A fight or flight reaction may be useful in some situations, but it is highly detrimental in the classroom. Whether anxiety stems from test taking or from an unstable home environment, the brains of students experiencing high levels of stress look different than those who are not — and those brains behave differently, too. In this article, we’ll take a look at the neural and hormonal responses that underpin a student’s stress response, and make a few suggestions for continuing to teach through the challenges it presents.
The body and the brain respond to stress with a complex cascade of hormones and neurotransmitters. When a child’s senses perceive danger, their hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) system releases steroid hormones (glucocorticoids). This includes the primary stress hormone, cortisol, which has a direct effect on the heart, lungs, circulation, metabolism, immune system and skin. The HPA also stimulates the release of catecholamine neurotransmitters like dopamine, norepinephrine and epinephrine (adrenaline), which activates the amygdala, which in turn triggers a fearful response. The brain then releases neuropeptide S, which increases alertness and feelings of anxiety.
Together, the HPA system will keep a child’s stimulated and ready to run. But while this may be good for truly life or death situations, this stress response makes learning difficult, as the stimulated senses are not those associated with deep learning. Think about it this way: would you be able to memorize the times tables when you were being chased by a bear? Of course not. But while this may be obvious, the reasons why this is the case is more complex than you might expect.
In the short term, acute stress prevents memory storage. According to a 2008 study by University of California Irvine researchers, when cortisol reaches the hippocampus, the brain’s primary structure for consolidating information from short term into long term memory, the structure’s dendritic spines disintegrate rapidly. That’s important, because dendritic spines are the protrusions that branch off of neurons. Learning and memory storage happens effectively when neurons are repeatedly activated across their synapses — a process that effectively tells the brain that a stimulus, behavior or habit is important to retain. When dendritic spines degrade, the brain’s ability to identify and store important information is significantly inhibited.
Fortunately, dendritic spines can grow back (though in the long term, their loss may actually shrink the hippocampus). However, as the team at This American Life explored in their comprehensive 2012 episode, Back to School, when a child experiences prolonged stress, their brain repeats the same responses again and again, thus strengthening the neural pathways that control the stress and fear responses. In essence, the brain is learning to stay stressed or to escalate to a stress response quickly. This is like any type of learning; for example, a brain that is repeatedly taught to add 2 plus 2 will go from a convoluted to a more streamlined and finally an instant thought process.
And it’s not just that this heightened stress reaction is a problem in itself; it’s that it short circuits other neural pathways in the prefrontal cortex. Specifically, executive functions like self-control, impulse control, memory, and reasoning — skills that are essential to successful learning. Some studies indicate that cortisol even has the ability to flip a switch in stem cells so that they actively will inhibit the forming of new connections in the prefrontal cortex, while hardening pathways that run between the amygdala and the hippocampus.
Both acute and chronic stress are bad for students of any age, but the effects are particularly dangerous in early development. As the This American Life episode explores in-depth, students that live below the poverty line, are the victims of neglect or abuse, or have a parent with a history of mental illness or substance abuse are far more likely to struggle with attention and self-control. Of course, nothing is certain, and it is possible for, say, an impoverished student with present parents to thrive. But each one of these factors does indicate a significant risk and the need for early interventions.
According to economist and Nobel Laureate James Heckman, who was interviewed for the This American Life episode, cognitive skills are set around age 10. However:
“Social skills, personality traits, the ability to stay on task– these can be taught. And these can be taught at later ages. And there’s a malleability there that actually offers a new perspective on social policy– how social policy might redirect itself towards those more malleable soft skills.”
If you’re tapped into education circles, this should remind you of two trendy buzzwords du jour: resilience and grit. Indeed, rewiring the brain, just like persevering through skill mastery, requires determination, continual effort and pushing through perceived failures. As we discussed recently in our article on this subject, educators can teach this skill by creating lesson plans on grit and exploring the concept explicitly. However, for the most at-risk youth, individual coaching outside of the classroom will prove most effective, both in terms of teaching grit directly and for teaching subject specific concepts.
Reduce Anxiety in the Classroom
There are numerous actions teachers can take to reduce anxiety in the classroom. These include:
If we ever want to close the achievement gap, understanding the effects of stress on the brain is of the utmost importance. Let us know your best anxiety reducing strategies in the comments below or on Twitter through @edudemic!