Stress can be seen as the energy that drives changes in our behaviour that are motivated by our drive to reach a position of security in the world. This condition is referred to as homeostatic equilibrium where all our needs are being met. Whenever our needs are not being satisfied we are in disequilibrium and this will trigger a change in our physiology that will drive our behaviour in a way that will return us to a homeostatic condition.
The manifestation of stress is in the form of an endogenous range of electro/chemical reactions, that is an internally induced response that floods the brain with a complex cocktail of chemicals that prepares the body’s defence against whatever threat has been identified. Among the chemicals are epinephrine, norepinephrine, vasopressin and oxytocin but most critical are cortisol and dopamine. These chemicals get the body into a state of readiness.
The classic fight/flight response is a neural phenomenon that has obvious survival advantages. The speed in which this process is initiated allows us to dodge an oncoming car, catching our balance when we trip before we are even conscious that we are under threat. These are times when ‘thinking about a behaviour’ could produce a life-threatening situation.
There are times when we activate this fight/flight response to instigate a positive experience. We seek this ‘positive’ stress by engaging in activities like riding a roller coaster or skydiving. These events are intense but short lived and homeostatic equilibrium is soon restored and we feel good, especially as they occur in a non-threatening situation.
Another situation where stress is of value is when we want optimal performance from our bodies. By getting our stress elevated, the endogenous changes prime the body for action. This elevation of arousal is common in sporting endeavours to get the athletes ready to go ‘into battle’. It is also important in learning as the raised neuron excitement facilitates new synaptic connections and new potential learning. The secret is to get the optimal level of arousal and this differs between individuals. The following diagram, referred to as the ‘inverted U curve’ was first used by sports psychologists but is relevant to all behaviours.
There are times when we are faced with threatening, chaotic conditions that are out of our control or on occasions when we are isolated without any support. At these times, we will experience a full-blown stressful response. How these situations impact on children depends on the estimated nature and magnitude of the threat, their existing resilience and the protection the environment provides.
From the diagram above it becomes obvious that the level of stress will determine the quality of the performance. At school this can be directly related to learning. Teachers understand that they have to engage their students. Rarely do we think about this process as being about the child’s survival but it is. Successful learning satisfies our need to understand the environment, by doing so we become more attractive to others in our community, learning gives us a competitive advantage.
However, when we are dealing with the students that suffer from a history of abuse and neglect we are more often dealing with the ends of the inverted U curve; particularly the high-end side where stress is overwhelming the student. I will deal with these extremes relative to those students on which we focus.
- Under Aroused – students who have a history of failure based on their belief that they just not good enough will be reluctant to even try. They will not be aroused by any lesson that will result in them being judged. In other Newsletters we have described these kids as being resistors, that is they don’t engage therefore they won’t be rejected!
- Highly Aroused – this is when our anxiety is such that we are unable to consider the task in front of us. The high levels of stress may not be directly related to the task in hand and the student may try to complete the work. However, at the first set-back the doubts and faulty beliefs ‘I’m stupid’, ‘I can’t do anything’ etc. will increase the level of anxiety. This may be followed by other students answering the question or the teacher trying to challenge them. It’s not long before their brain has gated down to be working on the level learned in early childhood. The diagram below illustrates this phenomena.
It can be seen that the only place where the student can apply their cognitive brain to the lesson is when they are calm.
So how do we manage stress in the classroom? Obviously, it is dealing with the levels of stress students experience. When I looked up the term ‘student engagement’ in the Glossary of Education Reform, I found that it 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’! The question is how does a teacher decide how much stress to put on their students and more importantly each student has a very different tolerance to stress.
Teaching is hard and teaching students who:
- don’t think they can learn,
- don’t want to learn,
- see school as a threat to their sense of self and,
- can’t see the reason for learning
are the most demanding! Teaching students who come to school with the opposite view reduces the task to providing pedagogy and little more.
Students with mental health issues that are the result of early childhood abuse and neglect are the most difficult to have in your classroom. Their disruptive behaviour can destroy the best planned lesson however, as we have shown it is the level of stress they experience that sets off their behaviour, for better or worse. The fundamental skill required by a successful teacher is to control the general level of stress in the classroom and then motivate their students at a personal level. It is the creation of the emotional environment that is critical in providing an education for all the students!