How a Deep Look at Stress and the Brain Guides Us in Teaching Students about It

How a Deep Look at Stress and the Brain Guides Us in Teaching Students about It

By: Ken Purnell

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Young people . . . experience very high stress in schools, which has negative impacts on their academic performance and mental health. It is crucial schools teach students how to identify and best manage stress. These skills will continue to benefit them throughout their lives.

Pascoe (2018)

As Pascoe suggests, stress is a major problem for students that impacts their school achievement and general wellness. They, too, are aware of this, which is one of the reasons that education about the brain using contemporary neuroscientific evidence is attracting considerable interest. For example, at CQUniversity Australia, whereas we only had bout 80 students studying educational neuroscience in 2020, we now have over 50,000 worldwide (see, FutureLearn, 2020; Teghe, 2020). The brain boom is on.

Using neuroscientific evidence, education about the brain gives teachers and their students insights into how information flows in the brain and strategies to deal with things that go awry (for example, anxiety and stress). It is especially important to understand our brains’ neuroplasticity and how to use that to continuously improve achievements and wellness (Doidge, 2016). One focus of education about the brain is on developing knowledge and skills for stress reduction.

In this article, I will look at key aspects of stress and how to calm the brain and body by making powerful use of neuroplasticity to create and maintain helpful neural pathways and weaken unhelpful ones. To begin, it is important to understand there is good stress (eustress—that gets us out of bed of a morning) and bad stress (distress)—that can lead to many unwanted physical and mental outcomes that impede achievements and wellness—as Lieberman (2015) states: “Research consistently shows that stress negatively impacts both mental and physical health.”

Stress: The good and the bad

Eustress is good stress whereas distress is usually bad. Indeed, stress is considered the enemy of learning (Willis, 2016). Figure 1 provides a schematic representation of stress along with the idea of a “Window of stress” that is actually as individual to each student as each brain is unique (Purnell, 2016). Research evidence shows a wide gap of achievement standards by students in any one class that teachers, applying their professional knowledge and skills, address. Typically, the top 10% of students in a class are achieving about five years above the bottom 10% of students in that class (Australian Council for Educational Research [ACER], 2006; Masters & Forster, 1997). So, for example, if I am teaching a Year 8 class, the top 10% are performing at about Year 11 standard and the bottom 10% at about Year 5.

Figure 1: A model of stress response levels and their impacts on achievements

From the model in Figure 1, we can recognise the impacts of stress on achievement due to over-stimulation or under-stimulation (where stress is too high or too low and outside the student’s “Window of good stress”). The dividing lines around eustress in Figure 1 are zones of transition where a student moves from say eustress to distress. 

That varies depending upon, for example, the student and their past experiences, their state of mind at that point in time, and the nature of the work that they are engaging with. For example, if the work is novel and they have nothing to relate it to in their prior experiences then it will soon cause significant distress as they struggle with the knowledge and skills. Or, they may have the relevant prior knowledge but are upset after a disagreement with a friend at lunchtime and are distracted in your subsequent class by their emotional state. This model can be used as we think about single or short-term stressors, such as each student having to present in class, or prolonged stressors. If we think of the latter then one would describe the three broad states as mainly under-stimulated, mainly eustress, and mainly distress. We can probably all recognise in our classes students who suffer ongoing prolonged stress as they are, for example, perfectionists or are being bullied regularly at school. Examples of eustress and distress and their symptoms and solutions are shown in this pictograph.

Stress can impair mental health, and thus achievement, and contribute further to risky behaviour (Pascoe, 2018). Some 67% of Australian students, for example, report that even when well prepared for a test they feel very anxious (Pascoe, 2018). Arnsten (2015) comments on the issue of ongoing (chronic) stress that so many students experience:

The loss of prefrontal cortex (PFC) grey matter with chronic stress has been documented in humans. Structural imaging has shown that lower PFC grey matter volume correlates with exposure to adverse events. Chronic stress has also been shown to weaken PFC functional connectivity and PFC regulation of the amygdala. Thus, sustained stress exposure in humans maintains the brain in a more primitive, reactive state.

So, stress (distress) impacts negatively on brain function so that much of the blood flow and neural activity is in the lower parts of the brain and not in the area of the PFC that is more conducive to learning. Bad decisions and unhelpful actions may result.

Chronic stress and certain mental health conditions can also play a role in the functioning of fear circuitry in the brain, which can result in greater chances of amygdala hijacking. As Kronman et al. (2021) note, based on their recent research:

An epigenetic modification that occurs in a major cell type in the brain’s reward circuitry controls how stress early in life increases susceptibility to additional stress in adulthood . . . A lifelong history of stress is the strongest known risk factor for depression in humans. Previous studies have shown that early-life stress increases the risk of adult depression as much as threefold, depending on its timing, intensity, and specific features. Early-life stress is also known to increase the likelihood of behavioral susceptibility to stress later in life, and to have particularly strong effects on the nucleus accumbens, an essential component of the brain’s reward system.

People with mental conditions such as depression, PTSD, and Social Anxiety Disorder also “show greater amygdala activation and therefore, increased emotional responding including fear and anxiety responses” (Cunic, 2020). And many of our students will have mental health issues that they bring to the classroom. As teachers, we can help by teaching our students how to reduce the physiological and neural impacts of stress and potentially have positive epigenetic outcomes. Having knowledge of our nervous system and brain plasticity is important in our students to be able to understand the mental and physical processes of stress and how to deal with them.

Our two nervous systems involved in the stress response

The thalamus is the gatekeeper through which our sensory information of sight, sound, touch, and taste initially flow (Cunic, 2020). From there, it is sent to the “thinking brain” the neocortex, and the “emotional brain” —the amygdala where, you guessed it, you get an emotional response. Where there is perceived threat, the amygdala overrides the neocortex with a millisecond response to activate our Sympathetic Nervous System’s fight/flight/freeze response. Several things happen together: stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenalin, are released, our heart rate and blood pressure increase, inflammation levels rise throughout the body, muscles tense and tighten ready to respond, our diaphragm pushes upwards causing shallow and quick breathing, digestion slows, mood changes with increased anxiety and irritability, our energy levels intensify dramatically, and we are ready to take flight or fight or freeze. The amygdala serves us brilliantly to detect danger and respond instantaneously. Its resting voltage is low and so it is always at the ready to spring into action (Rossouw, 2016). It is a part of our limbic system that is very well designed to elicit our fight/flight/freeze response very quickly and thus (usually) protect us from imminent danger. Fantastic to outrun a saber-toothed tiger or not step on a snake and avoid other physical threats, but not so great in responding to low-level perceived threats in our modern world. The neurological and biological responses are just about the same in both cases (Cunic, 2020). So, stress is normal in the ancient world and in modern life—albeit that the stressors differ. Balancing the fight/flight/freeze response of our Sympathetic Nervous System is our “rest and digest” Parasympathetic Nervous System—that we need to learn to kick in so that our stress response is modulated, and chronic stress mitigated. The overall goal is to keep our body balanced (in homeostasis).

A valuable video to watch on stress by is Stress and Your Brain available at https://youtu.be/fMkMdCwUR7I

Reducing Stress

The response of our body results from the interplay of the sympathetic nervous system and the HPA axis (see Udacity, 2015a; 2015b). This is moderated by our parasympathetic nervous system to calm things down and restore things to equilibrium. Knowing how to activate that parasympathetic system faster is important in reducing stress. A few examples include: focusing on helpful thoughts and not entertaining unhelpful ones; actions such as deep abdominal breathing for at least two minutes; and “Three Big Sighs” (for details see Crawford, 2019; Harrison, n.d.). A lot of Australian medical doctors have reported “Three Big Sighs” as being their number one go to technique in their very busy hospital environments (C. Crawford, personal communication, December 13, 2019).

For students the Big Four to reduce stress are:

    • Social connectedness—preferably face-to-face;
    • Sleep—quantity and quality;
    • Nutrition—feed your brain and body nutritious food and drink;
    • Being active (see Purnell, 2021).

Rather than going into an extensive discussion of strategies to reduce stress that we can teach our students (and ourselves) here, a few key examples are: better quantity and quality of sleep (most adolescents get about seven hours per night and as their

brain is under construction they need about nine hours—see Sleep Health Foundation, 2018); better nutrition to feed the body and brain (see, for example, Harvard Health, 2021); being more active; having better social connectedness with others—more time and deeper, more meaningful relationships—see Teghe, 2020); talk therapy (from the teacher and others, and self-talk [Mayo Clinic, 2020], including which thoughts to entertain and which ones to avoid or stop; have useful understandings and “mantras” such as “change your thoughts, change your brain”); maintaining a growth mindset (see Dweck, 2016; Mindset Works, 2017; Shashkevich, 2019); and mindfulness. In addition, there is a range of valuable websites on
strategies to improve mental health such as Headspace (2021) and Beyond Blue (2020).

Teaching students how to manage stress enhances their achievements (academic, sporting, etc.) and wellness. Some students are more reactive to stress than others, due to a range of genetic and environmental factors (Meaney, 2019). While stress involves a complex array of neural networks, as teachers we have at our disposal strategies to help our students and ourselves in making stress more manageable. In my view, chief amongst these is education about the brain where we look at the links between brain science and education (Le Cunff, 2020). That involves choosing neuroscientific evidence about stress and how to calm things down in our body and mind—to “un-hijack” our amygdala. As educational professionals, it involves modifying our teaching practices (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2014) to establish and maintain more optimal learning environments (Medina, 2018; Rossouw, 2016; Willis, n.d.).

As a result, programs linking brain studies to teaching are emerging worldwide. As expert teachers, we can work with our students by creating a short education about the brain program or customising an existing one to our context. Rarely are there “off the shelf” curriculum resources that fully meet our specific needs as teachers.

Program on stress and the brain

To begin with, early in the development of neuroeducation,[1] Dr. Judy Willis (2007), neurologist and school teacher, commented that:

Neuroimaging and neurochemical research support an education model in which stress and anxiety are not pervasive. . . A common theme in brain research is that superior cognitive input to the executive function networks is more likely when stress is low and learning experiences are relevant to students. Lessons that are stimulating and challenging are more likely to pass through the reticular activating system (a filter in the lower brain that focuses attention on novel changes perceived in the environment). Classroom experiences that are free of intimidation may help information pass through the amygdala’s affective filter. In addition, when classroom activities are pleasurable, the brain releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that stimulates the memory centers and promotes the release of acetylcholine, which increases focused attention.

Education about the brain is about people developing knowledge and understanding of relevant aspects of brain functioning related to learning and memory and key processes involved, such as neuroplasticity.

[1] The APA (2020) Dictionary defines neuroeducation as: “the study of the activities that occur in the brain when individuals learn and the application of this knowledge to improve classroom instructional practices and optimize curriculum design. This emerging field represents the intersection of the broader areas of neuroscience, psychology, and education, integrating research on neuronal functioning with educational improvement to understand how the brain enables learning, working memory, intelligence, and creative thinking. For example, a neuroeducational investigation of the relationship between young children’s insight into spatial structures and the development of spatial and number sense might result in a series of classroom activities to stimulate children’s acquisition of spatial and number skills. However, such investigations are not without their critics. Many researchers point to the gap separating microscopic neural processes from macroscopic classroom behaviors as a major obstacle to establishing the neuroscience–education bridge. Prominent among these critics is U.S. philosopher and cognitive scientist John T. Bruer, who argues that the study of brain–behavior relationships is too far removed from the development of learning strategies and teaching methods to offer any useful benefits. Also called brain-based learning; educational neuroscience; mind–brain–education (MBE); neurodidactics; neuropedagogy.”

 

 

Neuroplasticity and teaching resources

Neuroplasticity is our brain’s ability to reorganise itself throughout life—from about 18 days after conception, as it begins to form, to death. It involves forming new neural connections and pathways as we learn and unlearn things. Some neural pathways are strengthened through use and others are weakened by non-use. As Hebb (1949) states: “Neurons that fire together wire together,” and the converse happens: neurons that fire apart wire apart. A video by Professor Pieter Rossouw (2016) on Neuroscience of Memory effectively illustrates and explains this synaptic plasticity. Indeed, A quick internet search will give you some terrific resources on neuroplasticity—for example, Ackerman (2021) What is Neuroplasticity? A Psychologist Explains, Alila Medical Media (2018) Neuroplasticity, Animation, Cherry (2021) How Experience Changes Brain Plasticity, and Professor Merzenich’s (2004) TED Talk on Neuroplasticity.

While resources for use in the classroom with students on reducing stress are scant, as teachers, we are used to producing short units of work. So, by getting some ideas from this paper and other sources, including reflecting on your own school experiences of your students with stress, you can create your own resources. That may involve a series of, say, six or more lessons of, say, 30 minutes across six weeks. With posters that we may source from the internet, or perhaps create ourselves, we can remind our students of the key messages that we have taught them to help reduce stress. These may include salient aspects of: understanding our brain; choosing wisely what thoughts to entertain and not to entertain: using our neuroplasticity positively and having a growth mindset of hard but “just” achievable goals—knowing, too, that failure helps people to learn; ideas to foster and maintain an inner calm, both physiologically and mentally; purposefully fostering social connectedness; and making regular healthy lifestyle choices, such as good nutrition, good quantity and quality of sleep, and being more active.

Having considered the significant issue of stress impeding learning, are there times when it enhances learning?

The place of fear-based learning

I asked a world-renowned neuroscientist with relevant empirical evidence and expertise about classrooms in Australia and generally around the world: Do classrooms in Australia generally have compromised learning experiences using fear-based learning, or are they optimal with thriving learning? The answer: Compromised and fear-based is by far the most common and even the best classrooms have this at times (P. Rossouw, personal communication, June 20, 2016). That is not good news! And while I encourage optimal learning experiences in schools by, for example, understanding and using strategies to reduce stress and “un-hijack” the amygdala, there are times when fear-based learning has a place. Fear may be optimal at times to achieve particular learning goals.

As an example, Aboriginal tribes in Australia have many stories. One relatively common one told to young children might be about how the child will be hurt/devoured by wild animals that target young people should they wander off outside of the camp area at night. The stories scare the young children into compliance, with great results: The children are safe and don’t get lost or injured. And they use similar ones with their own children, in due course, to keep them safe in the bush.

"Unnecessary fear-based learning abounds."
Ken Purnell
TT Author

Compromised learning environments in many classrooms involve fear: Fear of not doing well on a test, not completing homework or not completing classwork to a satisfactory standard. That may involve loss of face and sometimes physical punishment. This type of academic fear, coupled with peer-group and social media issues, can result in chronic and dysfunctional stress. Unnecessary fear-based learning abounds and is not good practice. But selected fear-based learning has its place depending upon the context, like the wild bush, the nature of the individual, the relationship to the adult (trust or not), and so on. But fear-based learning is tricky to manage effectively as the window of stress varies from individual to individual and what may work for some students can spell disaster for others. I encourage our preservice and in-service teachers doing studies in Educational Neuroscience to focus on optimal, thriving learning experiences and judiciously use fear-based ones as an exception, in the right circumstances.

So, where to from here?

Reminders

Students need to be able to experience wellness and thrive throughout and beyond school life. Neuroscience research for some years has provided evidence on the brain’s ability to negotiate the stress which impacts on students’ behaviour and learning (see, for example, Cozolino, 2014; Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2014; Willis, 2012). Such knowledge, when coupled with established neuroscientific, psychological, and educational understandings, has the potential to provide insights into ways to improve student mitigation of their stress. As teachers, we need to maximise optimal learning environments to support them in that learning of greater resilience (see Centre on the Developing Child at Harvard University, 2015). For students, learning how to use their powerhouse—their brain—to recognise mental and physiological processes that cause stress and having strategies to address distress is critical to their mental and physical health and learning.

Tailoring education about the brain for students by enhancing our teacher knowledge and skills in the area can do much to improve student achievements and wellness.

Endnote: The following references include some excellent resources that you may wish to draw upon as you perhaps tailor your own class-specific education about the brain program.

References

Professor Ken Purnell, PhD, teaches and researches in Educational Neuroscience, assessment, and classroom behaviour. Head of the Master of Educational Neuroscience at Central Queensland University in Australia, he has just on 50,000 students from around the world doing four short courses on FutureLearn in Educational Neuroscience.

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