This first Back to School post is going to focus on academic stress. The following article does a really good job of explaining how stress impacts a student's ability to learn. The child then falls behind in their classes, which leads to more stress. It's a vicious, and unfortunately all-too-common, cycle. The main point in this article talks about the issue of increased stress leading to reduced working memory capacity. Working memory, as outlined in the article, is the basis for any kind of learning. No one completely understands how memory works, but the assumption is that information enters the brain and moves into the working memory where it is rehearsed, practiced, recycled (no one really knows what exactly goes on in there, but these are the assumptions) before it is able to move into long-term memory for storage. In addition to long-term memory, working memory is involved with problem solving and reasoning. In a nutshell-it is quite difficult learn without it. And stress gets in its way.
This appears to be especially true if your child utilizes their working memory more. Having a high working memory is a good thing-it increases your capacity for learning. But those who rely heavily on their working memory, are impacted even more when they are faced with stressful situations. In other words, smart kids who greatly utilize their working memory will have more trouble performing up to their ability when they are faced with too much stress.
So what can be done about this? Reduce your child's stress level. Of course! Duh! Why didn't I think of that?!?! Any parent knows that this is much easier said than done. After all, we can't change the state regulations for academic performance. We can't change the amount of work that your child is required to do in school. But we can change a few things. Focus on the things that you actually have control over. The article makes one helpful suggestion. The expressive writing exercise that was done in the classroom can certainly be replicated at home. And it doesn't have to be a writing assignment-it can also be a discussion at the dinner table or on a Saturday afternoon. Helping your child identify how they feel about stress is the first step to helping them reduce it. Mindfulness training, yoga, deep breathing-there are lots of other ways to help children alleviate and combat stress. Take some time to learn what might be helpful for your child-regardless of their current stress level. In the future, when they do encounter stressful situations, they will have the tools to deal with it before it becomes a problem.
While this article does a great job of explaining how stress affects one's ability to learn, it does also have a lot of jargon and technical writing. Feel free to ignore that stuff. The take-home message involves stress and its negative impact on allowing kids to learn. While some stress is a positive thing, too often we heap extraordinary amounts of stress on kids and then expect them to be able to perform. Not only perform, but achieve at an extremely high level-a level that may or may not be more than they are capable of. It is important-very important-to have high expectations of students. Having low expectations of students is highly correlated with low academic performance. But these expectations should be reasonable and not cause an exorbitant amount of stress for the student. Because ultimately, few things will make it harder to learn than stress levels that are too high.
So enjoy the article and feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments, tweet me @fpschDrSweeney or contact me directly. I look forward to hearing from you. Remember to check back tomorrow for more blogs about Back to School. I hope you enjoy the series!