Stress and its affect on school performance

By Mich Robb


In a recent article by Clancy Blair in Scientific American Mind* he highlights the effect that stress can have on learning.  While this is true for any age, it is particularly true for younger children and adolescents.  There is considerable evidence saying that our brains keep on developing into our early 20s, which makes young people even more vulnerable to the effects of stress.

Without going into too much neurochemistry, stress hormones influence connections in the parts of our brains that are responsible for "executive functioning"- all the parts responsible for reasoning, planning, and problem solving.  Learning is all about reasoning, planning, and problem solving, and if these functions are not performing optimally, learning is inhibited.

The effect of stress depends on how much stress we are feeling.  A little stress can often enhance performance, but if it goes beyond a certain level and there is too much stress then executive functioning is reduced and even shut down at extreme stress levels.

Blair conducted research asking children to perform a task involving both memory and control, and they measured levels of a stress hormone (cortisol) by taking a sample of saliva at the beginning, middle, and end of the experiment.  They found that the children who performed the best were the ones that had low cortisol levels (low stress) at the beginning of the experiment.  Their levels then rose during the experiment (in response to the mild stress) and then dropped to a baseline level after the completion of the task.  The children who did the worst at the task were the ones who started with a high level of cortisol (were already stressed) and their levels either stayed high or in some cases dropped in response to a shutting down of the process. These children experienced heightened stress levels and their executive functioning was diminished as a result.  They were also seen to be more aggressive and lacking in self control by their teachers.  Blair also mentions research by Daniel Berry who found that cortisol levels are an accurate predictor of academic success.

Stress is a very difficult thing to define, but for our purposes we can say that it occurs in any situation which exceeds a person's natural capacity to resolve the issue. That means that stress is a highly individual thing.  Given the same stressful situation, each individual would experience their stress both uniquely and at different levels.

If stress is contingent on an individual's capacity to resolve the stressor, then it would be fair to say that parents and educators have a key role to play developing that capacity in their children.  All very well, but stressed parents and stressed teachers are also victims of executive function breakdown.

Blair's research suggests that stressed parents and teachers are more likely to demand obedience through discipline rather than encourage exploration and learning by doing.  Through the latter more supportive interaction – known as scaffolding, children are encouraged to learn and explore in a supportive environment, and are encouraged to develop and "own" their successes and consequently their capacity to deal with stressors.

The unfortunate reality however, is that there are still many children and adult caregivers who are stressed at levels which are detrimental to their overall functioning. So, knowing that too much stress has a detrimental effect on learning and academic performance is certainly important to start off with, but we also need to know who is stressed, why they are stressed and then we need to be able to provide them with solutions and coping mechanisms to help them reduce their stress levels.

If you are concerned about your stress levels or your child's stress levels and you want to speak to someone please contact MWELL.

* Blair, C. Treating a Toxin to Learning,  Scientific American Mind, Sept/Oct 2012   

Image: David Castillo Dominici -