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How Stress Affects Learning

Even if you have a well-managed family schedule, your homeschooled student may still feel stressed.

Imagine yourself in this situation. You begin to tackle the backlog of dishes and laundry and promptly discover that you have no hot water. While you are trying to get a technician on the phone, your two older children begin to squabble, the doorbell rings, and the baby decides to get his own lunch– from the cat’s dish. Do you feel your blood pressure rising and the adrenaline begin to course through your veins? Your body is responding to stress, preparing you to meet the challenge of the situation at hand.

Stress Affects Learning

It is no secret that stress has become a defining characteristic of life in 21st-century America. It is also no secret that scientists have found important links between chronic stress and medical conditions such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and asthma. However, it is not as commonly known that stress also affects learning. Therefore, it is important that homeschooling parents be able to identify and minimize stress in the lives of their children, not only to promote good physical and mental health but also to maximize educational achievement.

Stress and the Brain

Neuroscientists have discovered that learning takes place as three parts of the brain interact:

1) The Amygdala

The amygdala which responds to emotion.

2) The Hippocampus

The hippocampus moves experiences to long-term memory.

3) The Cerebral Cortex

The cerebral cortex is where information is stored.

Ideal Learning Experience

In the ideal learning experience, the student feels confident and engaged. The pleasant atmosphere and novelty of the material relaxes the amygdala and allows the hippocampus to begin transmitting the new information to the cerebral cortex.

In a stressful situation, however, brain function radically changes. The amygdala becomes over-stimulated and blocks access to the hippocampus; in addition, cortisol (a hormone released when a person is under stress) attaches itself to the hippocampus, preventing it from functioning. Thus, the information can’t get to the cerebral cortex for long-term storage.

If you think back to a particularly stressful situation in your own life, you probably can recall the feeling of not being able to think clearly and not knowing what to do—the result of the amygdala overreacting and the hippocampus being repressed. (Source)

Sources of Stress

So what are some sources of stress that a homeschooled student might face?

Obviously, any major life issues that affect the family can cause stress—a move, illness, death, even the arrival of a new baby. Some families try to push through challenging times and continue homeschooling to maintain a sense of normalcy; however, it’s important to gauge how the issue is affecting the student. If it is obvious that the child is experiencing stress as a result of the upheaval in the family, it might be wiser to follow a lighter schedule until the child has begun to adjust to the change.

Other stressors, however, may not be so easy to identify. One that creeps insidiously into many homes is overscheduling. Children are rushed through their studies so that they can be on time for music lessons, sports, field trips, co-ops, library programs, youth group, scouts, 4H, or any of the many other activities that compete for a family’s time. Hurry creates stress. It’s difficult for a child to learn effectively when he’s told, “You have ten minutes before we have to leave—memorize this list of spelling words!” If you find that many of your lessons are being conducted in the car, overscheduling might be a stressor for your family.

Even if you have a well-managed family schedule, your homeschooled student may still feel stressed. A common area in which this can occur is in the choice of the curriculum. I discovered this in my own homeschooling career when I found that the reading program that had worked so well for my older two children (visual learners) frustrated and confused my third (an auditory learner). Not only is it important to select the right curriculum for each child, it is also important to make sure the material presents the appropriate level of challenge. Obviously, content that is too difficult will create anxiety, but material that is too easy will also create stress. (If you don’t believe this is true, spend 5 minutes doing nothing but tapping a pencil on a table. The mind-numbing tedium will drive you to distraction!) (Source)

It is easy for homeschooling parents to create unintentional stress in their children simply by the way that they teach. Do you insist that your child sit at a table to complete his work? Some children are more relaxed when they can sit on a sofa or on the floor. Must your students work nonstop for a given amount of time? Perhaps scheduling shorter periods of instruction with more breaks would be less stressful. Do you require your child to complete a certain number of pages or problems each day? Your student might need a slower pace. Does every spelling unit end with a graded test? Some students find testing stressful and may be able to show you what they know in another way. Utilize the flexibility inherent in homeschooling to make your student’s experience as pleasant and comfortable as possible.

Stress-Minimizing Tips

All this being said, there are just some times when stress is unavoidable. There’s not much you can do when the baby is teething or construction is taking place on the street in front of your house.

When stress is rearing its head during your homeschooling day, try some proven techniques to minimize it. Regularly build time into your family schedule for exercise and just plain “down time,” where everyone can rest, relax, and refresh themselves. Soothing music can reduce stress, as can good old-fashioned laughter. Train your family to look on the funny side of life, choosing to chuckle rather than cry over the spilled milk. Being aware of the detrimental effects of stress and doing your best to relieve it can help you build a home environment that is positive, healthy, and conducive to learning.

About Jean Soyke

Jean Soyke is a certified elementary educator with specialties in math and curriculum development. She taught in both public and private schools before homeschooling her four children, grades K-12.

One thought on “How Stress Affects Learning

  1. Karen

    Thanks for your article on how stress can effect learning. It was encouraging to learn this and it explains a lot about our last year. We had a house fire last year which then required us to move to temporary accommodation for 10 months now while rebuilding our home. I have seen all sorts of interesting behaviour from my children but this helps to explain how much the stress has impacted all of us. Blessings to you!!


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