William R. Stixrud, Ph.D.'s  picture

Why Stress Inhibits 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.

Ted was a talkative, engaging and curious second-grade boy. But while he was extremely smart, Ted had difficulty learning. He had a short attention span. He hated to write. He was also somewhat anxious, socially awkward and self-conscious. His teacher had become increasingly concerned about and, understandably, frustrated by his resistance to writing, his inability to “get anything done,” his obsessive habits, his negative attitude and his frequent tendency to “shut down.” When I tested him at my neuropsychology practice and observed him in class, it became obvious that Ted was very easily stressed and felt highly stressed in school.

When we are stressed, the lower part of the brain takes over. Nature wants us to respond to emergencies instinctively, not thoughtfully. That way we’ll have a better chance of, say, outrunning a predator. So when our stress response (aka fight-or-flight) is activated, stress hormones actually turn off the parts of the brain that allow us to focus attention, understand ideas, commit information to memory and reason critically.

Ted’s stress response was constantly being triggered in the classroom. He was worried about disappointing his teacher and looking stupid in front of the other students. Thus, he avoided group activities, spaced-out during work time and looked for any opportunity to get away.

Young Girl Frustrated Over HomeworkI test dozens of kids every year who are so stressed out that they have trouble learning and keeping up in school. And it’s not just my practice. Research indicates that kids today are experiencing record levels of stress-related mental health problems—and much more stress than their parents realize. This is a big deal, because prolonged stress can profoundly undermine learning, mental health and brain development in young people.

In Ted’s case, I ultimately concluded that he needed to be in a school program that was highly sensitive to the needs of children with learning difficulties. His parents were luckily able to find such a program. They were delighted to send me his first report card from the new school, which enumerated his many strengths, including his “infectious enthusiasm!” I could hardly believe this was the same child I had seen six months earlier. The difference was that Ted felt safe and accepted in his new school and, as a result, didn’t spend the whole day with a stressed brain that couldn’t think, learn or work efficiently.

Extensive research shows that the optimal mental state for learning is relaxed alertness. This means that kids have to feel safe in order to learn. Otherwise, their brains spend more energy on self-protection than on their work. This doesn’t mean that children shouldn’t be challenged and stretched. If they aren’t challenged, kids feel bored, and hard situations are crucial for the development of resilience—or the ability to deal with adversity flexibly. We therefore don’t want to try to protect children from having any stressful experiences. However, chronic stress is counterproductive. Kids’ brains work most efficiently when they feel safe—not just physically, but also emotionally. When students know that it’s ok to fail, they can take the kinds of risks that lead to real growth; they can develop brains that are capable of thinking, learning and performing at a high level and of being happy.

Some things you can do to protect your kids—of any age—from being stressed out of their minds:

  • Try as much as possible to be a “non-anxious presence” for your children. If we stay relatively calm and centered, it makes it much easier to comfort an infant or sooth a toddler, respond to a child in a flexible, mature, understanding manner and enjoy our kids.
  • Maintain as much consistency in your child’s (and your own) daily routine as possible. This helps, in part, because a lack of predictability and a low sense of control increase vulnerability to stress.
  • Avoid overscheduling children and teenagers. Young children and school-age kids need time to play and to be with their families, and teens need time to catch up on sleep and stay connected with their parents and siblings.
  • Make sleep a top priority, as even a half hour of sleep can make a significant difference in a child’s mental and emotional functioning. Help kids develop good wind-down routines at night, and talk to their pediatrician if they have trouble sleeping or seem unusually tired during the day.
  • Schedule in weekly periods of “private time” with each child as regularly as possible. Spending time alone with children is a powerful way of staying connected with them, which helps them feel safe in the world.
  • Support your children in developing a strong sense of internal control, which will make them more resistant to stress. With young children, give them choices about how and when to do things. With older children and adolescents, allow them to increasingly make decisions about things that affect their lives.
  • Get kids help if they seem highly anxious. Early treatment of anxiety has a strong protective effect. Talk to you child’s pediatrician, a community health clinic or a school guidance counselor.
  • From kindergarten on, try to protect your kids from excessive homework and academic pressure, which are completely counterproductive. Work with other parents and professionals to encourage schools to implement “evidenced-based” homework practices, as there is no scientific evidence to support hours and hours of homework.
  • Encourage kids to develop routines for de-stressing themselves. With young children, this could include 30 minutes of quiet play in their rooms, looking at books or watching a video that is not highly stimulating. With older children and teens, it could be regular exercise, yoga or daily meditation.
  • Talk to your kids about the stresses in their life. The American Psychological Association has a useful article titled “Talking With Your Children About Stress.”

LEArn More:

“The Good, the Bad and the Tolerable,” by Jack Shonkoff, about how different levels of stress impact the developing brain

Related Reading:

“How Does Stress Impact a Child’s Brain? An Interview With Dr. William Stixrud,” a video on Transcendental Meditation blog

“Too Stressed Out to Learn?” by Rosemary Clandos, Los Angeles Times