Understanding the link between stress and learning

30 Oct

Stress is part of everyone’s life.

We all experience stress in our lives. Not all stress is damaging though. In fact, John Medina (in: Brain Rules: 12 Principles for work, school and life) says: “…  not all stress is the same. Certain types of stress really hurt learning, but some types of stress boost learning…” This premise is supported by the findings of Schmidt & Schwabe in the October issue of Scientific American Mind. There seems to be a window of opportunity where the time and place of learning and stress coincide to produce positive effects.

Two questions immediately come to mind: how do we know which stress is damaging and how can we see that someone is under stress?

How do we know that someone is under unbearable stress?

There is an observable physiological reaction to stress, depending on the type of stress. If there is an immediate threat like a snake in the house or a long term stressful situation at work or school that seems impossible to resolve, the stress symptoms would be different. For  an immediate threat the person would experience an increased heartbeat and adrenaline would be excreted, eliciting the typical fight-or-flight reaction. Where there is a long term, unbearable stress situation it is often not so easy to see the symptoms. When working with children, it is even more difficult to notice the stress symptoms because children can seldom verbalise that they are under stress. However, the most important symptoms include withdrawal, frustration and aggression as well as a failure to thrive. Children under stress are usually unhappy and often pessimistic about themselves.

Children often complain about vague symptoms like tummy aches, headaches, vomiting and they often have a lowered immune system. They definitely have no control over the stressful situation.  One of the most unfortunate consequences is that the young learner perceives that this situation is somehow his or her fault. They think that here is something wrong with them because it seems as if everyone else is coping. It does not even help to try because they feel unable (weak, stupid, unworthy, worthless, etc.) to succeed; and they feel powerless to change themselves or the situation. The American psychologist, Martin Seligman, called this “learned helplessness”. Of course it is not only the teachers and the school system that participate to create this situation. Parents contribute their pressure and the child’s perception is that there is no way out.

The next step is an endless process of testing and evaluation that confirms the learner’s perception that there is something intrinsically wrong with him or her because in the testing situation (more stress, over which there is no control) the child cannot even remember the most simple content, confirming his/her suspicion of being worth nothing.

Effect of stress on memory

I am an avid protester against the indiscriminate use of testing. In  the test/evaluation situation the brain remembers earlier stress situations and immediately goes into a defensive mode. Under  stress, the brain favours rigid habit memory over more flexible cognitive memory (Schmidt & Schwabe p.27). The implication of this is that the child will go back to learning that was done in such a way that recall is almost automatic. This is often very early learning done in the early school years, e.g. Grade 1 or 2. The outcome of the test is then that this child seems to be so far behind that he or she needs immediate intensive remedial education.

Effect of stress on attention

Stress does not only affect memory but also the ability to give attention. Medina (2009) says that the function of the brain is to survey the environment (including the people, the objects and experiences) and to decide which of these is worthy of attention. The brain is thus continuously aware of the environment. Depending on previous experiences, the brain decides when and how to react. This is an inbuilt function to ensure the safety, security and ultimately the survival of each individual.

What we pay attention to, is profoundly influenced by memory. We tend to use our memory to lead our attention. Say for instance a young learner experienced at the start of her school career that the learning environment is threatening.  When confronted with new content the brain then registers one of two reactions: Avoidance and eventually withdrawal (some teachers diagnose this classic flight reaction as ADD). The second alternative is frustration and aggression (this is the fight reaction, where ADHD would be the preferred diagnosis).

Defense mechanisms

Medina says that the most important task of the brain is survival. Threats seen as dangerous alert the defense mechanisms in the brain and all energy goes into defending. It seems logical to argue that all systems in the body will be involved in this process. Energy will then go into learning that will support this defense.  These results and data from other studies, thus suggest that stress simplifies our learning behaviour at the expense of flexibility. Creative problem solving are also deemed dangerous in a threatening situation, because of the perceived risk of failure. Research (Schmidt & Schwabe) reveals that if people are not under stress, they use more cognitively taxing strategies in learning. They are also more flexible in the application of that learning. This type of learning, because it involves more senses, and emphasises the process and not so much the correct end product. Application in a real world situation is one of the outcomes of this type of learning. This approach strengthens learning and memory (Hardiman, M M).

Is there a solution?

Certainly we must look at educational practices that are counterproductive for learning. However, we also need to look at ways to strengthen learners with preventive, proactive approaches to managing stress. Robert Epstein’s position (in Scientific American Mind, September 2011) is that in light of the possible devastating effect of stress on people, it is logical to develop stress management skills – not only for learners, but also for teachers and parents.  One of the important stress releasers for learners is movement. Teachers should be made aware of stress indicators and how to counteract them by including short bouts of vigorous movement in the learning programme. The brain hormones released by vigorous movement help with attention and memory. Planning for fun and humour in the class also helps with relaxation! Parents should also know their children and realise early which child is prone to stress. Epstein says that skills that help children to avoid stress are more successful than relaxation. Avoidance skills are actions like planning better, doing homework and learning how to do time management.

As parents we often have the perception that these skills should develop naturally. They more often do not and helping young learners to acquire these habits help them to develop  life skills with long term  benefits. All young learners should be taught these skills early in their school career. Ideally, parents and teachers should act proactively and not wait until children exhibit stress symptoms.


Medina, J. 2010. Brain Rules: 12 Principles for work, school and life. www.brainrules.net

Schmidt, M. V. & Schwabe, L.:  September/October 2011. Splintered by Stress. In: Scientific American Mind.

Epstein, R. September 2011. Fight the frazzled mind. In: Scientific American Mind.

Hardiman, M. M. 2009. The Creative-Artistic Brain. In: Mind, Brain and Education: Neuroscience Implications for the classroom.

Seligman Martin, E P. The Optimistic Child

Picture: http://www.flickr.com/photos/littlecrazybutterfly/6108837478/


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