Stress and Its Impact on Learning

Stress is toxic. You probably already knew that. But did you know that high levels of stress can interfere with your child’s ability to learn? New studies reveal that kids living in stressful situations can struggle with a number of cognitive abilities, but programs catered to helping children handle their emotional responses might help.

“As researchers work to solve one of the most persistent problems in public education – why kids in poor neighborhoods fail so much more often than their upper-income peers – more and more they’re pointing the finger at what happens outside the classroom,” a KPCC Southern California Public Radio report reads. “Shootings. Food insecurity. Sirens and fights in the night. Experts are finding that those stressors build up, creating emotional problems and changes in the brain that can undermine even the clearest lessons.”

In the study Dr. Cara Wellman, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University, and her colleagues discovered that ongoing stress can physically alter the way the brain works, causing areas of the brain responsible for grasping information to shrink. This shrinkage can cause “trouble with attention, concentration, memory and creativity,” Wellman told KPCC. “You see deficits in your ability to regulate emotions in adaptive ways as a result of stress.”

The response to this in some schools has been to provide extra support and counseling to both the students and their parents. But a new national study released by Head Start on July 7th suggests that it may be possible to take an even earlier approach. The study, funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, suggests that it is possible to improve upon the social and emotional skills of pre-school aged students. In this type of classroom scenario, students would be taught how to respond to an emotional situation, such as being tripped in the hallway. The goal would be for student to better understand their own emotions and the emotions of their peers.

“It’s distracting and anxiety-provoking to children when they can’t read other kids’ emotions,” Pamela Morris, a senior research fellow at MRDC, told NPR. “They’re constantly worrying: Did that kid bump into me on purpose? Were they being mean? Just like when an adult has something else they’re worrying about, it’s harder to focus on work.”

While the results overall varied, teachers in the experiment classes noted that their students had a better time focusing and were better able to spend more time on activities like reading.