Educators educating Educators

Jan 19

Dec 15/Jan 16 Stress

Welcome to the most wonderful time of the year, with the sounds of jingle-bells, and everyone being in “good cheer." And I’m sure that your heart is light because “from now on all your troubles will be out of sight.” Correct?

But all too often, the holiday season brings unwelcome guests — stress and depression. And it's no wonder. The holidays present a dizzying array of demands — parties, shopping, baking, cleaning, and entertaining, to name just a few. In addition, given today’s continued economic uncertainty, the holidays have the potential to create additional challenges this year. Families are cutting back, people are worrying about job security or unemployment, and seniors are concerned about their retirement.

The stress response is designed to protect us. Stressors cause our body to release excessive levels of adrenaline and cortisol, the so-called “stress hormones,” which increase your heart rate, blood pressure and rate of breathing and that, over time, can damage your health. Additionally, stress influences our rational thinking process by causing our minds to enter into a fight–or–flight cycle.

The body reacts in specific ways to stressors of any type, creating a fight-or-flight cycle that can intensify with repetition. When the brain interprets signals from the senses that indicate either physical or psychological stressors, from deep within the brain the hypothalamus sends signals to the pituitary gland, a pea-size structure at the base of the brain that pump out hormones messages into the bloodstream. Receptors on the adrenal glands, which perch atop the kidneys, receive the pituitary’s message, and in response, dump stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, throughout the body. Symptoms such as sweating, tingling hands, racing heart rate, and rapid breathing (among others) are the result of these stress hormones and are meant to prime the body to respond to the perceived stress.

Stress has an immediate and negative impact on two brain areas, the amygdala and hippocampus.

The amygdala, the brain’s emotional center of the brain, is a filter that controls the flow of information into the hippocampus and the Prefrontal cortex (PFC). It is the brain’s fire alarm or drama queen, it’s the intensity, panic, or the anger button, and is responsible for the fight-or-flight stress reaction. According to Willis, the amygdala routes information based on your emotional state. When experiencing negative emotions like fear, anxiety or even boredom, the amygdala takes up excessive amounts of the brain’s available nutrients and oxygen. This puts your brain into survival mode, which blocks entry of any new information into the PFC.

The hippocampus, the Grand Central Station of memory, is located next to the amygdala and links new sensory input to both memories of your past and knowledge already stored in your long-term memory to make memories. It is loaded with cortisol receptors that makes it particularly responsive to stress signals which directly affect its ability to learn and remember, and in extreme stress conditions, literally cause brain damage by killing hippocampal cells.

Obviously, stress can be harmful in our social worlds. But what about stressors in education? Are there stressors in education, and if so, what are they, and how do they affect a child’s education and learning?

According to Judy Willis, a board-certified neurologist combined her fifteen years as a practicing neurologist with ten subsequent years as a classroom teacher to become a leading authority in the neuroscience of learning, there is stress and frustration in the classroom. And not surprisingly, a main stress-causing culprit is the frequency used and ubiquitous method of high school instruction - lecturing.

Have you ever heard a student utter sentences such as, “I don’t understand this, and I never will,” “You’re teaching this again, and in the same way,” or “I learned this last year”? These are a typical student’s sentiments when experiencing school related stress or frustration.

Similar to a social environment, when stressed, a student’s brain will react in one of three ways: fight, flight, or freeze, according to Willis.

Willis writes that when students are in a fight mode, in an effort to escape boredom or frustration, students will attempt to create novelty for themselves or among themselves by acting out or becoming disruptive that often results in discipline problems. Becoming withdrawn is a symptom of a student in the flight state-of-mind. Finally, there is the all too common “stare-state” or “zoned out” that is an example of the freeze stress reaction.

Not only does stress affect learning, but a boring school environment creates economical and societal problems as well. In his brilliant book The Global Achievement Gap, Tony Wagner writes that it is assumed that the main reason students dropout is because they lack skills to do the work-especially reading and writing skills. But the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation discovered something extremely interesting: motivation and dropout rate go hand in hand. The foundation discovered that the main reason students dropped out of school was because the classes and material was boring and not relevant to their lives or career aspirations. More than half dropped out with just two years or less remaining to earn a high school diploma and nearly 75% said they could have graduated if they wanted to. Significantly, it turns out that will, not skill, is the single most important factor in graduating high school.

To help describe this brain behavior cycle in simplest terms, Willis separates the brain into two parts, the “reflective” and “reactive” brain regions.

Willis explains that once information enters your brain, it’s routed to one of two areas: (1) the PFC, what we might call the reflective or thinking brain, which can consciously process and reflect on information, or (2) the lower, automatic brain, what we might call the reactive brain, which reacts to information instinctively rather than through a conscious thinking process. Noteworthy, the PFC is actually only 17% of your brain; the rest makes up the reactive brain.

Below is a simplified depiction of that cycle from Willis’ web site (

Reflective/Reactive Brain


When in a calm state, the amygdala allows information to pass through to the higher, reflective brain, the PFC, that governs social control, suppresses emotional or sexual urges, allows humans to plan-ahead, create strategies, and to adjust actions or reactions in changing situations. The PFC, often referred to as the executive function center of the brain, is also responsible for the brain’s higher levels functions including conscious decision-making, judgment, analysis, planning, problem solving, organizing, and creativity.

However, when activated and in response to negative emotion such as fear or stress from boredom or frustration, the amygdala alters or blocks the flow of information to the PFC, reducing its activity and effectiveness, and instead directs the information to the lower reactive brain that then assumes control of a person’s actions.

Below are two slides from Willis’ web site that illustrate this point.




Thinking/Reactive Brain

As a side note, the amygdala is connected to the PFC but the PFC is not connected to the amygdala according to LeDoux, professor at NYU and director of the Emotional Brain Institute. For example, you can’t stop yourself from being scared. One person’s sense of fear of an alien invasion is the same sense of fear as a person who fears snakes. When the amygdala is impaired, a person’s sense of fear is correspondingly also diminished - no amygdala equals no fear.

At first, it was thought that the amygdala responded primarily to danger, fear, or anger, but neuroimaging studies has shown it also responds to positive emotional influences.

In fMRI studies conducted by Pawlak (2003), subjects are shown photographs of people with happy or grumpy expressions while in the scanner. After viewing the faces, the subjects were shown a list of words and instructed that the words would then appear mixed into a longer series of words. If they recognized a word from the initial list, they would respond with a clicker.

The results revealed better recall by subjects who viewed the happy faces, and their scans during recall had higher activity in the PFC. Those who viewed stressed faces recognized 27% less words than those who viewed happy faces. In other words, the stressed impaired subjects recognized 27% less words than the non-stressed ones.

Happy/Stressed Faces 2

The fMRI image below is a view of the brain from the feet to head. Image A shows subjects who viewed the stressed faces. As one can see, their stressed brains caused the amygdala to restrict the flow of information to the PFC resulting in little PFC activity.

Brain stressed/positive states

The subjects in the study who viewed grumpy faces showed increased metabolic activity in the amygdala, but significantly lower activity in the PFC than was exhibited by the control group when recalling the words they were instructed to remember. The study suggests that when we are in a negative emotional state, the amygdala directs input to the lower, reactive (flight-fight-freeze) brain.

When subjects viewed pleasant faces, the metabolic activity was lower in the amygdala and higher in the reflective PFC, suggesting the nonthreatening conditions favor conduction of information through the amygdala networks to the lower PFC.

The simplicity of this research and its results - viewing images, memorizing words, and then recalling the words - is eye opening. Its straightforwardness illustrates that something as simple as viewing faces stresses the brain and impairs students learning.

The holiday season is surely a time of happiness and “good tidings,” but it also can be stressful given certain elements. Similarly, the classroom can be a stressful environment for children when particular stressors are present. But surprisingly, when it comes to stress-reducing philosophies and strategies, both situations share many of the same methods that I will explore next month.

Wishing all a joyful holidays and best wishes to you and your family for a happy and peaceful 2016, and to all educators, a less stressful classroom in the New Year.


“If we can control the attention of the child, we solve the problems of education.” Maria Montessori

This month Ed Tip will examine how to improve students' learning by activating their attention.