New CEN paper: Stress and learning in pupils: Neuroscience evidence and its relevance for teachers

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The CEN has published a new paper in the journal Mind Brain and Education reviewing current neuroscience evidence on how stress affects children’s learning in the classroom. Focusing on primary age pupils, the main findings are:

  • Successful learning requires some stress – but too much stress may inhibit, and a positive challenge for one child may under- or over-stimulate another child and impact his or her learning
  • The complex relationship between stress and learning is highly individual across pupils, depending on multiple long- and short-term factors, as well as the child’s appraisal of the situation and their available coping strategies
  • We look at potential classroom stress management interventions for primary school children (7-11 years), including psychological and physiological approaches.
  • This paper aims to help teachers become aware of, and to begin to accommodate, children’s differing needs with respect to stress and learning

Here, lead author Sue Whiting discusses what our review of the evidence revealed:

“We are starting to understand the complex ways in which primary school children’s stress levels affect how well they pay attention and learn.

WHAT DOES STRESS DO TO CHILDREN?

We are all familiar with common symptoms of stress, such as a raised heart rate, excessive sweating and a dry mouth, which are part of the body’s ‘fight or flight response’. However, we now know that, in addition to these bodily changes, stress also associates with other, more subtle mental changes.

This complex relationship is highly individual for every pupil, depending on multifarious long-term factors (e.g., genetics, environment) and short-term factors (e.g., recent stress exposure before arriving at school), with some children being more environmentally sensitive than others.

Stress can increase children’s attention and learning capacities in some circumstances but hinder them in others. Because of these individual differences, a positive challenge providing optimal learning outcomes for one child may under or over-stimulate another child, thus potentially inhibiting learning. Furthermore, a child’s stress response to learning challenges may vary from day to day, or even during the same school day, depending on their appraisal of the situation and the coping strategies the child has available. A child’s perceived stress may not even constitute a valid stress from the teacher’s viewpoint.

HOW CAN STRESS BE REDUCED (OR HARNESSED) IN THE CLASSROOM?

The research on stress management interventions in children is still in its early days. Thus far, we are only able to outline potential classroom strategies for addressing the issue. The main psychological factors producing the strongest adverse stress response during motivated performance tasks are (1) an out-of-control feeling and (2) a social-evaluative threat (being judged).

Psychological approaches

Various psychological methods of reappraising stress have therefore been suggested by other researchers: e.g., by simply adding the word ‘yet’ to what would otherwise be a negative sentence ‘You haven’t done it, yet’ effectively diffuses the negativity by suggesting that the child will accomplish it a later date. Embracing-the-challenge (i.e. a ‘stress-is-enhancing’ mind-set) can affect an individual’s stress response and may lead to more positive outcomes than worrying-about-the challenge (i.e., a stress-is-debilitating mind-set). Using the simple self-statement ‘I am excited’ may help reappraise anxiety as excitement about a new challenge. Practising mindfulness may also help, as may presenting learning tasks tailored towards children’s hidden talents and strengths.

Physiological approaches

Physiological methods such as breathing techniques e.g. nasal, slow-paced, deep, diaphragmatic breathing may be effective by altering stress-related physiology, e.g. by shifting it towards increased activity within the parasympathetic (rest, digest and repair) nervous system and decreasing the fight or flight response. A simple breathing exercise could be easily included in the classroom as an alternative ‘attention grabber’. Physical exercise may benefit children’s cognitive function by altering their stress-related physiology as well as providing other benefits (e.g. fresh air, light, social interaction, and taking a break). As a stressful event can adversely affect later learning outcomes (e.g. for a couple of hours afterwards) we speculate that breakfast clubs may serve a dual purpose in improving learning outcomes during the first two lessons for vulnerable children experiencing stress before school, by providing a longer time for delayed learning-suppressive chemicals to dissipate.

THE FUTURE

More research needs to be done to establish the most effective classroom interventions to not only prevent stress-induced impairments but also enable all children to achieve their full potential; however, raising teachers’ awareness of the inter-individual differences in their pupils’ stress responses will be an important step in accommodating the differing needs of children in their classrooms.”

Reference: Whiting, S. B., Wass, S. V., Green, S., & Thomas, M. S. C. (2021). Stress and Learning in Pupils: Neuroscience Evidence and its Relevance for Teachers. Mind, Brain and Education. First published: 28 February 2021. https://doi.org/10.1111/mbe.12282

Striving for universal literacy

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“If you have ever taught a child to read, you know it is a process as full of rewards as setbacks. From letter recognition, to decoding single words, to gains in fluency and comprehension – we have had the gratification of watching our children’s journey from learning to read, to reading to learn.

Yet, on this International Literacy Day we are reminded that this milestone of acquiring literacy skills is not universal. Currently, over half of the world’s 10-year-olds cannot read and comprehend a simple story. And many who started their journey up the literacy ladder in school do not retain these skills into adulthood. 750 million adults in the world end up with difficulty reading and/or writing…”

See here for more on this blog from the World Bank, which discusses a report by the CEN prepared for the World Bank on the science of adult learning. The report is part of a recent initiative from the Bank to improve the effectiveness of adult literacy programmes. The blog is authored by Magdalena Benedini (Economist, World Bank) and Victoria Levin (Senior Economist, World Bank).

The Montessori educational method – is it effective?

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CEN member Chloë Marshall has published a paper entitled “Montessori education: A review of the evidence base” in the journal Science of Learning. Montessori education is an alternative method of education which has been in existence for 100 years. In her paper, Chloë reviews the small number of research studies that have evaluated the Montessori method and draws attention to some of their methodological limitations. She also discusses studies which have not directly evaluated Montessori education, but which have evaluated features of other educational methods that are shared with Montessori, such as using phonics to teach reading and spelling. She concludes that there is growing evidence that the Montessori method is effective for supporting children’s cognitive and social development, at least when carried out faithfully to Montessori’s principles

A former Montessori teacher herself, Chloë says “National and regional education systems are beset by regular swings of the pendulum, for example towards and away from phonics, and towards and away from children working individually. This means that elements of the Montessori method will sometimes be in vogue and sometimes not. It is therefore particularly important that Montessori teachers understand the evidence base that supports, or does not support, their pedagogy.”

Free paper for download: Brain plasticity and learning in adulthood

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In the last few years, the academic journal International Review of Education (IRE) – the oldest journal of comparative education in the world – shifted its focus towards closer alignment with the work of its parent institution, the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning. Since then, IRE has given priority to research that explores ways in which the idea of lifelong learning is reflected in education policy and practice throughout the world. This has meant a focus on topic areas such as adult education, non-formal education, adult literacy, open and distance learning, vocational education and workplace learning, new access routes to formal education, lifelong learning policies, and various applications of the lifelong learning paradigm. To introduce new readers to IRE, the journal has made available for free download from October 20 to December 20 ten recently published articles. Among them is a paper from the CEN on brain plasticity and learning in adulthood, which can be downloaded here: