Our children have much to learn in order to be successful in life. Their brain starts to learn the moment it begins to form. Science writer, Annie Murphy-Paul explains this process in her Ted Talk video: What babies learn before they’re born. She explains how infants hear their mother’s voice inside the womb and begin to learn the melodic notes of their native language from the sound of their mother’s voice. Learning is an infant’s only job and on the job training begins very early.

Learning is a life-long process that builds a range of skills from life-saving lessons to skills for pleasure and everything in between. No matter which category the skill falls into, it is all important to who we become and what gifts we will offer the world.

External and internal forces will decide whether learning will flow easily or become a dreaded chore. Stresses from peers, such as bullying and group pressure to be a “certain way” is a dominant factor in a child’s life from a very young age. Stress caused by relationships at home with parents and siblings may be toxic in nature and affect how or if a child will be able to learn and retain the skills that they need in life. As if learning language, writing skills, math, science and social skills aren’t enough they may be expected to learn athletic or music skills also. Being a child is difficult, but when the stresses of life become overwhelming, children have an even steeper hill to climb which may begin to affect the biology of their brains.

“In a 2006 study, researchers at Arizona State University noted that long-term stress withered the dendrites (neuron branches) in the hippocampus, and decreased dendrite length and branch numbers. Dendrites provide the avenue along which new learning takes place and hippocampus injury (central to memory functioning) leads directly to learning impairment.” (*1)

“The hippocampus is a small organ located within the brain’s medial temporal lobe and forms an important part of the limbic system, the region that regulates emotions. The hippocampus is associated mainly with memory, in particular long-term memory. Damage to the hippocampus can lead to loss of memory and difficulty in establishing new memories.” (*2)

“Toxic stress weakens the architecture of the developing brain, which can lead to lifelong problems in learning, behavior, and physical and mental health. Experiencing stress is an important part of healthy development. Activation of the stress response produces a wide range of physiological reactions that prepare the body to deal with threat. However, when these responses remain activated at high levels for significant periods of time, without supportive relationships to help calm them, toxic stress results. This can impair the development of neural connections, especially in the areas of the brain dedicated to higher-order skills.” (*3)

Stress and Your Child’s Brain, an article written by Hank Pellissier, states, “While we all know that adult stress can lead to serious illnesses such as ulcers and hypertension, we don’t associate these maladies with children.”

“…research suggests that chronically stressed children do pay a heavy price. In fact, they are at risk of cognitive damage, because their brains are not yet fully developed.”

“A host of statistics suggest that American children are indeed experiencing stress at new levels: suicides among adolescents have quadrupled since the 1950s; only 36 percent of 7th graders agreed with the statement “I am happy with my life;” and in the past decade, using pharmaceuticals to treat emotional disorders has shot up 68 percent for girls, 30 percent for boys.” (*1)

Now that we’ve learned the effects of negative stress on our children’s brains, how it can interrupt or prevent learning, as the adults in their lives it is up to us to help them find ways to reduce their stress, cope with stresses they cannot change and eliminate the causes of the stress that overwhelms them. We must help facilitate that process for the health of our children and ourselves.

Next month in part three of this series on assessing stress, we’ll look at the stresses that parents endure.

*1 – http://www.greatschools.org/gk/articles/how-stress-affects-your-child/

*2 – http://www.news-medical.net/health/Hippocampus-Functions.aspx

*3 – http://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/brain-architecture/