In the previous four Newsletters we have discussed boundaries in detail with the fundamental appreciation that it is the interface between our ‘self’ and the external world. This may appear to be a relatively straight forward concept but a closer look reveals the need to define what consists of our ‘self’ and that requires a more complex analysis.
At the fundamental level our boundaries indicate the interface between our internal and external world. For my work our external world consists of all things beyond our brain’s receptors. In a relatively simple way it defines the physical and social environment in which we find ourselves, the availability of resources and social interactions. It is a bit more entangled when we consider that part of the environment is our body. The central nervous system really is an extension of the brain but for my purposes I am interested in incoming information about things like our oxygen levels, our temperature etc. that will initiate behaviour and so I include those messages from our body.
Our physical self includes things like the maintenance of blood pressure, sugar levels, the rate of our heart-beat, etc. The maintenance of these biological factors are reflexive, laid down because of our genetic scaffold, they make us human. However, the social and intellectual features of our ‘self’ which give us that sense of who we are, are learned and the motivation of that learning is to support our survival in the presenting environment.
From the time we are born we build up a complex web of memories that, in the first instance allow us to survive in the particular set of conditions in which we find ourselves. Through the process of trial, error and correction we build a set of memories which allow us to anticipate what will happen when we act in a particular way in response to a particular set of environmental conditions that threaten our ‘survival’. The goal for behaviour and learning is always to act to return to a state of homeostatic equilibrium; that is when all our needs are satisfied. Stress is the messenger that informs our homeostatic status – in equilibrium, no stress; in disequilibrium, stress!
The level of stress experienced occurs along a continuum of an autonomic arousal ranging from coma, unconsciousness to full-blown panic attack. It is an electro/chemical response that prepares the body to act to regain a state of equilibrium whether that be a defence against perceived threat or a motivation to acquire something to sustain our survival. It must be remembered that although the brain sustains us its only activity is to initiate movement be that the movement of a limb or instigating an electro-chemical signal that produces changes in the composition of our biological mix. In cases of extreme threat an immediate ‘flight/fight response will occur to get the body into a state of readiness through the stimulation of our sympathetic nervous system. This stimulates the adrenal glands releasing catecholamines particularly the adrenaline and noradrenaline. This results in an increase in our heart-rate, blood pressure, breathing rate etc.
As all environments constantly change we are continuously adjusting to new conditions in order to maintain equilibrium. It becomes obvious that we do need an amount of stress to thrive and this applies to the classroom.
The presence of stress does great things for your learning and memory. At the fundamental level stress:
- Increases heart rate
- Loosens up blood vessels in critical parts of the brain
- Delivers more oxygen and glucose to the brain
- Your brain starts working better
- Neurons become more excitable in the hippocampus
These and other reactions support the learning of new memories. Teachers need to produce a level of stress that is not directly focused on the maintenance of immediate survival but enough to initiate a level of curiosity in the students about things they don’t understand.
There is an ideal level of stress that produces optimal learning. The illustration below describes an inverted ‘U’ curve was first recognised by sports scientists who searched for the conditions of optimal athletic performance. As can be seen, the horizontal axis indicates the level of arousal while the vertical axis describes the level of performance. If the individual is under-stressed then the performance level is less than desirable however there is an optimum level where the performance is at its maximum. Regrettably, if the level of stress continues to increase past that optimal level then the elevated anxiety will impair the performance.
Unfortunately, this graph is highly individualised, that is it characterises one child. Every child will have a different relationship to stress, some students are anxious and may quickly become over-aroused while others need to be stirred from their comfort zone! The teacher needs to establish each child’s level of resilience and take a personalised approach to their motivation.
This ‘optimal’ level can be considered as positive stress, the conditions that support the formation of short-term memories and consequently our long-term memories which become the representation of our ‘self’.
This optimum or positive stress has the following benefits:
- Increases the efficiency of our immune system
- Increases our ability to form memories
- Enhances the quality of our decision making
- Improves our ability to concentrate
- Enriches our level of emotional intelligence
These are all conditions we want our students to have when they are in our classrooms.
In our training we have always emphasised the importance of engagement and that is really encouraging the student to become stressed enough to take advantage of the conditions that come with positive stress. The problem is, as stated above all our students come with a different emotional temperament and an approach that motivates a highly resilient student might frighten a student who suffers from anxiety. This is the expertise professional teachers possess and this is not appreciated by those outside the system.
However, stress in the right amount is critical for a healthy and rewarding life, too much stress can have a devastating impact on individuals especially if it occurs in early childhood and that will be the subject of our next Newsletter.