If understood and managed, stress can be used to take action, spark creativity, generate insights, and lead to greater self-reflection. However, real problems arise when stress becomes overwhelming for students, either because of duration, intensity, frequency, or lack of support with managing stress levels. 

When under little or no stress and experiencing emotions like joy or curiosity, the part of the brain known as the amygdala directs sensory information to the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain where organization, planning and problem solving takes place. Getting sensory information to the prefrontal cortex is therefore crucial for learning. However, under too much stress, the amygdala starts redirecting incoming information to the more reactive part of the brain where the fight, flight, or freeze responses kick in. When under too much stress, students have disconnected from the prefrontal cortex. Overly stressed-out students lose their capacity for creativity, problem-solving, logic, and learning at high levels.

When thinking about optimizing student performance, the key is recognizing the difference between tolerable stress and intolerable stress. When a child is experiencing difficulties understanding information or exhibiting persistent behavioral challenges, it’s an indication that the child’s nervous system is automatically adjusting to and responding to too much stress. The keyword being automatic. The latest research in neuroscience suggests that these responses are involuntary as opposed to planned or conscious attempts to manipulate others. Withdrawing, avoidance, arguing, defiance, threatening and assault are all classic examples of the body’s deeply ingrained fight or flight response. Emotions typically associated with stressful events include irritability, boredom, anger, and anxiety.

Any educator who is invested in student learning should become familiar with how emotions and stress affect the brain to optimize student achievement, engagement, and motivation. Many students with health issues or developmental delays tend to have overactive stress responses, meaning even seemingly innocuous experiences can lead to intense emotional reactions. Effective teaching is then less about disseminating information and more about understanding emotions and states of mind. It’s crucial to learn to recognize signs of an overly stressed out student in addition to finding ways to balance stress levels during periods of learning. Furthermore, it’s essential to create conditions where students’ brains are primed for learning. This includes helping students access states of happiness, playfulness and wonder instead of boredom, anxiety or frustration. 

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