Group of students with their teacher

At the start of any school year, students may walk into the building with some nerves. It’s a common reaction to different classes, new classmates and changes in the learning environment. This fall will likely bring additional anxieties.

For young students, this could be the first time they’ve started a school year in any traditional sense, and they may not know what to expect. Others – youth and educators included – may be feeling the weight of ongoing fears around COVID, economic and housing insecurity and the political landscape.

While that anxious energy may be more prevalent than usual as you enter the building, educators still have an opportunity to support a positive start to the school year when they are equipped to recognize signs of stress. By exploring what is happening in the brain and body, and using Emergenetics® theory, administrators and teachers can gain tools to ease the transition.

Expanding on the Social Neuroscience of Stress

In my last post, I discussed what social neuroscience is and why it has an important place in education. As we dive into the topic of stress, let’s take a closer look at what’s going on underneath the surface.

When a student (or adult) experiences stress, the amygdala, which defines and regulates emotions, directs the brain to release two hormones: cortisol and adrenaline. Those hormones may cause physical effects such as faster heartbeats or clammy skin. The release also triggers increased blood sugar and blood flow to muscles, which can help a person build up strength or speed to support a fight, flight or freeze response.

While many circumstances may not warrant this reaction in the evolutionary sense, students can still experience an amygdala hijack when they face a perceived psychological pressure. In this situation, the amygdala takes over for the frontal lobes of the brain, which are responsible for modulating actions like reasoning, movement and decision-making, resulting in potentially irrational reactions.

To make sense of these behaviors, I invite you to consider the idea of the emotional rudder, coined by Dr. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang. Like the rudder of a ship, emotions push cognition into various modes and can help us understand how anxiety affects kids even when they are not in an intense situation. For example, the challenges that students are bringing to this new school year may negatively impact their capacity for learning, their performance and mental health.

While isn’t possible or even beneficial to eliminate every potential stressor, understanding how individuals may react and providing tactics to help overcome anxiety is essential to promoting a healthy learning climate.

Understanding the Indicators of Stress

Some symptoms of worry or tension are hard to see. You are unlikely to notice a person’s airways expanding or their heartbeat accelerating. However, you may see dilated pupils or hear kids comment on their sweaty palms or goosebumps, which are some of the physical manifestations associated with the release of cortisol and adrenaline. Other signals include increased negativity, irritability, withdrawal and disengagement.

Educators can examine pressure through the lens of the Emergenetics® Attributes. When youth experience stress-inducing conditions, they may lean further into their preferred ways of thinking and behaving, which can show up in the following ways:

NewAnalyticalAnalytical Attribute

The Analytical preference likes to understand the why, so it’s common to get questions from learners who prefer this type of thinking. Under pressure, the questioning may feel more confrontational as kids push to know the reasoning and logic behind what they are being asked to do and its relevance.

Pen On PaperStructural Attribute

Students with a Structural preference often like guidelines around how to approach a situation. When feeling anxious, they may ask for exact rules and seek to understand every detail to have a path planned before they can take any action.

People talking bubbles iconSocial Attribute

The Social preference tends to be empathetic toward others. In a taxing situation, educators may notice that youth with this preference are seeking greater connection with their teacher or classmates and may be perceived as being overly emotional.

Light bulb with brain inside iconConceptual Attribute

Learners with a Conceptual preference are often drawn to big and new ideas. When tough situations arise, teachers and administrators might notice that learners who prefer this type of thinking begin to fixate on a worrisome future.

Two talking bubbles iconExpressiveness Attribute

Individuals who are first-third Expressive are often described as internal processors. Under typical conditions, they may prefer to contribute after they have had time to reflect. When stressed, youth might be unwilling or unable to share their thoughts at all. On the other side of the spectrum, third-third Expressive learners who tend to be external processors, might repeat the same thoughts aloud while they try to work out their feelings and ideas.

Car iconAssertiveness Attribute

In anxious moments, kids in the first-third of Assertiveness can be perceived as indifferent or disengaged as they are often less willing to share their inputs. Conversely, third-third Assertive students could be seen as demanding as they quickly take action to address the situation.

Arrow on sign pointing in different directions iconFlexibility Attribute

Learners in the first-third of Flexibility often want a good reason for change. In taxing circumstances, they may be seen as stubborn as they hold tight to one direction or path. Those in the third-third are likely to welcome change.  Under stress, they are more likely to seek many alternatives and may struggle to select one option.

Keep in mind that most people will have more than one preference, so administrators and teachers may notice a combination of these Thinking and Behavioral preferences in hyperdrive under challenging conditions. To help students manage tension, educators can apply strategies to support each individual through their preferences.

Navigating Stress in School

Consider using the following seven tips to build a more caring environment:

1) Share the science.

Information about what is going on in the brain and body is just as important for students to know as it is for educators. By understanding how the brain influences our body and behaviors, youth can recognize how worry and fear show up, so they can name and notice it when it happens.

2) Build time management skills.

Students with a Structural preference aren’t the only ones who feel the effects of time. Test durations, homework deadlines and other scheduling challenges can burden anyone. Building time management skills empower learners to stay organized and better manage to dos and tasks when pressure creeps in.

3) Encourage connection.

While the Social Attribute may come to mind first when we talk about relationships, building positive connections is essential for all. Strong relationships allow youth to feel a sense of belonging and help them to feel comfortable surfacing feelings and being open about difficulties. Make time for classmates to get to know each other, their teachers and administrators so they can better understand and communicate feelings with one another.

4) Allow for laughter.

Humor diffuses many tense situations. It even releases dopamine, which reduces stress levels and supports memory, so it’s especially useful in learning environments. Anyone can benefit from a good laugh!

5) Create spaces for processing.

From our review of the Attributes in stress, it’s likely clear that people prefer to process thoughts and emotions differently. Providing spaces in the classroom and school that allow youth to work through their thoughts and feelings based on their preferred Attributes can help them manage anxieties before reaching a fight, flight or freeze response.

6) Celebrate effort and progress.

Receiving specific positive feedback encourages students to persevere when they face challenges, setbacks or pressures. As teachers and administrators find ways to recognize individuals, be sure to acknowledge progress, rather than simply a completed task or a final grade. By celebrating steps along the way, learners feel more supported.

7) Offer a list of tension-relief activities to pick from.

Kids may gravitate toward certain exercises to help them to stay calm during a worrying situation, or they may not know where to start. By creating a list of ideas – like mindfulness or physical activities – students can choose what is connecting for them in the moment to cope with their challenges.

Stress is likely to show up differently depending on the person, context and circumstance. By getting to know the needs of each of their learners, educators are much more likely to help them overcome the challenges this new school year brings.

In addition to having tools to relieve tension, one of the best ways that schools can create positive, welcoming climates is by building trust. In my next post, we’ll explore how educators can boost relationship building to set the stage for a better school year. Stay tuned!

Discover how STEP can support your students this year. Learn more about our programs or fill out the form below to speak with one of our team members today!

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