The Effects of Stress and Threat on the Learning Brain

Throughout the course of a school day, throughout the course of every day, there are many things that can affect a child’s learning. One of these is emotional states. Emotional states are one’s experience with emotions such as joy, sadness, fear, disappointment, and stress (Jensen, Teaching with the Brain in Mind, 2005). Emotional states help to regulate one’s behaviors while also helping them make sense of what is happening in the world around them. Emotional states influence the way one’s brain works. Two of the most common emotions a child may experience throughout the course of a day are fear and stress. The brain is the bodies control system; therefore, it is responsible for the bodies adaption to stress and in determining what is threatening. Stress and threats can affect a child’s brain in many different ways, including how a child is conditioned to react to stress, how their brain produces hormones to help them cope with stressful situations, and how the brain develops.

One of the many things that can affect the way a young child learns are threats, whether it be an emotional, psychological, or physical threat. A threat is defined as any stimulus that causes the brain to trigger a sense of fear, mistrust, anxiety, or helplessness. (Jensen, Chapter 7 “Stress and Threat”, 2008). There is an endless amount of threats for young children. They can be found almost anywhere and include almost anything. Many things happen to children when they feel they are being threatened. Children who are exposed to chronic threat become conditioned to react to any type of threat as if it is life threatening. This means that when a child feels any type of threat, their brain goes into survival mode by only focusing on how staying out of harm’s way. Their brain is only focused on the threat at hand, therefore they are not focused on whatever else may be happening in the classroom. They may become violent or they may run because they are afraid of getting hurt (Jensen, Teaching with the Brain in Mind, 2005)

When the brain is under any type of perceived threat, it becomes less able to use higher order thinking skills, loses the ability to index, store, and access information (Jensen, Chapter 7 “Stress and Threat”, 2008). One byproduct of chronic threat is stress. Stress is the bodies reaction to a perception, not a reality, that occurs when one experiences an adverse situation in such a way that one perceives they are out of control, or losing control, and ones goals become compromised (Jensen, Chapter 7 “Stress and Threat”, 2008). Students who feel threatened tend to be under more stress than students who do not feel threatened. Stress can be helpful in the classroom, but it can also be harmful. When there is chronic distress present in their environment, children are more likely to become susceptible to illness (Jensen, Chapter 7 “Stress and Threat”, 2008). When children are more likely to be sick, they become more likely to miss class, which ultimately leads to less learning and lower test scores. Not only does stress cause physical harm to students, but it can also cause them psychological harm. When a student feels threatened, they can lose the ability to use higher order thinking skills as well as use problem solving skills. The same goes for when a student is under chronic stress.

Stress can be broken down into two categories: positive stress (eustress) and negative stress (distress). Eustress is categorized as stress that is not persistent or overwhelming. This type of stress occurs when one feels moderately challenged, but not challenged to the point that one feels they have lost control of the situation. During this type of stress, the body releases hormones which heighten one’s perception and increase one’s motivation (Jensen, Chapter 7 “Stress and Threat”, 2008). These conditions are ideal for student learning. According to Eric Jensen, author of Brain Based Learning: The Paradigm of Teaching, eustress can occur under any of the following conditions: when one actively wants to solve a problem and they have the ability to solve it, when one feels they have some control over their circumstances, and when one can think of potential solutions for life’s problems (Jensen, Chapter 7 “Stress and Threat”, 2008). For optimum learning environments, moderate stress levels are ideal. This amount of stress can provide children with the motivation they need to accomplish a challenging task. It allows them to feel capable of overcoming challenges while also providing them with the motivation they need to succeed (Jensen, Chapter 7 “Stress and Threat”, 2008). This level of stress helps children feel as though they have control over their learning and over their environment.

Distress occurs when one feels threatened, lacks the resources needed to solve a problem, feels risk levels involved are unacceptable, and has little to no control over their circumstances. This type of stress has been proven to kill brain cells while also reducing the number of brain cells being produced. It has also been proven to damage the hippocampus (Jensen, Teaching with the Brain in Mind, 2005). During these types of situations, a child’s brain may become fatigued. These types of conditions impair a child’s ability to figure out what is important and what is not (Jensen, Teaching with the Brain in Mind, 2005). Distress causes children to feel out of control and helpless. As mentioned above, when children feel this way their brain may become fatigued. This inhibits a student’s ability to learn and to recall information needed to solve problems or to preform specific tasks. Students under this type of stress may not be able to focus on things happening in the classroom or in the world around them because they are focused on whatever situation may be causing them distress. A common source of distress for young children is when their parents go through a divorce. These children feel as though they have no control over their situation, which impairs their ability to learn A child who is exposed to high levels of chronic distress are more likely to develop learning disabilities as well.

When a student feels threatened or stressed, many things begin to happen in their brain both physically and chemically. Children who experience high levels of stress have different neural and hormonal responses than those who are not experiencing these high levels of stress (Levy, 2018). The hypothalamic pituitary adrenal, or HPA, axis is the brains stress response system (Alschuler, 2018). This system releases specific hormones in response to stressors, one of which is cortisol. Cortisol can be a temporary source of energy, but over a long period of time (days, weeks, or even months) it can become harmful to the developing brain (Effects of Stress on Brain Development, 2018). Cortisol has been found to link to receptors from the hippocampus and the amygdala which are important for learning and memory (Munoz, 2018).Higher levels of cortisol have been found to support new memory formation, but if these levels stay higher during memory recall, it may make memory retrieval difficult (Munoz, 2018).

It’s important for caregivers of young children to be able to help young children make sense of the stress they feel. Caregivers need to be able to calm students and help them feel as though they are safe in their learning environment (Effects of Stress on Brain Development, 2018). It is also important for caregivers to be able to recognize the symptoms of imbalanced brain development due to chronic stress. According to the Georgia Department of Human Services (2018), the symptoms of an imbalance in brain development may include anxiety, hyperactivity, lack of empathy, and poor-problem solving skills. These symptoms correlate with what Jensen (2005) says may happen if children are exposed to high levels of cortisol for a prolonged period of time.

Both sources state that high cortisol levels can permanently alter a child’s brain chemistry. Therefore, it is important for caregivers and educators alike to try their best to alleviate any signs of distress a young child may be exhibiting. There are several ways to do this. Jensen (2008) states four ways to reduce the impact of stress and threats on children. The first suggestion he gives is to make the children feel as though they are in a safe environment. He states, the opportunity to talk about these issues helps reduce the burden, meaning it is important for children to have the opportunity to talk about their perceived threats and stress (Jensen, Chapter 7 “Stress and Threat”, 2008). The second suggestion for putting an end to threats is to encourage children to have positive relationships with each other. It’s important to allow children to solve their problems on their own, but an educator or caregiver needs to be available to help guide them and offer their assistance if necessary. Another way to alleviate stress in the classroom is to allow students to express themselves. When students feel as though they have control over their own learning, they will be more willing to learn new things and follow the rules with less resistance (Jensen, Chapter 7 “Stress and Threat”, 2008). The fourth and final way to alleviate the feeling of stress children may experience is to create a relaxing environment. Children are going to feel relaxed and open to learning when there are very little to no stress or threats present in the classroom.

In conclusion, there are many consequences and benefits to having stress in the learning environment. Moderate levels of eustress can cause a child to feel as though they can overcome any challenge that may be presented to them. It also allows students to feel as though they are in control of their learning. There are many different ways in which threats and stress can affect a child’s ability to learn, including how a child is conditioned to react to stress and threats, how their brain produces coping hormones, and how their brain develops. It’s important for caregivers and educators to create a relaxing environment for students to feel safe and out of harm’s way.

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