How Stress Affects Your Child’s Learning Ability

Solving quadratic equations, identifying dangling participles, and memorizing the Periodic Table can be monumental feats for even the most focused mind. The brain that is overwhelmed by stress, however, will fail miserably. Unfortunately, many of America’s children are struggling in school due to high levels of stress and anxiety.

How Stress Affects Your Child's Learning Ability

Many people do not realize the impact that stress has on children, particularly when it comes to their ability to learn. The truth is that stress alters how a child’s brain functions in several ways.

The Hormone Factor

Humans didn’t always tackle algebra and grammar. Instead, problem-solving often involved identifying the best way to avoid being trampled by a rampant wildebeest or chewed on by an angry bobcat. With these urgent matters in mind, the human body responds to stress by releasing the hormones “cortisol” and “adrenaline” into our systems–creating a “fight or flight” reaction.
Unfortunately, as “Stress Can Impact Your Child’s Ability to Learn Math” points out when this response takes place in the humdrum–and wildebeest-free–classroom, it can make it difficult to take in information using traditional methods.

Long-term exposure to stress has also been shown to kill brain cells in the hippocampus regions of laboratory rats. This can lead to increased anxiety and lower one’s ability to master new concepts.

The Heart Rate Conundrum

The human heart rate undergoes continuous fluctuations, but these usually go unnoticed. When someone is under stress, however, heart rate variations become more dramatic and chaotic. In turn, this cardiovascular chaos sparks irregular brain patterns. According to John Hopkins University’s “The Powerful Impact of Stress,” these non-coherent brain patterns decrease its ability to process information, recognize patterns, and problem solve–making learning a tough, if not impossible, task.

The Dendrite Dilemma

Dendrites are marvelous little branches that sprout outward from the center of our cells that enable cells to communicate with one another. Recent studies, however, have shown that these branches actually process information and serve a much greater purpose than previously realized.

When a subject is exposed to long-term stress, however, their dendrites can wither, become shorter, and decrease in number. “Stress and Your Child’s Brain” warns that because dendrites play a vital role in new learning, this damage can lead to a learning impairment.

The Lower Brain Challenge

Again, when faced with a stampede of angry wildebeests, the fight or flight responses can come in quite handy. After all, these spontaneous threats are best solved by turning to your innate survival instinct–all of which resides in the lower part of the brain.

Unfortunately, while this survivalist section of our brain is in full gear, the part that enables us to function well in the classroom shuts off. As “Why Stress Inhibits Learning” explains, the activation of our stress response de-activates the parts of our mind that allow us to focus attention, understand ideas, commit information to memory, and reason critically. Sheer panic and mathematic prowess rarely occur simultaneously.

Have you ever tried to stop a stampede by reciting the Periodic Table?

By understanding the dramatic effects that stress has on the minds and learning abilities of children, parents and educators will be better able to identify problems and take measures to reduce the amount of stress experienced by students. It’s time to deal with the “wildebeests” that are plaguing the nation’s children.

What physical and emotional changes do you experience when you are overly stressed? How do you cope with them?

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