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Stress and learning

I am sort of a “learning research junkie”—I’ll read pretty much anything about all the new research into how our brains learn—and don’t learn. When I was working on my book, my publisher sent me pretty much any book that they thought might be of interest to my audience. I read all of them. I don’t expect other people to have the time or interest to read them all, but I do think that all parents—especially homeschooling parents—should be aware of some of the most important aspects of how the brain learns. (I’ll suggest some resources at the end of this piece.)

It’s important to understand how brains do learn if you want to recognize a situation in which your child can’t learn. First of all, brains are bundles of connections. When we’re very small, our brains suck in everything we experience and set up a scaffolding that everything they learn later is built on. This is why they say that the first few years are so critical.

Our brains are very badly engineered to learn isolated facts. In fact, most people can only remember a string of random words up to about 7 words long. People who make a hobby out of entering memory competitions learn to memorize unconnected pieces of information by connecting them with things already in their memory (see my recommendation for Moonwalking with Einstein below). The result is that no matter what else is learned about how we learn, the most important aspect of learning is connections.

The second thing to realize is how interconnected the different parts of our brains are. We tend to compartmentalize the brain when we describe it: “this is the part where we feel emotion” and “this is the part where we use logic.” This implies a separation more definitive than is really the case. Researchers have scores of examples of people who have overcome losing an area of their brain due to disease or injury and rewiring other areas of the brain to do what the lost area used to do.

Also, and more importantly, everything you try to do with your brain is affected by the other parts of your brain. So we might try to assert that kids should be able to learn when they are physically or emotionally uncomfortable, because those things “don’t have anything to do with learning.” But in fact, they have everything to do with learning.

I read an excellent article by Judy Willis (author of Inspiring Middle School Minds) on the challenges faced by twice-exceptional learners. But whether or not your child is 2e, Willis offers some important information about stress and its effect on the learning brain. (The full article can be found in this month’s Gifted Education Communicator, which is by subscription only.)

When your child is learning, all input is first filtered through the amygdala, which is in the emotional response center of the brain. Wait: an algebra problem goes through the emotional response center first? Yes: algebra, the color of the water in a pool, the sound of you asking your child to come out of her room, the history of the late Roman Empire, and instructions for when to take out the garbage all get filtered through your child’s emotional center first.

When your child is relaxed and happy, here’s what happens next:

In the absence of high stress, fear, or perceived threat, the amygdala directs incoming information to the prefrontal cortex (PFC). There the information is further evaluated by the brain’s high-order thinking networks as to meaning and relationships to stored memories of previous experiences.

In other words, the information comes into your child’s brain and is connected within existing connections, where it can become part of permanent memory.

But what about when your child is upset and stressed out by what you’re trying to work on? When the amygdala senses stress, it sends all information—no matter what it is—directly into the flight-or-fight center of our brain instead of the areas of the brain that process meaning. According to Willis:

Unfortunately, the human amygdala cannot distinguish between real or imagined threats. Whenever the amygdala is highly activated by negative emotions, it sends incoming information to the lower, involuntary, quick-response brain, where the behavioral reactions are limited to the primitive fight/flight/freeze survival mechanisms. (Gifted Education Communicator, Winter 2012)

I think it’s pretty obvious what this means regarding stress and learning: When you are stressed out, it’s like trying to do a handstand in a straitjacket. You might seem like you’re learning, but the information that’s going in is hitting a wall.

This of course has huge implications for educational policy: no wonder kids in rough neighborhoods aren’t doing well in school. It won’t help to dock the teachers’ pay, fire all the staff, and make stiffer rules. Their friends are getting shot, their parents are AWOL, and their siblings are running with a bad crowd. How do you expect a brain to take in algebra in that situation?

For homeschoolers, the implications are a bit different: We have actual choices each day in what to do. We are not teachers who have to follow a protocol.

I know so many homeschoolers—and I include myself here as well—who forget that we can back off and choose a different way anytime we need to. If math is stressful for your child this week, skip it. If it takes a month before you sense willingness to try again, let that month happen. Watch silly videos about math instead of trying to do problems. Let your child dictate all the math while you write on a whiteboard. Do math while your child is on a swing. Chop your learning times into 15-minute energy windows.

If your child hates to write, don’t force her to write book reports. Dictate silly stories about her darkling beetle. Write limericks. Read, read, read, and read some more. Talk about everything. Ask questions. Answer questions. Take my advice about teaching writing. Take Patricia Zaballos’s advice about teaching writing. But whatever you do, remember that if writing causes your child stress, good writing will not happen.

The beauty of homeschooling is flexibility. In times of homeschooling stress, I hope we all remember that there is always another path to get where we are going. Like water going down a hillside, sometimes the easiest path is the best one to take.


  • This book is specific to gifted middle schoolers, but I think its message is applicable to all kids in that age range: Inspiring Middle School Minds by Judy Willis. Willis’s website has further articles: Check out her Parent Tips.
  • Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer: Foer explores memory, and destroys the illusion that some people are exceptionally “smart” because of their prodigious memories. As you read, you will really come to understand why “linked” memories are so important to your child’s learning.
  • KidLab: I heard Dr. Kalbfleisch speak at NAGC and was impressed with both the depth and breadth of her knowledge and also her ability to talk to an audience of non-scientists. The site has links to articles and interviews.
  • The Eide Neurolearning Blog is full of great ideas about learning.
  • Find more links on my Gifted Links page.

Posted in Education, Homeschooling, Psychology.

7 Responses

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  1. Suki says

    Here’s an article related to this that came out on the New York Times. Very interesting reading:

  2. jenn gress says

    great article, suki! thank you. it actually tells me a lot about myself too! i have so much more to learn and often wonder why some of the things i learn don’t stick. i must have been stressed while trying to learn them (which is common). super helpful to read this! and that article from the NY Times was fascinating as well…thanks for linking that too. xo

  3. Christine@TheAums says

    This makes complete sense to me. At least for myself, I am in a stressed state more often than not (although I’m working on that all the time) and I absolutely know when there’s no point in trying to make something sink in, namely whatever my husband is trying to teach/show me. He gets frustrated even though I think I’m doing him a great favor by letting him know clearly what my brain can handle. I usually circle back to him when I’m calmer and more receptive to learning something. Thanks for the resources- you are one of my reading and writing heroes, meaning I wish I could read and write as much as you.

  4. Suki says

    Christine – Your kids are still small. It’s amazing how much your options open up as they get bigger and they stop needing your full attention all the time. And then they get bigger and they don’t want ANY of your attention! So enjoy the nurturing process now and know that it will get better.

  5. Suki says

    I just saw a pointer to another article that Willis wrote that is available freely on the web, here:

  6. Suki says

    More from the article linked above:
    “The acronym RAD can remind educators of three important neuroscience concepts to consider when preparing lessons:
    Novelty promotes information transmission through the Reticular activating system.
    Stress-free classrooms propel data through the Amygdala’s affective filter.
    Pleasurable associations linked with learning are more likely to release more Dopamine.”

    There are no neuroimaging or brain wave analysis data that demonstrate a negative effect of joy and exuberance in classrooms, yet some schools have unspoken mandates against these valuable components of the classroom experience.”

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Worthy Reads | Mama of Letters linked to this post on February 6, 2013

    […] Stress and Learning – Avant Parenting – Excellent information for homeschoolers about brain research and how we learn. […]

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