Edutopia aggregated some of the important education research for 2016. A good site to bookmark if you want to scan their list for relevant research to read. One interesting study looks at teachers’ stress in the workplace. Nearly 50% of teachers report being “stressed” during the typical school year. As educators, it is worth understranding the research on stress in the workplace and reflecting on its significance. How we manage our stress in the classroom can shape the way a student learns to manage their emotional response to stressful situations. Clearly, some stress is useful to being a productive professional or successful student. Robert Sanders reports in his article, Researchers find out why some stress is good for you, in Berkeley News.
You always think about stress as a really bad thing, but it’s not,” said Daniela Kaufer, associate professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley. “Some amounts of stress are good to push you just to the level of optimal alertness, behavioral and cognitive performance.
More acute levels of stress help the brain remain alert to learning. Sanders shares the following quote from the Berkeley study conducted by Dr. Daniela Kaufer.
Intermittent stressful events are probably what keeps the brain more alert, and you perform better when you are alert.
From a neuroscience perspective, acute (short-lived), intermittent stressful events release hormones that help us adapt to new situations, remembering important information associated with the event. Adaptation is behavioral response that supports learning.
When stressful events become chronic the impact on learning drops off and survival becomes the main focus. The American Psychological Association reports on the difference between acute and chronic stress. They write:
When stress starts interfering with your ability to live a normal life for an extended period, it becomes even more dangerous. The longer the stress lasts, the worse it is for both your mind and body. You might feel fatigued, unable to concentrate or irritable for no good reason, for example. But chronic stress causes wear and tear on your body, too.
Chronic stress can make small challenges or obstacles hard to overcome. In these situations, we become immobilIzed because the physiological reaction diminishes our ability to learn, respond, and use information in memory to adapt. Our primary response in chronically stressful situations is to protect ourselves, the “flight or fight response.”
The Berkeley study points out that intense periods of acute stress can be harmful in some situations. For example, in post-traumatic stress disorder, patients can experience a dramatic event that leads to “permanent” neurological disruptions. Sanders shares the following quote from Kaufer’s study.
I think the ultimate message is an optimistic one, she concluded. Stress can be something that makes you better, but it is a question of how much, how long and how you interpret or perceive it.
As educators, it is our responsibility to understand the neurological impact of stressful situations on students’ school lives. How can we leverage the learning environment to produce the right balance of intermittent levels of stressful events to facilitate learning, while not contributing to longer episodes of stress that might negatively impact student learning? This is a question worth reflecting on.