Photo Credit: Alan Cleaver
Stress: The Mortal Enemy to Learning
I’ve had a stressful summer. I’ve dealt with knee surgery, a grandmother whom I’m very close to being diagnosed with dementia, moving, and coming a day away from putting one of my dogs to sleep (thankfully, I have a good vet). The fact that all this happened in a one month span while I could do nothing but lay down and think about it meant that all I was doing was lying down and thinking about it. The only thing I was thankfully not stressing over was work since – praise the Lord – it was summer.
John Medina’s 8th Brain Rule deals with STRESS. We all have felt it. We’ve all been impacted by it. Been exhausted from it. Eaten ice cream because of it. For some of us, the same stressors affect us differently, and it’s hard to predict just how an event will impact an individual. What we can practically predict now though is just how much impact stress can have on the brain and on learning. Stress – the bad, ongoing, terrible, uncontrollable kind – is not a friend to the brain. It affects cognition, memory, and attention – basically anything you hope to foster in school. And it’s not like you can go stress free when you are not in the stressful environment. As Medina says, the brain doesn’t work that way. If kids are stressed at home, then they are stressed at school, and vice versa. It’s the same for adults. Good thing I wasn’t working.
I know that what I was going through might not seem very stressful to many people, and at times I felt somewhat guilty for feeling so badly when people in the world are “actually suffering.” But the truth was – these things were stressful for me, and, as we sometimes quickly forget, however minor or major something might seem to you does not mean someone else will have the same reaction. I know this from the recent bombings at the Boston Marathon. Most of my students watched the gruesome coverage on television; some of them were near where the bombs went off. Needless to say, a few were quite stressed by the happenings. But they didn’t all have the same reaction. The majority were fine while a few needed to be supported to overcome their anxiety. The reaction was exactly what would likely be expected from an event such as this. What was unusual about this happening, however, was that I knew it had happened. It was fairly easy for me to determine who was affected by it and how that might have impacted the school setting. It was something I was looking for and ready to deal with when I returned to school that Tuesday. Unfortunately, this type of knowledge is rarely the case.
Most of the stressors that students face are not obvious national headlines. They are quiet, hidden stressors that are sometimes hard to figure out. We might not be able to control these situations for our students, but that doesn’t mean we get to ignore them. Whether someone’s grandmother is sick, his dog is dying, or her mom and dad are fighting, if it is something that causes great stress, it will impact the classroom and the student’s ability to learn. This has been proven. To combat this, I believe we must work hard to know our students so that they trust us to let us know if they are having issues with their life. It is our job to point them in the direction – in most cases a school counselor (a must!) or their parents – to allow them to find coping mechanisms for dealing with their stress.
Sitting behind a desk or standing in front of a chalkboard with the perfect lesson planned will do absolutely nothing if we pay no attention to the fact that these kids in front of us are actually people who often have real problems. If a student fails a test and we were blindsided by this, ask why. What else might be going on for that child? If a student behaves atypically, acts out, or all of a sudden stops doing his homework, question it. Why is the student suddenly acting this way? When we take the time to educate the whole person, to think about the student’s life beyond the classroom, to give students strategies for dealing with whatever is on their mind, we may actually be able to battle some of the issues that stress can cause. Our job, as a result, can become a little less stressful and a little more rewarding.