The Intricacy of Stress
Back in 1967, when I was just thinking about becoming a teacher a best seller by Peter Hanson swept the world. This book, ‘The Joy of Stress’ made a case against the emerging understanding of the dangers of stress. Early work into trauma described the response high levels of stress had on the body’s physiology in response to a physical threat. Further work on the systems of the brain revealed the same response: the initiation of a whole range of chemical reactions, an endogenous, stress response of neuro-hormones such as cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine, the list goes on, can be triggered by our mind. The expert advice was to avoid stress; Hanson’s book told us to embrace it. So who is right? Well both are.
Much of the work our Consultancy Group is involved with is intimately tied to the impact of stress on students and teachers. As teachers we understand we need to engage our students but in schools there is often too much pressure: student behaviour, Department demands, irate parents. It is obvious we need stress but not too much!
In the most general, clinical terms stress is the state of our emotional anxiety that is the result of threat to our survival. When everything is going well and there is no anxiety we are in a position called homeostatic equilibrium. We have a sort of point, or more realistically a series of optimal security positions for our body and our mind. Things like blood pressure, temperature, secure relationships, etc. all have a position that is optimal for safety and security. When we are under threat we move into a state of disequilibrium and that chemical reaction described above washes across the brain and activates a series of physiological changes.
There are three critical parts of the brain that best illustrate how this happens. These are the hippocampus - critical to memory formations, the frontal lobes – where the brain collects, integrates and makes decision, the executive ‘controlling’ area of our behaviour and the amygdala the seat of feelings and arbitrator of threat. All are required for learning and all ‘powered’ by stress. There is a complexity in the effect this reaction will have on these three parts.
Too much stress will create an over reaction in the amygdala reinforcing the level of fear that will remain with the child, they become more easily frightened, more ‘efficient’ at recognizing threatening situations. To compound this deterioration in resilience the child learns to be less able to identify when they feel safe.
The plasticity of the frontal lobes and the hippocampus is the ability to create new pathways, to learn. The increase in the levels of chemicals particularly cortisol hamper this development significantly reducing the brain’s ability to make memories and access the frontal lobes so future planning can take place.
So in a sense the amygdala becomes more able to detect a good survival outcome but the cost is the changes in the more cognitive parts of the mind.
So how do we manage stress in the classroom? Obviously, with stress levels we are referring to student engagement. When I looked this term up in the Glossary of Education Reform, I found that “student engagement” refers to the degree of attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion that students show when they are learning or being taught, which extends to the level of motivation they have to learn and progress in their education’. What an example of ‘educational speak’, a committee based statement that covers every possible measure. But, within this wordy platitude is a crucial fact – it is stress that - ‘extends the level of motivation’ however the question is how much stress?
Sports coaches have long understood the importance of arousal in getting their athletes to perform at their optimal ability. The ‘Inverted U’ graph below illustrates the point in regards to outgoing performance, no arousal no performance – over arousal no performance but the right amount of arousal we get optimal performance. This model holds for learning but because the level of stress for learning has to be the ‘goldilocks level’ not to hot - not too cold – just right.
If the level of engagement is too low there will be very little neural stimulation and so very little neuronal excitation. The hippocampus and frontal lobes will suffer a loss in their plasticity and if continuous will have a reduction in size. The contemporaneous lesson will not be learned and the potential for future learning will be reduced. If the stress levels are too high the amygdala will be highly agitated not supporting the hippocampus or frontal lobes and it will become more sensitive to future experiences, easier to trigger the stress response.
There is a further complication and that is the ‘Inverted U’ curve is individualized, that is in a class of thirty there will be thirty different levels of arousal for the teacher’s attempts to engage the class. What is an optimal level for one student will fail to arouse one student yet overwhelm another. The art for the teacher is to individualise this ‘level of arousal’.
Good teachers are mobile in the classroom they get about and this is the time to personalise engagement. To support each kid’s engagement you need to get to know all you can about the student’s personality and environment. Taking a real interest in the student not only builds that crucial relationship it provides you with information that allows you to create the right amount of challenge for each student.
As I said earlier, our Group is very involved in dealing with stress particularly those students who have a history of child abuse and resultant trauma. Acquiring the skill of applying just the right amount of challenge will allow you to bring out the best in all your students.