Helping kids overcome stress can make it easier for them to learn math and other subjects.
It’s a commonly known fact that stress has negative impacts on people, but do we think about how it impacts our children, especially in the area of learning? Children’s brains are not yet fully formed, even through adolescence, so the impact on their learning can be even greater than it would be for adults.
Any kind of stressful experience releases hormones called cortisol and adrenaline into our system, which makes our hearts beat faster and gives us the “fight or flight” reaction necessary to get out of a life-or-death situation (even if the situation isn’t life-threatening). Students who are experiencing stress find it difficult to take in information by the usual classroom methods, which just seem humdrum and mundane compared to what their bodies are experiencing.
Long term, elevated cortisol levels killed brain cells in lab rats and left them unable to learn new behaviors. Inside human brains, scientists have identified dendrites that are necessary to form the neural pathways we need when we learn new things, including math concepts. These dendrites wither away under chronic stress, making it difficult to hold onto new material and assimilate it.
In practical terms, studies have shown that kids exposed to stress over a long period of time actually have lower IQs than children who are not. Even picking up on parents’ chronic stress has been shown to affect a child’s brain development. But stress is not a death sentence for a child’s intellectual development.
“Stress effects are not ‘brain damage’ but reversible or treatable,” according to neuroendocrinology researcher Bruce McEwen from Rockefeller University. When the stressor is removed or adapted to, dendrites can bounce back and form new connections. So what can parents do to help their children handle it and learn math (and other subjects) better?
How to Lower Stress and Foster Learning
Finding the source of a child’s stress is the first step, and this isn’t always easy. Parents may not realize the impact of their reactions on their children and how they might be inducing this. Making an effort to stay calm and understanding that many of the things kids do that upset parents are normal parts of child development may go a long way to relieving kids.
If the stressor remains unknown even after talking to your child, some counseling or other intervention may be in order. Kids can’t always communicate or even understand what’s going on inside them sometimes, but counselors are trained to get to the root of what’s bothering them so that it can be dealt with.
Reducing kids’ stress can help them succeed at learning new math concepts.
Exercise is a great way to relieve stress. Studies show that physical activity stimulates brain growth and neuron development, as well as making neurons more resistant, according to Monica R. Fleshner, Ph.D., who is an integrative physiologist at the University of Colorado.
We can’t protect kids from all forms of stress, but we can work to remove harmful, chronic stress from their lives and help them learn to deal with it in a healthier way, so it won’t harm their ability to learn math and other subjects and find academic success.