The Complexity of Stress
In the last few Newsletters we have discussed the impact on cognitive development from neglect and abuse. Also discussed is the understanding that stress levels are the response to our homeostatic imbalance, that is how our need for physical, emotional and intellectual gratification is being met. When we are out of ‘balance’ stress is directed to those parts of the brain that control behaviours that allow us to act to regain equilibrium. This process is either acquired through our genes or learned by interacting with the presenting environment to satisfy our needs.
This fundamental feature is understood by all who deal with performance, it is our motivation. We need to generate a sense of having a deficit to generate a performance. Just watch every advertisement on TV; I want to be happy, people with the latest (insert anything here) are happy therefore to be happy I will buy it!
Like most activities in our culture the leading proponents of motivation are in the field of sport. Think about the popular motivational coach, seen in many of the movies and series depicting sport where the coach appeals to each player so they can overcome seemingly insurmountable odds and win. These are not real, but today’s coach understands getting the right level of arousal is important to get the best out of each athlete. It is in the field of sports psychology I first came across the following diagram:
For the hypothetical sportsperson ‘S’ the graph shows that if they are aroused to the level S1 they will perform below their best, that is they can’t be bothered. The same applies to S3 when they are so stressed they are unable to focus and they also fail to excel. To get the best performance they have to be roused to that ‘right’ amount – S2.
The same applies for teaching. If we examine a student ‘S’ then if we can’t engage them (S1) they will not perform, we all understand this and engagement has always been an important consideration in any teacher training package. However, the other extreme, if we over arouse them (S3) they cannot excel. We need to get the ‘sweet spot’ in our lessons. This is where we have to understand the complexity of stress management.
The first complication is that this graph is different for each individual. One size does not fit all and coaches and teachers who pitch their ‘message’ at some imagined individual are only inspiring one person and that imagined person will reflect their own sense of what is important. I understand that there is a need to address the team or class as a group and have a group goal but this is not a time for individual arousal.
The second, more complicated consideration is about those kids who have been subjected to neglect or abuse. Apart from the condition explained above these kids come to class already disengaged (S1) or over stimulated (S3) before we even start the lesson. You see the model outlined above assumes that the lesson or game is the only thing that occupies their mind, that the child has satisfied all their other needs.
The schematic model of the tri-part brain above shows the parts of the brain that deal with various needs. The brain stem and mid brain house most to the behaviours that address our physical needs. The limbic system concentrates on the social emotional world and it is the cortical system, the cerebrum and frontal lobes we need to have aroused to get the students to best learn their academic lessons. We know that children subjected to neglect and abuse spend all their time trying to survive and belong, they ‘live’ in the lower parts of their brain rarely accessing that area teachers need to engage.
Even for those kids who have had the advantage of an optimal childhood, loving, responsible parents who appropriately provide for their needs, this is difficult. Childhood and adolescence is a time when we are learning the skills of socialisation and a threat to be excluded from the groups will captivate the child’s attention much easier than learning to multiply fractions. Like-wise, a young teen who has developed a crush on a fellow student will be much more interested in paying attention to that ‘problem’ than understanding Hamlet (perhaps it is the time for Romeo and Juliet).
However, for the students we are trying to help the potential distractions away from the tertiary functions of their brain are immense. Many of these kids live in a constant state of hypervigilance against being abused, they are already over stressed as far as classroom matters are concerned. At the other end, those kids who have been neglected not only have never learned the value of new information the neurological tools that would make learning a relatively successful event have been lost.
Teachers are constantly under valued by society for a few reasons. The first is everyone went to school and spent many years being exposed to what they think is teaching and so feel they could easily do that. Another activity that devalues the complexity of teaching is that we often get to coach junior teams. These are kids who want to learn and are already motivated.
The real professional teacher takes on those kids who:
- Don’t want to learn
- Can’t see the purpose of learning
- Believe they can’t learn
- Spend their waking moments trying to survive and belong
- Have physical disabilities either genetic or those resulting from brain damage resulting from neglect and/or abuse
I’m sure there are other difficulties we face as teachers, but these are real challenges that are for all practical purposes ignored by our critics.
In our work we provide advice to address these issues but predominantly we believe it is the teacher’s ability to provide an environment that minimises the lower cognitive distractions allowing these children to gain access to their academic brain. This is achieved through presenting an environment that is structured, predictable; the kids know what to expect and there are strong relationships across the classroom.