Don’t Stress It—How Too Much Stress Can Affect Learning

written by: Eagle Hill School
Stress is, unfortunately, a part of everyday life—we all experience it. Whether at our jobs, during our commute, or trying to plan a big trip, stress is a natural element in our lives. It’s no different for children in school, and this is particularly true for children who struggle with learning disabilities.

Stress Inhibits the Brain’s Learning Capacity

The “fight or flight” response elicited by stressors (such as an upcoming final exam), used to serve a very important purpose—keeping us alive. Before humans spent their days in office buildings (and classrooms), it was our bodies' stress response that alerted us to predators and helped us escape impending danger by enhancing our physical capabilities and sharpening our mental awareness. While this is still valuable in ways (consider escaping a mugging or a close-call collision), this response often is too much.

When the nervous system is overstimulated, senses that are not associated with deep learning are activated, superseding the senses and elements of the brain most important for learning.

Why This Happens

Stress prevents memory storage in the short term. When the chemical cortisol, responsible for triggering the stress responses, reaches the hippocampus (the part of the brain primarily responsible for consolidating and organizing information into memories), actual physical structures of the hippocampus disintegrate. This ultimately prevents synaptic and neural connections from forming—an essential process in learning and memory formation. This is why if you’ve ever been extremely angry or scared you may find the memory of that time a bit fuzzy.

How to Prevent It

There are numerous things that educators can do in the classroom and at school to prevent and reduce the amount of stress students experience. A few techniques that have been adopted in many different school settings are:
  • Teach Time Management. Empowering students with the ability to create and manage their own schedules can dramatically curb the amount of stress they experience. Oftentimes, stress stems from the perception of having too much to do, which is a result of being unorganized, not an issue of workload.
  • Know Your Students. Forcing a student who is exceptionally shy to read a poem or solve a math problem in front of the classroom is not only counterproductive, but actually may impede his or her ability to get anything out of the lesson at all. Instead, educators can understand how different students enjoy different ways of participating. By doing this, teachers can reduce the amount of anxiety, and subsequently, the amount of stress students experience, making the classroom a more welcoming, productive place.
  • Practice Compassion. One way of doing this is rewarding students based on effort. Adding partial credit or additional points for a clear display of effort on a test, or when factoring a student’s participation grade, can go a long way toward boosting morale.
There are many different methods that educators can use to make their students feel more at ease in the classroom. What is vital to remember is that reducing stress will not only make school more enjoyable, but it will make all the time students spend in the classroom more productive.

What is Learning Diversity About?

Learning Diversity is a blog hosted by Eagle Hill School where educators, students, and other members of the LD community regularly contribute posts and critical essays about learning and living in spaces that privilege the inevitability of human diversity.

The contributors of Learning Diversity come together to engage our readers from a variety of disciplines, including the humanities, social sciences, biological sciences and mathematics, athletics, and residential life. Embracing learning diversity means understanding and respecting our students as whole persons.

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An innovative approach to LD education in a classic New England boarding school environment, where diverse learners achieve success.