How Stress Changes A Student's Brain: The Neurology Of 'Pressure'

The Neurology Of ‘Pressure’ and How Stress Changes A Student’s Brain

contributed by Judy Willis M.D., M.Ed.,

From neuroimaging and correlated neurocognitive research, we’ve seen the impact of stress on neural processing of information and behavior output.

A prominent structure in this system is the amygdala deep in the network brain’s emotionally responsive limbic system. The amygdala is a switching station through which sensory input must pass to reach the prefrontal cortex (PFC) where long-term memory is constructed.

When stress is high, increased metabolic activity in the amygdala limits flow to and from the PFC. To process knowledge with the guidance of executive functions, input must reach and output must be able to flow from the PFC to the lower brain.

Stress cuts off students’ access to these networks of higher-order thinking, logic, creative problem solving, and analytical judgment. When there is loss of higher brain control, the lower, reactive brain’s involuntary outputs are in charge. The resulting behaviors are limited to the equivalent of fight/flight/freeze reactions. The student also cannot use the resources of executive functions to understand, evaluate, or apply new learning.

See also The Neuroscience Of Learning: 41 Terms Every Teacher Should Know

The New Group of High-Risk Students

We’ve seen students’ responses to sustained or frequent frustration or boredom increasing as school has become less engaging and relevant. The students who were able to persevere and succeed in that setting by following rules, procedures, and retrieving the right answer to questions are now at risk for the stress response as the rules of school shift.

As educators have been anticipating the requisite 21st-century skill sets, there is more clear interpretation of information and novel problems for which students must apply what they learned in new ways. These teachers have been describing a disturbing response by some students to these more open-ended test questions for which memorization of rote facts is inadequate preparation.

These students who had previously been high achievers, when tested with single-response questions, are showing fight/flight/freeze stress responses.

For these students, who had obediently and very powerfully memorized all the information they were given, the loss of predictable test questions linked to their matched answers is unfair. They had been highly successful at memorization, but have not developed the conceptual understanding or cognitive flexibility needed to respond to these unpredictable questions.

Their teachers describe profound emotional reactions including anger, hostility, retribution (such as false accusations of teacher misconduct) and more subtle but equally disturbing changes of withdrawal of participation and effort, depression, and more absences from sick days.

There is no research available about the absolute cause or extent of this phenomenon. Perhaps the responses are so profound and unexpected that these stories are getting disproportionate attention. Nevertheless, it serves all students if we consider how the changes in information acquisition and application can be introduced in ways to make the transition less stressful to students.

Using the Way The Brain Reacts to Stimuli

Knowing what to expect and what possible unexpected responses could manifest in your students will help you prepare for the unpredictable. The building of executive functions and development of concept knowledge means less directed, one-solution instruction and certainty. This shifts greater responsibilities to students in the learning process calling on their executive functions for evaluation, estimation, prediction, and interpretation.

After years of passivity and limited responsibility for communicating opinions and defending solutions, students will need to formulate ideas, express them clearly, and defend opinions or solutions with logical and often subjective reasoning. Making mistakes and benefiting from corrective feedback will be part of any successful learning routine rather than an indication of failure.

It will take effort to help students adapt to that mindset.

When memories are constructed by rote repetition in response to specific stimuli, they can become strong from the neuroplastic response to repeated activation. However, when memories are built in response to specific drills and linked to specific prompts, they are only retrieved in response to those stimuli. These isolated memory circuits that have not been activated for other applications are not available to solve unfamiliar problems or interpret new information.

This will be new and frightening territory for many students. Even students who seem comfortable when you first introduce these new challenges early in the year can hit the wall as the term progresses as content and assessment have more uncomfortable uncertainty and require greater application of their executive function.

Early Warning Signs

If the easy memorizers have been praised for grades and built their identity around that measure of success, they will hesitate to reveal difficulties by asking for help. They have been so comfortable parroting back single answers that the freeze reaction could when there is uncertainty and the need to interpret.

Watch for unusual behaviors such as not doing homework, acting out in class, angry outbursts about test questions not pulled directly from class notes or text, reduced class participation, or increased absenteeism. An ideal first response on the part of educators is new instructional or assessment characteristics that parallel the macro objectives of the CCSS.

Also, take time to explain that they will be building a new set of skills and you will be coaching them for success and not judging them for making mistakes. Share your own experiences with change and strategies for success.

Most convincing and reassuring of all will be for students realize that these executive functions that are now front and center have been getting stronger and more effective throughout their development, a pattern which will only continue as they develop them through new approaches to learning.

In an upcoming post, I’ll describe experiences common to most students that have involved their successful application of executive functions. From that awareness, your students will have the insight and perspective to resist becoming stressed, keeping the neural passages flowing to and from their critical executive functions.