I recently finished Eric Jensen’s book Teaching With Poverty in Mind. It changed my thinking in a number of ways, but one thing that stuck me as I read his book was the impact of chronic stress on student development. According to Jensen:
Chronic stress exerts a devastating insidious influence on children’s physical, psychological, emotional and cognitive functioning – areas that affect brain development, academic success and social competence. Students subjected to such stress may lack crucial coping skills and experience significant behavioral and academic problems in school.
We all have stress in our lives. In fact, our body’s reaction to stress (run from that bear!) is a safety mechanism and essential to survival. Ongoing stress is the issue. He cites research that indicates that our bodies must be in homeostasis for cells to develop at a normal rate. When we are in an agitated or stressful state for too long the cells “hunker down” for protection. When in this “hunkered” state for too long, development is impacted. He argues that stress can become “hardwired” into children’s developing brains and the cumulative impact can be devastating. When discussing neurons (pathways of the brain) Jensen points out:
A stressed neuron generates a weaker signal, handles less blood flow, processes less oxygen and extends fewer connections to nearby cells. The prefrontal cortex and hippocampus , which are crucial for learning, cognition and working memory are the areas of the brain most affected by the hormones produced by stress.
Stress doesn’t just impact early learners. Chronic stress in adolescence (another crucial time in brain development) is connected to risky behaviors (drug/alcohol use for example).
Stress surrounds us, so complete avoidance is not an option. Society is moving at a pace once thought unimaginable. Most families work two jobs and feel the stress of work just to make ends meet. Many parents are also underemployed or not working which creates a whole different kind of pressure on families. Couple those stresses with a society where gratification is often immediate and success is often measured by comparison to our peers and families are under a significant amount of pressure to keep up.
As educators we have a limited ability to control the world outside our buildings, but according to Jensen, schools can be supportive of students and help them manage stress.
First, and perhaps most importantly, we need to recognize stress. Some common signs are:
- Chronic Absences
- Impaired attention and concentration
- Reduced cognition, creativity and memory
- Lack of social skills and social judgement
- Reduction in motivation, determination and effort
- Signs of depression/withdrawal
Students often feel they have no control, so their sense of helplessness often comes out in ways not acceptable in school (see list above). Rather than being punitive, schools should problem solve and develop trusting relationships with our most vulnerable kids. Perhaps enact processes that recognize strengths in students. My good buddy Chris Wejr writes extensively on this topic.
Second, where possible schools should look at altering the environment. We need to develop strong relationships and dialogue with students to figure out how to support them with a mutually beneficial (aka Collaborative Problem Solving) structure of support. Many students need to move or show their learning in a variety of ways. By focusing on strengths we are better able to understand what those strengths may be and we are more likely to tailor the environment to meet their needs.
Third, empower the students. Often students under chronic stress feel they have no control, so allowing them to feel like they have some “say” in their learning makes a big difference. Pinpoint a students lagging skills and create a plan to teach them. Give responsibility and embrace restitution in a meaningful (collaborative) way. Role model. Listen. Use Mindfulness.
Ultimately, chronic stress is impacting our students…usually our most vulnerable. As educators we are going to spend time with our most challenging students, so if we are investing time it makes sense to be proactive and try different things. We know that punitive responses lead to a breakdown of relationships and ultimately disengage students. Once disengaged, the likelihood of getting back on track becomes harder and likelihood of completing school decreases. Those are pretty high stakes.