Stress affects learning – it interferes with our basic needs from Maslow’s Hierarchy and distracts our attention from learning.
Children need to feel safe in order to learn—if they become stressed in school, their brains will spend more energy on self-protection than learning. – William Stixrud, Ph.D.
Stress triggers the fight or flight response which overrides our higher order brain functions (the part of the brain that allows us to focus our attention, understand ideas, rationalise and think critically, and learn). The shutting down of higher order brain functions allows our lower brain to respond instinctively to anticipated dangers. This quick reflex action was necessary when the threat of predators was real. Although such dangers no longer threaten our children, the instinct remains and it comes online whenever we are stressed.
When our children are overwhelmed by their body’s response to stress, they will find it difficult to learn. Helping children manage stress helps them do well at school.
Good stress vs Bad stress
A knee-jerk response might be to ensure that our children never feel stressed so they can always function at an optimum. Unfortunately (or fortunately) life is not about absolutes – there are always ifs and buts so a distinction needs to be made about the differences between good stress and bad stress. We do not want to completely eliminate stress from our children’s lives because a certain level of stress is beneficial, even necessary for healthy child development.
There is the good stress where we are able to rise to a challenge. This is the kind of stress we want our children to experience because it provides great opportunities for developing the mind and character. An example of good stress might be when a child is about to enter into a competition or perform before an audience.
Tolerable stress is when the experience is tough, but we can still cope and recover. This kind of stress is less ideal but pretty powerful if our children are able to find the strength to get through it. An example of tolerable stress might be having to face the death of a loved one, or changes in family dynamics, such as a divorce.
Then there is bad stress which overwhelms our children and prevents their brains from healthy development. It is this kind of stress that we want to protect our children from. A common example of bad stress for children might be persistent bullying at school that continues unchecked.
What’s tolerable or bad also depends on the individual. What one individual might view as bad, another may consider to be tolerable, and vice versa. Stress perception depends largely on the perspective of the individual.
Learning to Handle Stress
As much as we want to protect our children from the bad stress, sometimes it can be beyond our control. The best thing that we can do is teach our children how to handle stress – help them to develop the skills to deal with it. We can even go one step further – teach them the positives of stress and how to make it their ally (yes, we may have borrowed something from Yoda there). That takes us back to Carol Dweck’s Mindsets.
“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” – William Shakespeare, Hamlet.
When people perceived stress as something positive, it became a positive in their lives.
- People who reported having high levels of stress and who believed stress had a large impact on their health had a whopping 43% increased risk of death. On the other hand, those that experienced a lot of stress but did not perceive its effects as negative were amongst the least likely to die as compared to all other participants in the study.
- Employees who viewed a video that approached stress as enhancing reported better work performance as well as less psychological complications.
- Students who naturally saw stress as helpful had a more moderate stress response when they were told that five students in their class would be randomly selected to record a speech on video. They were also more likely to request feedback on their speeches.
If we can teach our children to develop a growth mindset, we can also teach them to develop a positive stress mindset. One way we can do that is by teaching them meditation techniques…
Meditation for Enhancing Stress Recovery
In a study comparing experienced meditators with non-meditators, researchers found that meditation could affect how genes are expressed. It can down-regulate the expression of genes involved in inflammation, and in the body’s stress response. Meditators were also able to recover from stressful situations much more quickly than their non-meditating counterparts.
This is the first study to demonstrate the effect of meditation at the molecular level. We’re no longer talking about correlations – we’re seeing real molecular manifestations resulting from meditation.
Teaching Children Meditation
Meditation recordings for kids, like Shambala Kids Meditation, are a great place to start. You can also check out the following resources: