Monday, November 17, 2014

When Stress and Depression Affect Learning

We often write about the importance of maintaining an optimal state for learning in classrooms as well as in the home. However, there is no denying that there are challenges facing teachers and parents today that make setting the stage for learning a difficult task at times. Two of the key factors are stress and depression.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has identified depression and anxiety as two major causes of illness and death in the United States as well as contributing to lower quality of life and reduced social functioning. According to 2009 statistics, more than 15% of Americans (including about 4% of children and adolescents) have  been diagnosed with depression at some point in their lives.

In some cases, children are coming into the classroom with inadequate sleep or malnourishment. In the most adverse cases, there are children who are suffering from child abuse and neglect or violence in their homes or neighborhoods. These extreme circumstances can lead to toxic stress, which impairs development of neural connections.

Researchers note that students who are subjected to such threatening situations will have adverse reactions to their cognitive processing systems. They also are more likely to have adverse health conditions in their adulthood, ranging from higher incidences of heart disease and cancer to a greater likelihood of smoking, alcoholism, drug abuse, poverty and depression.

These circumstances are never to be ignored. Any adult who knows or suspects that a child is being neglected or is living in a violent, abusive home has an absolute obligation to report such behavior to the Child Protective Services agency in their area. Intervention is essential to stop this detrimental behavior as early as possible so that the child is able to experience a secure and safe environment, ideally with a non-abusive parent or other caring adult family members.

Stopping the risk at an early age is key. Research shows that a child’s exposure to risk factors does not make poor developmental outcomes a foregone conclusion.  With timely intervention, detrimental factors can be mitigated by a stable environment that provides young children with consistent, nurturing, and protective interactions with adults.

It is also important to understand that it is never too late for adults to change attitudes—and behavior, too—with the appropriate intervention. Often school counselors, social workers, and psychologists can assist teachers to find community resources for families that need support and/or re-education in order to learn new attitudes and behaviors. 

For children experiencing stress, the most effective learning happens by moving beyond the mere absence of threat to creating a profoundly optimistic learning environment. There are several practical ways we recommend doing this, such as:

  • Modeling an optimistic outlook
  • Praising students for both accomplishment and effort
  • Presenting choices to learners
  • Increasing internal motivation

Keep in mind that three things—choice, control and successful experiences—foster internal motivation and create children who are engaged in the process of learning.

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