Understanding the Neuroscience of Student Stress, Resilience, and Behavior
Some people say they work or learn better under pressure, but can that be true? What are the actual effects of short-term or chronic stress on the brain, memory, and the ability to learn? Studies on the brain show that an educational environment structured around positive reinforcement is the most conducive to learning, while ongoing stress impedes the brain’s ability to retain information. With the amount of rigorous standardized testing, public speaking, and other academic challenges students of today face, along with social and cultural challenges such as bullying and the fear of gun violence in schools, how are students supposed to keep their stress levels low enough to learn?
The effects of positive motivation
Studies show that the best learning takes place when the subject matter is relevant to students’ lives. This helps students connect and relate to the subject matter and feel motivated to learn about it, rather than feeling stressed about a completely foreign idea that holds no apparent value to them. This suggests that teachers should always strive to put an emotional spin or “hook” on their lessons so that they resonate with students. Additionally, studies on the brain show that stress can inhibit the brain’s ability to retain new information. Simply put, a joyful and safe learning environment with reduced stress is essential and necessary to learning.
How stress helps and hurts
Stress has mostly negative impacts on learning and memory, with some exceptions. For example, a small amount of stress, particularly emotional (rather than physical) stress, during the encoding phase of memory can help a person retain new information. An example of this would be when a person witnesses a crime or accident. The well-known “fight or flight” response is triggered within the witness’s brain and body while the memory of the event is encoded, and the witness may retain the event in sharper detail than without this stress response. This may also explain why students retain a lesson better when they’ve made an emotional connection to the information.
However, chronic stress leading up to encoding a memory can inhibit memory encoding, and stress after a memory can block recall. If the same witness in this example was brought before a jury to testify, the witness could struggle to retrieve the memory.
How this works in the brain
In a stressful situation or even a perceived stressful situation that isn’t dangerous, our brains and bodies react to protect us. The amygdala sends a warning message through the hippocampus to the rest of the body. The hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine (also known as adrenalin and noradrenalin) react first and have short-lived responses. Cortisol is another hormone that reacts, but its effects can last for hours. While the occasional emotional stress reaction to an event can help sharpen our memories of the event, in general, stress inhibits our ability to store and retrieve memories. Chronic stress, in particular, where a student experiences this fight or flight response in the brain and body over and over throughout the school day, drastically lowers the ability to learn and retain information.
Parents and educators need to understand how stress affects learning and memory so that they can work to create safe and comfortable learning environments. They can also use this information to add an emotional “hook” to lessons to increase retention and make lessons applicable in the real world. A joyful and stress-free environment is scientifically proven to be critical to student success.