How Stress Hampers Learning

Students’ ability to learn depends not just on the quality of their textbooks and teachers, but also on the comfort and safety they feel at school and the strength of their relationships with adults and peers there, writes Sarah Sparks in Education Week:

Most of education policymakers’ focus remains on ensuring schools are physically safe and disciplined: Forty-five states have anti-bullying policies, compared with only 24 states that have more comprehensive policies on school climate.

Mounting evidence from fields like neuroscience and cognitive psychology, as well as studies on such topics as school turnaround implementation, shows that an academically challenging yet supportive environment boosts both children’s learning and coping abilities.

By contrast, high-stress environments in which students feel chronically unsafe and uncared for make it physically and emotionally harder for them to learn and more likely for them to act out or drop out.

Students who experience chronic instability and stress have more aggressive responses to stress, along with poorer working memory and self-control, studies show. Building those skills in individual students can raise the tenor of the whole school.

‘As much as we need to provide enriched experiences to promote healthy brain development,’ says Dr. Jack P. Shonkoff, the director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, ‘we also need to protect the brain from bad things happening to it.

‘We all understand that in terms of screening for lead, because lead does bad things to a brain, mercury does bad things to a brain. Toxic stress does bad things to a brain, too—it’s a different chemical doing it, but it’s still a big problem interfering with brain development.’” (Read more here.)

This is all common sense, of course—even without knowing the details of how stress affects the brain—and yet school is still an enormously stressful place for many children.

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