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Anxiety Kills Learning

Keller Thinking Spaces 2 Comments

Researchers are deeply concerned about the millennials (ages 18-33) who present as more stressed than older adults.  In fact, their stress levels are well above the national average.  If they work in schools, then that would contribute even more to those levels. To make matters worse, they are stressed about being stressed!  Almost half felt they were not managing their anxiety well. How can we hope to grow our nation, when anxiety kills learning?

Children as young as four can experience anxiety and depression.  About 8-10% of students ages 13-18 have an anxiety disorder.

Anxiety and stress impairs learning.  The stress uses mental resources that could be used for deep thinking.  It is like having a virus scan running on your computer slowing down the other processing.  Stress slows you down.  Being anxious about your stress slows you down even more by consuming your energy.

The worst effect of anxiety and stress is the effect on the pre-frontal lobes in the brain. This area is responsible for three major executive functions namely: Cognitive Inhibitory Control (self-regulation), Working Memory (essential for reading and maths) and Cognitive Flexibility (your ability to see things from different perspectives and apply an empathetic response). Anxiety quite literally kills learning.

Cognitive Inhibitory Control:

The impact of stress on the Cognitive Inhibitory Control executive function makes it harder to time manage, organise, plan, carry out long-term projects and to engage in metacognition (thinking about your own thinking).  As a result, critical thinking is impaired by the all-consuming power of anxiety. Anxiety and stress impacts the ability to self-regulate and to regulate emotions.  This can lead to behavioural issues in class.

What can you do in class?

Create a safe thinking space.  Accept that both the teacher and the student are living in an elevated stress environment.  Therefore work hard to create a thinking space that is calm and engaging.  Music is always a good idea.  Have some calming music playing when students are required to ponder a problem. Teach students to delay their initial response to a question. In the younger classes teachers can actually teach children to sing the little ditty …“Thinking about the answer – don’t tell me!” before giving the answer.   

In the older grades they can learn to say it quietly in their minds.  What does this achieve?  It creates a thinking gap in the working memory. A Thinking Gap allows less inhibition since the first impulse has had time to fade and the executive brain can consider other options. 

Working Memory

Stress impairs working memory.  Working memory is what you are able to hold “online” in your mind while working with the information.  It is limited to a few seconds. For example, if you ask someone directions and by the time they finish giving them you have no idea where to start, then you have experienced the limitations of your working memory.  

Working memory is hugely essential for academic success. It is required for working out math problems, for reading comprehension and even for writing. It can hurt students’ test-taking ability because lengthy questions are highly dependent upon working memory.  Stress eats away at Working Memory.

What can you do in class?

Paired Reading:  

Reading with a buddy is a brilliant Working Memory activity.  Hand out cards with a picture of a human ear.  The one student holds the ear that has the words “Ears don’t talk!  Ears listen!”  The other buddy reads until they swop over.  The brain of the listening buddy is required to process the incoming auditory data before talking over with the visual input. 

Story telling: 

This is an amazing skill to develop working memory and is largely lost the higher we go up the schooling ladder.  All students and adults love a good story.  The secret is to halt the story at an exciting moment and the students are required to wait for the next lesson to hear the continuation.  Serial stories require active use of the working memory.

Cognitive Flexibility

Stressed people battle to care for others.  Anxiety drives us to focus on our own trauma and prevents us from looking up and out at the world around us.  In the process, we lose the ability to recognise kindness and show acts of gratitude while being sensitive to the needs of others. Gallet’s (2005) research showed that story telling improved vocabulary and recall better than the group assigned to story reading. It is good to read to students, but it is better to tell them a story.  The spoken word is a powerful tool. 

What can you do in the classroom?

Play games by flashing three different cards, two with the same colour and two with the same image on different colours.  Ask them which two go together and why. Remember there is no correct answer, but it forces the brain to consider all options.  Encourage them to use the Thinking Gap. 

Creative Thinking exercises:  Present an object to the class and ask them to list on a piece of paper the various uses.  Encourage them to think out of the box and generate novel and exciting ideas.

Focused Attention

Anxiety and stress affect attention.  They change the focus of attention and make it harder to pay attention when learning.  Attention drives learning! It is attention that creates the plasticity that enables the brain to change. 

What can you do in the classroom?

Use music

If you spend 2-5 minutes at the beginning of class providing an opportunity to reduce their stress by engaging, connecting, laughing and playing some welcoming music –  you are making their brains available to learn for the rest of the  period.  The music should be upbeat and positive with a beat-per-minute a little higher than concentration (70-90 bpm) or at concentration levels (60-80, heartbeat rate) for the first 2-5 minutes. Don’t play anything too slow or too energetic. Some ideas include:

“Today is Going to Be a Good Day” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IkIRnnb2vtw 

or “Three Little Birds” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zaGUr6wzyT8 or 

“Don’t Worry Be Happy” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d-diB65scQU are some options you could start with. 

You could use the same song every day, like a theme song, or change it up.

Use breathing

A simple measure to reduce stress is to take a few deep breaths. Slow deep breathing tells the brain that you are safe, calm and relaxed.  By focusing on that, you send the message to the brain to turn off the flight or fight chemicals (cortisol and norepinephrine) and turn on the reward and calming drugs of dopamine and serotonin.  Breathing is possibly one of the most under used techniques for student management in our schools. On the Keller Website, you have a number of breathing exercises at your disposal. 

Use mindfulness

Engage in one minute of mindfulness meditation.  Mindfulness should be part of every class.   The research is very convincing regarding its effectiveness in managing anxiety. 

Mindfulness meditation is focused attention. The easiest one is to ask them to think of the words “breathe in” and “breathe out” as they pay attention to their breath.  When their minds wander, tell them it is normal, then gently bring their attention back to their breath. Explain that thoughts are like trains passing through the mindful station.  As they enter, just let them pass right out while focusing your attention on your breath.  Start with 20 seconds and then 40 and finally, one minute.

If we want to put a halt on Anxiety killing learning in our schools, then we need to be intentional about creating a space which not only limits, but removes anxiety from the classroom. Connect, play, laugh and engage. Let’s re-imagine our classrooms and schools.

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