Stress and learning in children: evidence from neuroscience and relevance for teachers

In yesterday’s CEN seminar, Dr Sue Whiting talked about the complexities of the human stress response. She explained how each individual’s stress response – the strength and duration of each person’s response, their base stress levels, what constitutes a ‘stressor’ – is highly variable, presenting challenges for teachers to pitch lessons in a way that will be effective for all learners. At the end of her talk, Sue gave some tips for teachers which might help moderate the effects of children vulnerable to high levels of stress:

Supervised breakfast clubs could potentially serve a dual purpose: in addition to providing good nutrition, they could also allow a longer period of time for delayed cortisol effects, arising from stressors outside the school environment, to dissipate.
Deep diaphragmatic breathing, which appears to balance the nervous system by stimulating the parasympathetic system, sometimes characterised as the ‘rest and digest’ system. This could be used with whole classes on a regular basis to help control all the children’s stress levels.

If teachers learn to recognise signs that children are beginning to be overwhelmed, then they could reassure them and take some of the pressure away by reducing the complexity of a task, particularly reducing the load on working memory.

For some children, rewarding effort may help. Others may respond to adopting a mindset which repositions stress as an enhancing agent. Some children find it helpful simply to say ‘I am excited’, as a way of recognising their stress and casting it as something positive.

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