Knowing that stress has an effect on children in their learning environments means that we, as parents and providers, must be aware of and attempt to understand the powerful effects of stress on children of all ages. As we are interacting with children, we have to try to recognize and take into account the events in their lives with which they may be dealing. If outside stressors are overwhelming for a child, learning will be less likely to occur. How we respond to children who show signs of stress will make the difference in whether they develop the skills to cope with stressors or whether they will be enveloped by stress and, consequently, less successful with their learning.

Stress comes in many forms. Good stress may come from things that we look forward to and seek in our lives such as, new relationships or marriage, a new job, a new home or having a child in our lives-whether the child is a first, subsequent biological, a foster child, or an adopted child. These things still create stress in our lives, although, they may be planned and emotionally positive. Even though this type of stress may create more work in your lives, we see it as a positive. Therefore, the stress is more tolerable, often making it easier for us to adjust.

Conversely, negative stress can have a much more lasting effect on health and emotions and can prevent learning from occurring until the stress is removed or relieved. In an article at Johns Hopkins School for Education, Victoria Tennant states, “Our complex modern society has greatly increased the amount of stress adults and children are exposed to. Children are experiencing more stress at younger and younger ages. Even in the womb a child picks up the mother’s stress – stress chemicals such as adrenaline and cortisol cross the placenta.” Our own stress can have an effect on children, their health, and their capacity to learn, even before they are born.

Humans have had to learn to react to stress since we began walking on this Earth. Our bodies developed ways to cope and conquer stress thousands of years ago. Most people know of the “fight or flight” response, the remnants of animal traits built into our biological response to stress. This response is not unique in humans alone; it is also present in other Earthlings, wild and domesticated. Becky Picton, writes for Chintimini Wildlife and stated the response perfectly, “During the “flight or fright” [sic] response, a complex series of changes occurs in the body. Basically, the amygdala (part of the brain) signals the hypothalamus (also part of the brain), which then mediates an all out stimulation of the sympathetic portion of the autonomic nervous system. Where these nerves contact organs of the body, they release either epinephrine or norepinephrine (neurotransmitter compounds), thus stimulating the organs to prepare for vigorous activity. Long-term corticosteroid release suppresses the immune system, and allows for disease to occur more easily. The effect of stress on the immune system and subsequent increase in disease susceptibility are current topics of much research. The mind-body connection is poorly understood, but undeniable.”

A quote from Maureen Killoran states how we should explain stress to our children (and ourselves): “Stress is not what happens to us. It’s our response TO what happens. And RESPONSE is something we can choose.” Sometimes, we have a choice in how we react to stress.

Therefore, we are compelled to help other parents, children, and ourselves to recognize and influence ways to reduce and cope with stress in the home and relationships. This awareness can increase the likelihood that learning will occur and grow for our children from the earliest age.

Next month, we will look at the effects of negative stress on children.