Stressed Brains Don’t Learn

The pandemic has challenged educators and students in ways that we didn’t know were possible before COVID-19. We have witnessed the vast inequities that still exist in our schools and communities, which disproportionately impact Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) students and their families. In response, educators have increasingly turned to Social Emotional Learning (SEL) to support students as they grieve from losing and being isolated from loved ones, having limited relationships with peers, and increasingly losing a sense of control and normalcy in their everyday lives.

Educators who center their instructional work in equitable SEL principles and practices know that emotions impact learning. If you are interested in learning more about this important topic, pre-order my new book, Teaching with the HEART in Mind, and claim the first chapter here. It is free for a limited time.

“Emotions drive our attention and influence our ability to process information and understand what we encounter in and outside of the classroom. Emotions can help us focus, but they can also distract us from our goals.”

You have probably noticed that even students who were eager to engage in class activities before, may have a harder time participating in classroom discussions or turning in work. You may also see students (over)reacting to situations that didn’t bother or affect them in the past.  This is normal, and to be expected given the levels of stress that students are currently experiencing, no matter if they are physically in schools or doing virtual learning.

“When students experience trauma or recurrent stress at a young age as a result of their living situation and/or the impact of generational issues such as racism, oppression, or inequality, their nervous system and their abilities to regulate emotions are impacted.”

A significant increase in the stress levels amongst students indicates that their brains are frequently responding to everyday events with a fight-flight-freeze response. When children (and adults too) experience stress responses frequently, they don’t go back to a normal (calm) state as easily—they become more likely to act reactively and feel overwhelmed. Although we wish for our students to be “ready for learning” when they enter our classroom or the zoom meeting, the truth is that stressed brains cannot learn. When you take the time to check-in with your students and create a space for them to share and learn about their feelings, you are planting the seeds for better self-regulation and deeper self-awareness which prepare the brain for learning.

In addition, we are conditioned to believe that painful feelings—such as feeling anxious, lonely, depressed, defeated or stressed—are “bad” and pleasurable ones—such as feeling happy, excited, loved, valued or energized—are “good.” For many of us, it’s easier to avoid or neglect those painful feelings, even if they provide important information about our internal weather.

Think about it this way: if it’s raining outside, you take a raincoat or an umbrella to avoid getting wet. You check the weather and then take action accordingly, right? So then, why do we ignore our internal weather and try to “push through” even when there may be a snow storm inside?

“SEL means developing our capacity to accept and embrace all emotions, including the unpleasant ones, so that we can learn tools to process and interpret these feelings and experience a more enduring sense of happiness.”

In Teaching with the HEART in Mind I explore in depth how emotions impact learning, so educators can not only create space for students to share their feelings, but also integrate emotions in how and what they teach. For practical tips to incorporate emotions in the classroom, pre-order the book now and claim the first chapter here. I can’t wait for you to read it and hear how you are implementing SEL in your class and school.

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