Monday #5: This Is Your Brain On Stress

At this very moment, administrators in my children’s high school are trying to do some damage control in an attempt to clarify a rumor that has begun circulating among students and parents that the popular “block scheduling” is about to be abolished in the interest of improving test scores. Block scheduling separates the normal 8-course high school schedule into two semesters of four blocks, resulting in a student only taking four classes at a time, each semester. The state, however, has a testing schedule that doesn’t always align with a student’s courses that would be pertinent to the test date. So, if a student had math first semester, for instance, and wasn’t tested until the end of the school year before summer vacation, the math course wouldn’t be fresh in the student’s mind and could, perhaps, lower the test scores. Since our school is large, with over 3,2oo students, block scheduling could never be abolished for the 8-course day because it would require additional passing time that would take away from instructional time. It could be abolished, however, for an A-day/B-day schedule which, in my opinion is virtually the same as having the 8-course day with regard to workload, homework and course testing. The administrative response is cloaked in edu-speak but try to tell me that the the “optimal learning environment” isn’t all about how to get those scores up.

We are looking at our current schedule because we feel strongly that we should always be prepared to review our practices, ensure that they meet the needs of our students, and create an optimal learning environment. We also must consider the effect of new state assessments, which will be required of students in the 2014-15 school year. Specifically, the State is considering giving student assessments on a regular schedule, for example every 6 weeks. Students in our current model of block scheduling would have to take these assessments on a schedule that did not conform to our current blocks. This would certainly not be in the best interest of our students.

This year I have a junior and his life is kind of all about what he’s going to do with it but, the truth is that he’s only sixteen years old and the pressure on these kids to know their future seems unrealistic and, frankly, stressful. I, for one, was never really in that kind of mental space until my sophomore year of college and, like many parents out there, I’m concerned about the levels of stress that our young people must shoulder in the interest of all these test scores that they truly fear are determining their futures (Read my post from last year on the film that addresses this topic, Race To Nowhere). But, for the most part, my kids endure much less stress than so many children in our country who live in poverty, who live in neighborhoods with drug and crime problems or who witness violence on a daily basis–often in their own homes. More about them later.

For the past couple of weeks I have been thinking and writing about current brain science that looks at what frustration, anger and stress can do on a molecular level inside our bodies and, today, I’m thinking about how stress affects children and how they learn–or don’t learn–what they need to know to move forward in this world. Last week, Ira Glass from This American Life, talked with people involved in the study of brain science and education and this hour-long segment that is now available to everyone online should be required listening for anyone who cares even a little bit about our nation’s education system. Parents, teachers, administrators, students, concerned citizens… anyone.


Act One includes a conversation with an economist named James Heckman who looks at stunning results from years of tracking GED students. Long hailed as a graduation equivalency evaluation, the GED gives high school drop outs the opportunity to achieve “graduation” without actually doing high school. States have long perpetuated the notion that passing and “equivalent” GED test scores put these students on equal footing as they move toward post-graduation endeavors. Heckman, as an economist, wondered why anyone would waste the time and effort of attending four years of high school if this were actually true? I mean, seriously, think about that. But, of course, it isn’t really true. What he found was that GED students overwhelmingly drop out of every aspect of their lives: college, jobs and even marriage.

So, the real question becomes how do we keep these kids in school and ensure that they are actually leaving with some hope of going on to the next stage effectively? Or, maybe, the real question becomes why are these kids checking out of school in the first place? Where does everything go wrong? How is it that so many poor kids do so poorly in school–in what has become known as the “achievement gap,”– and what are we going to do about it? If you’ve spent even one millisecond in a conversation about education you will know that the finger-pointing begins right about here. I’ve never proposed to have had the solution, and I certainly don’t now, but I’ve been perpetually intrigued by this topic all of my adult life and it only continues to intrigue me as it heats up and up each year.

Enter Dr. Nadine Burke Harris. In 2007 she set up a clinic for children in a low income part of California. Her idea was to work on health issues that plagued these children such as asthma, obesity and immunization requirements. What she found was that so many of these kids had serious issues that were actually associated with trauma and that their levels of stress had actually begun to change their brains in a measurable way that could prove these kids weren’t receiving academic material, indeed couldn’t receive it, in the ways that other kids without traumatic experiences could. Last week, I talked about the “fight or flight” response in our brains that explodes in the amygdala, releases stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol and shuts down the executive part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex.

In a conversation with Ira Glass she explains it simply: If you were in the woods and encountered a bear, your body’s fight or flight response would be exactly what you needed to have a chance to survive. Adrenaline and cortisol would allow you to run away fast, and the shutting down of your prefrontal cortex would allow your brain to suppress executive decisions that might thwart the amygdala’s urge to fight or escape. Once you got away, your stress response would subside and your executive function would return. If you are a child who lives in a crime filled neighborhood, the “bear” that you encounter might be the one who comes home drunk every day, and your body is in a constant state of fight or flight. Your amygdala overrides your prefrontal cortex (which is necessary for learning) on a daily basis and the flood of cortisol in your system is happening all the time. Brain scans prove that children in low income neighborhoods who live with crime and abuse don’t have the same ability to learn as kids in other setting because their brains have actually changed on a cellular level.

Paul Tough, author of the new book, How Children Succeed, links the increase of stress and anxiety to the diminishing of non-cognitive skills, things like tenacity, resilience, impulse control and “grit,” which, in turn, lessen the ability to obtain the cognitive skills that are traditionally linked to test scores and success in school. The children that Dr. Burke studied had sacrificed their cognitive skills because their environments didn’t promote their non-cognitive skills. On some level cognitive skills are largely static, but non-cognitive skills can be taught and acquired. If a kid who lives in a stressful environment can get access to people and places that provide opportunities to receive non-cognitive skills, they will be much more prepared to obtain the cognitive skills necessary to do well in school and in life.

It takes a proverbial village to raise our children and there are many places where kids have to look far and wide to get the kind of support that we are just beginning to understand can actually affect their brain development. It can start with something as simple as having a conversation with a kid about what their day was like, what they experienced or what their dreams are. What I think is really important is that those who care about what happens to kids and education continue to try to understand that success in education will take so much more than additional assessment and that, often, it is this very tool that can further raise stress levels in the very kids we aim to help, thereby undermining our very objectives in a very biological way with new scientific data to prove it.

TRY THIS WEEK: Ask a kid what they think about something.

About Dar Hosta James

I am an artist living in New Jersey. I write and illustrate children's books, paint, draw, blog, coach, teach and speak about creativity.
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1 Response to Monday #5: This Is Your Brain On Stress

  1. Corinne Loomer says:

    Very interesting. Something for me to think about and discuss with the teachers that our friends of mine.

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