The Key is Stress Management
This is the first in the latest series of essays on the impact and importance of the levels of stress in the classroom. In broad terms, stress is the process where the brain comprehends, and attempts to maintain, a person’s homeostatic status. Of all the Newsletters we have produced those discussing the impact of stress on behaviour and learning far outnumbers any other topic. Like all living things we humans are driven to survive and reproduce and when any situation in our environment either threatens or nurtures our existence we will act to deal with such a situation; we will behave! This Newsletter will focus on that process focusing on homeostasis.
Homeostasis is the process by which the body maintains a stable internal environment despite external changes. Our internal environment consists of our physical, social/emotional and intellectual world. This three-part feature is embodied in the physical structure of the brain, often referred to as a triune brain shown below.
The brain’s only task is to regulate its behaviour in response to the external environment to retain homeostatic equilibrium.
To maintain homeostasis at the physical level much of the processes are reflexive, that is they are achieved at an unconscious level; part of our genetic organisation. These are things like breathing, maintaining blood pH and sugar levels. The act of breathing to maintain our oxygen levels demonstrates the power a deficit can have on your behaviour. Just try holding your breath for say two minutes and feel the growing urgency to address the disequilibrium. The continual process of oxygen depletion and renewal demonstrates our need for continual adjust to the changes both in our bodies and the environment.
As well as this biological feature of the physical realm there is that of movement. From the moment we are born we have to learn to move our body to sustain equilibrium. Watch a new-born try to get their finger into their mouth. Just like any lesson, through trial and error eventually a neural pathway will form, a behaviour is learned.
The social/emotional level involves the regulation of how our sense of self interacts with the community that is in our immediate environment. The limbic system through structures like the amygdala and hippocampus regulates our stress levels. When there is a perceived threat or danger, the limbic system initiates the "fight or flight" response, which triggers the release of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. When we perceive something in the environment that we need to address a deficit, say we are hungry, the stress response if not a product of a fight/flight response but one of seeking food in this instance and is driven by dopamine.
Once the threat or deficit is addressed the brain's homeostatic mechanisms work to restore the body to a state of equilibrium.
Finally, at the tertiary level is a treasure trove of memories that inform our behaviour in response to social cues, such as facial expressions and body language and environmental conundrums that may impact on our stability. The prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for what is referred to as executive functions like decision-making and impulse control plays a crucial role in maintaining that equilibrium.
Importantly, it is this tertiary section on which we want the students to be focused. Teachers need to create a level of uncertainty related to the content of the lesson they are to deliver. The resulting stress is expressed as curiosity!
The status of homeostatic equilibrium refers to a state where the whole body is safe and secure. To achieve this the whole brain has to provide the energy to sustain those demands require to keep us alive. However, the brain is incredibly energy-intensive consuming roughly 20% of the body's total energy, despite only making up 2% of its weight and that energy is vital in supporting our physical, social/emotional and intellectual needs.
For example, when there is a deficit in say our social needs the resulting state of disequilibrium will demand that the brain adjust its energy consumption to focus on rectifying this problem. Given that we have a finite energy budget, this focus on the social problem means there is less to service the other needs. Overall, the distribution of the brain's energy is tightly regulated to support the diverse functions of different brain regions, and this regulation is critical for maintaining normal brain function and promoting overall health and well-being, that is homeostatic equilibrium. The following illustration explains the consequences of different types of disequilibrium.
It is obvious which state is suitable to maximise the learning outcomes for our students.
It is a truism that kids learn best is a safe and secure classroom and this is why. It is the teacher’s professional responsibility to, as much as possible produce an environment where the student’s social and physical needs are not under threat. In reality classroom management is really stress management!