Is Your Child Showing Signs of Stress?

Does your student suffer from fear, nervousness or generalized anxiety? Today, more and more children are exhibiting considerable signs of stress, particularly with respect to education.

For many children, this higher level of stress seems to be directly interfering with their ability to learn. In addition, children predisposed to conditions like ADD or ADHD are especially susceptible to the effects of stress. These children are twice as likely to abuse alcohol and drugs and four times likely to get in trouble with law enforcement.

Of even greater concern is that these higher levels of stress seem to be occurring at earlier and earlier ages. Many children as young as 5 or 6 years old are exhibiting the effects of higher levels of stress. Under the “No Child Left Behind Act” and the mistaken belief that learning earlier is better, more children are being forced to accept greater academic responsibilities, even as early as 3 and 4 years old.

Many members of the American Pediatrics Association have subsequently spoken out against the “No Child Left Behind Act” because of the physical and emotional toll it seems to be taking on many or our children.

So what is the impact of all this stress on our children and on the learning process? The fact is, people think differently when under stress. When our Fight or flight response is triggered, our heart rate and breathing increase and digestion slows. Our adrenal glands release epinephrine. Our pupils dilate to let in more light and blood flow to our muscles increases by as much as 1200%.

We become more alert to our environment. Our sympathetic nervous system is activated and our brain goes into a very reactive “problem-solving mode.” When a child (or adult) is in this reactive problem-solving mode, his ability to store, process and recall information can be considerably reduced. His ability to respond thoughtfully with reason and logic may also be impaired. He may have difficulty focusing or paying attention in class.

While this alert, reactive mode may be appropriate to activities such as snow-boarding, skate-boarding or playing video games, studies show it does not serve a child well in the classroom.

Sometimes the child or adult develops a negative attitude towards school and learning. This can occur when a child perceives that school and learning are becoming more and more difficult. He knows he’s intelligent and can’t understand why the skills he has relied upon for so long are no longer effective. As his struggles with learning increase, his frustration grows. Stress levels increase. His confidence and self-esteem begin to suffer.

In contrast to the fight-or-flight problem-solving mode, when we are relaxed, our pupils constrict and our heart rate slows. The diameter of bronchial tubes contract when the need for oxygen has diminished. The parasympathetic nervous system stimulates salivary gland secretion, and mediates digestion of food and the absorption of nutrients. Our minds take on a more relaxed posture.

In this “learning mode,” a child is more able to effectively process, store and recall information. When a child (or adult) is free of stress, his ability to thoughtfully respond to situations increases significantly.

So what can we do to help our children overcome stress? The first thing we can do to help our children learn effectively is to teach them to recognize stress and understand its effect on learning. This can usually be accomplished by helping them find contrasting experiences in their own lives:

1) a specific event when they were stressed or anxious and learning or recalling information was difficult and tedious; and

2) a specific event when they were relaxed and focused and learning was easy and fun.

Next, they need the tools to reduce their level of stress when needed. They need to learn how to switch from the fight-or-flight, “problem-solving mode” to the relaxed and focused “learning mode’.

This can often be accomplished by practicing a simple breathing and focusing exercise. They begin by completely focusing their eyes on one spot. While visually focusing on the spot, they become aware of their breathing. As they slowly breathe in and out, they continue to focus on the spot for one minute. Many children can effect a significant improvement in learning by practicing this simple exercise.

At centers like the Neuro-Linguistic Learning Center in El Dorado Hills, children and adults are taught to use a variety of tools to help them reduce stress and increase their focus. Once stress is reduced or overcome, they can now utilize appropriate strategies for storing, processing and recalling information.

These leaning strategies allow children and adults to take information from a variety of sources (auditory, visual or written) and to process that information in a way that is appropriate to their individual learning style. The net effect is that study time can actually be reduced while retention and recall are effectively increased.

Typically, this training takes place over several weeks so that the child can absorb and apply his new skills. One side effect of this type of training is that as the child’s abilities grow, his confidence returns and self-esteem increases.

An often repeated comment by children and adults attending the Neuro-Linguistic Learning Center is that, “We take the stress out of learning.” For more information on stress-reduction workshops and learning programs, visit

By Gerald Hughes, CHt