Brain Friendly

What happens to your brain when you get stressed?

There may be several possible answers, but the one that is most important for educators and learners is this:

In stress conditions, the neural pathways to long-term and short-term learning are chemically blocked. This means that no matter how much you’ve studied, how hard you try, and how much you want to remember, it’s very difficult, maybe impossible, to remember.

What causes stress?

These days, we live in stress. Kids go to school and eat breakfast loaded with refined carbs. They may have left their mom at home high, hungry, bruised, or worried to death. Dad may have been picked up late last night by the police. Kids may have been watching movies or TV shows filled with brutality and blood. They may have been exchanging bullying texts with other kids. We don’t know, but we do know that they live in an environment drenched with stress.

This means that no matter how hard they try to remember (and how hard we try to help them), the neural pathways are blocked, and it’s not going to happen, at least not very well.

How can we restore the neural pathways? For this, we have to replace stress chemicals with pleasure chemicals, such as dopamine and endorphins. And how can we do that in school?

Joyous surprise: our brains produce these pleasure chemicals with physical exercise and arts activities. Some schools, following the brilliant research in the recent book Spark, incorporate strenuous physical activity in the morning, sometimes throughout the day.

Lacking that, every classroom teacher can do one important thing: use arts activities to teach the academic core standards. Even very simple activities such as drawing or painting a science concept or vocabulary list can replace stress chemicals with pleasure chemicals.

Happily, these types of activities also reinforce learning, since they require higher-level thinking to produce them.

That’s my alternative-learning tip for today and for always: teach with arts activities.


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