What Teachers and Parents Need to Know About How Stress Impacts Kids and Learning
Kids rely on the adults in their lives, notably parents and teachers, for how to cope with stressful situations. This can be challenging on a “good day,” never mind during a pandemic or time of civil unrest. If there were ever a time when kids are looking to adults for ways to process and adapt to the uncertainty and changes associated with stressful events, it’s now. If there were ever a time when parents and teachers need information and support to help them do just that, it’s now.
At this intersection is a powerful opportunity to learn about neuroeducation and the ways you can use it to your advantage in your parenting and teaching to decrease stress and meet students’ emotional, cultural, and academic needs. But where do you begin?
Understanding the stress response starts with the brain
Your stress response is designed to protect you from danger, and in today’s world, it’s often working overtime. Worries about germs, job uncertainty, school demands, changes in learning routines, cultural differences, racial injustice or language barriers can send Mayday! Messages to the brain that activate stress chemicals and physical sensations such as a fast heartbeat, headache, stomach ache or muscle tightness. Before you know it, you’re in fight, flight or freeze mode and find yourself acting out, zoning out or feeling stuck…or maybe a combination.
Let’s identify what Fight, Flight or Freeze looks like in “real time.” Teachers, parents and students might notice the following behaviors:
- Fight Mode: break a pencil, say something nasty or become physical
- Flight Mode: flee a room or situation, multiple bathroom or nurse trips
- Freeze Mode: give off a “deer in the headlights” stare, appear “stuck,” or put head on desk and “play dead”
Since the brain does not discern between “real” or perceived threats, it may interpret situations such as distance learning, forgetting the steps to a math problem or not knowing how to start a writing assignment as life-threatening.
Bottom line: When kids experience flight, fight or freeze, they won’t remember what they were just taught. What may look like uncooperative, lazy or reluctant learners, may actually be the stress response just doing its job, and in these moments, executive function goes off line.
Why does this matter?
How stress impacts executive function
Think of an executive function as your brain’s GPS system, a set of self-directed cognitive, social and emotional skills that tells the brain what, where and how to do something including: how to get started on a task, organize materials, set goals, remember directions, check work, sustain effort and focus, transition between tasks and keep emotions in check, particularly when the work gets challenging.
When children are in stressed states of anxiety, anger, frustration, boredom or lack of relevance to a task or situation, they’re not receptive to learning and are unable to intake, process or retrieve information — never mind think about it critically — as their executive function skills are blocked. Behavior, friendships, confidence and motivation also suffer.
And students aren’t the only ones impacted.
Teachers and parents may feel overwhelmed or experience high levels of stress as well, including anxiety and depression. Chronic stress, particularly from trauma, impairs the healthy development of executive function, and those affected by immigration, inequity, intrusive thoughts or nightmares may be more easily triggered, which can undermine attention, concentration and emotional regulation. Additionally, those impacted by Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) will be particularly vulnerable; the higher the ACE score, the higher risk of health, social and emotional challenges.
In a UCLA survey examining the impact of immigration enforcement on schools, close to 90% of administrators surveyed “indicated that they have observed behavioral or emotional problems in immigrant students,” with 25% considering it a significant problem (Gándara & Ee, 2018b, p. 2). They report some students arrive to school in tears, withdrawn, refusing to eat or showing signs of anxiety, which affects their ability to focus, complete work and succeed academically and socially, as learning goes down when stress goes up.
So, what can you do?
Parents and teachers must develop “brain literacy” and be equipped with key information and quick, practical applications that decrease stress and build executive function, without taking up too much instruction time. Every child has the capacity to decrease stress and build executive function. The ways in which we teach and design learning environments as well as the quality and frequency of skill-building in these areas will influence how strongly these skills emerge in students.
To get started, teachers and parents can apply the following 10 neuroeducation instructional approaches:
- Emotion and Learning are Interconnected — Psychological safety is paramount to learning, as the brain responds well to a low threat, welcoming environment where children feel valued and respected. Smiles, kindness, enthusiasm and healthy relationships go a long way in lowering stress, promoting academic risk-taking and developing a sense of trust and community. Focus on improvement, not perfection, make mistakes part of the learning process, and have some fun while learning!
- Implement Structure — If you need to coordinate child care or have parents and kids “working” from home, build a schedule that suits your family. You may want to stick with the typical school day hours…or perhaps older kids will work at different times than the younger ones…you might front-load harder work in the morning and have kids do more independent tasks later (so hopefully you can get more done!)
- Workspace and Time Robbers — Identify where you/your child will work best…this is particularly important with parents working from home and kids doing online learning. Is it within earshot of you or a spot free from interruptions and loud noises? Be sure you and your kids are rested, fed and watered…have necessary books, school supplies, and materials at designated workspaces…be clear about directions of a task/assignment…set timers when needed…remove distractions such as cell phones and other electronic devices (keep in a different spot from workspace).
- Be Intentional and Transparent — “Intentional” means you know why you’re using a particular strategy or template. “Transparent” means the kids know why they’re using it and can express this on their own, which is even more important with virtual learning, as some students might be more easily distracted, lack sufficient collaborative and multi-sensory learning, fear asking questions or be challenged by virtual platforms.
- Cue Students How to Do vs. Tell Them What to Do — Provide visuals of norms and behavior expectations (i.e. how to transition or submit assignments) and use problem-solving prompts or questions. Instead of saying, “Pay attention,” ask students to match the picture of a visual representing whole body listening or say, “When you notice someone paying attention, what does that look like?”
- Multi-sensory Learning and Interactions — In any learning environment, provide visuals and opportunities for journaling, drawing, sharing, purposeful movement and age-appropriate collaborations. On virtual platforms Chat, Polls and Whiteboard are options; in a physical classroom, Think/Pair/Shares and Meaningful Movement (pair students to make movement to a concept-i.e. rise over run) are ways to check for understanding and keep kids engaged.
- Reduce Cognitive Overload — State/show just one direction or step at a time, provide scaffolds such as sentence frames or word boxes. If needed, break assignments into chunks. Ask students to repeat directions or steps back to you and provide a written copy to reference.
- Communicate Effectively — Kids need adults they can trust and reach out to so they feel heard and validated. If students need someone to talk to in their own language, help make those connections. Provide constructive, process-oriented feedback. Avoid dismissive comments such as, “I’m sure it will be fine,” “You’re worried about that?” Or “Don’t worry about it.” Instead, use validating comments such as, “That sounds hard and you can learn ways to manage,” “I can understand why that’s bothering you,” or “I’m glad you’re sharing — what do you think is a good next step?” Kids need to know anger and frustration are normal emotions that can be labeled and expressed in healthy ways. Boost their communication and emotional development with a sentence frame such as: i.e. I feel________________when________________.
- Teach About The Brain — Kids, teachers and parents need to know about the stress response and Neuroplasticity — how the brain continues to change based on how it’s used. This sends a message of hope and empowerment — actions and effort matter.
- Learn Strategies to Cool Down the Brain and Body — Mindfulness and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, are two effective treatments for anxiety and trauma. Both are combined in The ABC Strategy — a three step strategy from ABC Worry Free that can be used in “real time” during stressful situations. By paying attention to worried thoughts, negative emotions and physiological bodily changes, you can interrupt the stress response and send your brain a message you’re ok and can handle the situation, despite it being difficult, uncertain or uncomfortable. Yoga and other forms of exercise as well as using a Mood Meter and reframing negative self-talk can also be effective.
Be patient with yourself, students and family if strategy implementation doesn’t go swimmingly the first (or second or third) time. Learning any new skill takes time and practice. When adults use strategies to effectively manage stress, kids take note — they learn how to set boundaries, regulate strong emotions, and take breaks when angry, anxious or frustrated. Kids learn more from example than any lecture.
Working with stressed teachers, parents and kids places additional demands and challenges on everyone, so it may take a village of educators, cultural liaisons, mental health professionals and parents to combat the contagious effect of stress and address emotional, academic and cultural issues in your school and community.
By supporting teachers and parents with information and strategies to ensure learning takes place in safe, inspiring and empowering environments that decrease stress and boost executive function, you will have an awesome opportunity to enhance the powerful connection of emotion to learning while shaping students’ brains and environments in the best possible ways — and that will help everyone stress less and learn more.
Previously published on “A Parent Is Born”, a Medium publication.
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