The Stress Response and Learning

Stress Response and Learning

The Stress response affects all of us.  As we have evolved throughout the millions of years we have been around it has been essential to our survival. Now, however maybe it is not as useful as it once was.  And how does it affect our learning and development growing up and in schools.

 Why do we get Stressed?

A simple way to look at the stress response is when thinking about the fight/flight response that we share will many living creatures.  I will often explain this response to children who maybe feeling anxious about being in class, a teacher, performing in school etc.

Let’s think about Tom and Jerry and the fight/flight response.

Fight –  A mouse is cornered by a cat, with nowhere to run it is forced to do something, fight in order to escape and survive.


Flight – A mouse is being tracked down by a cat.  It notices an escape route and makes a quick dash for the nearest mouse hole.


These responses stimulate the oldest part of the brain known as the reptilian brain.  Hormones such as cortisol (known as the stress hormone) flood the body. This allows the body to use as much energy as possible in a short space of time to fight or flight.  Our heart rate increases and the body is ready for action.

Ever heard of miraculous stories of mothers performing and outrage feat of strength in the order to save their children – this is no doubt due to this fight-flight response system that we have evolutionary produced.  It’s perfectly designed for if you are in any kind of serious danger.

Is it Still Useful?

For other parts of everyday life that the 21st century person is accustomed to it’s not so perfect.  And for children, education and learning it is important that we are not only aware of this, but that we teach children what is happening to their bodies.

Just remember what school can be like for children. Weekly times table tests, picking teams in the playground, presentations, putting your hand up, separating from caregiver etc. These are just some of the events likely to induce a small stress response in children.

And what about learning.  Some kids may experience this stress response throughout school far more often than others.  Some may experience it more in a particular subject, or be more susceptible to experiencing it in a particular subject.  Most teachers may experience the stress response throughout the school day and it definitely feels that stress levels can be quite high in a school environment.  Even though this response is far more subtle, it still has an effect.  And this can be cumulative.

How important is it to understand, be aware, deal and nurture children through this response?

Awareness and understanding of this response can help many children achieve mastery over their subject level as they work out what is happening in their bodies.  In my experience quite often these responses can be built up in certain subjects, or in school in general overtime.  It is pretty hard to focus, remember facts etc. when our body is being flooded by this response?

Take your child through this evolutionary response.  Show them how useful it has been for animals in the wild.  Watch some videos, share some stories where you may have experienced this response yourself.  What did you do? How did you react? Can they think of anytime in their life where they may have had this type of response.  This could help to get them to start exploring the response within them more rationally.

In terms of school and learning, maybe this is particularly noticeable for a child in their weekly spelling or times table test.  Are they reluctant to go into school that day.  Maybe they know that this stress response is coming and are looking for ways to avoid it.

How can we explore ways to cope with this response?

A great way that I have found that regulates the body both in myself and when working with other children is through, relaxing, breathing or as many children work through their problems playing.

Even talking about the event could see them shut down. So try talking to them over a playful activity like catch where the body is naturally using up some of this extra energy.  Get creative.  Try puppets and games.  Maybe make up a story about a child that got stressed in school and ask them what they think may be going on for that child.  Quite often children will relate what they have experienced themselves to this character and you might find out something about them and what they are experiencing.

These activities could help your child to understand more about what could be going on in their bodies as they react to different situations.  It might not be that they are bad at a particular subject, or a weekly spelling test.  It may be that the stress response is hampering them from being there usual childlike, creative, enthusiastic self that has helped them learn so many things already in the first stages of their life.