Improve Your Students’ Learning and Behavior – Make Sure Your Classroom is Toxic-Stress Free

Stress-RelaxAll of us can agree that we have felt stressed at one point or other in our lives.  Stress is a normal part of life and can actually help us to become more focused and get work done.  As an educator, I’m sure you have noticed that your students become much more focused when they are experiencing the stress of a deadline.  The problem is when stress is persistent or extreme, or what some researchers call toxic stress.

Toxic Stress – It can actually Change our Brains

Although stress can be helpful at times, we all know that stress can also be problematic.  It can impact sleep patterns, focus, and patience.  But when stress is at toxic levels it can even make people more susceptible to health and mental problems across their lifespan.  One of the most devious roles toxic stress can play is that it can actually change brain architecture, especially the development of executive function.  This is especially concerning for students in elementary through high school whose brains are still actively developing.

The Importance of Executive Functioning

Likely you have heard the term executive function mentioned, especially as it relates to your students with attention problems.  But executive function is not just about being able to focus; it also plays a big part in how well students do academically and behaviorally.  Executive function are those cognitive skills that allow students to store and use information, control their impulses, and switch their way of thinking.  So those students in your class who display impulsive behavior, struggle with following directions and remembering rules, and are rigid in their thinking likely have deficits in their executive functioning.  More and more researchers are convinced that executive function provides the foundation for not only students’ learning and behavior, but also their lifelong success.

What Does Toxic Stress Have to do with Executive Functioning?

We know two things about the development of executive function.  One, it develops throughout childhood and adolescence.  Two, both genetics and environments play a significant role in its development – positively and negatively.  Specifically, highly toxic, stressful environments can have a negative impact on executive function development, and schools have the potential to be a stress culprit.  In fact, a recent study by the American Psychological Association found that adolescents consistently cited schools as a significant source of stress.

Foster Student Executive Function by Reducing Student Stress

The good news is that executive function appears to be malleable during childhood and adolescence.  So educators – you can have a significant impact on your students’ executive function development, and their resulting school and lifelong success by ensuring your classroom and schools are not toxic stress sources.  How do you do this?

1. Create safe and positive classroom and school environments – Provide and follow through with clear classroom and school expectations and rules.

2. Build healthy peer and adult-child relationships – Model good behavior, teach positive interaction skills, and highlight social emotional learning.

3. Teach stress regulation skill development – Teach breathing techniques, mindfulness, and social problem-solving strategies.

Some of these points may seem new or are already things you are doing in your classroom and school.  If you are already doing some of the suggestions, keep up the good work!  Numerous studies have shown that these strategies can help to make a difference in the lives of your students by potentially reducing their stress, fostering their executive function development, and improving their associated learning and behavior.  In a nutshell, you can help prepare your students for lifelong success by making sure your classroom is toxic-stress free.