We’ve all experienced stress before. Whether it’s the feeling we have before we have to speak in front of a large group of people, feeling overwhelmed by a large “to-do” list, or concern for one we love, such as a child. But what about that child? We may stress over them, but what about their stress? How does stress affect children? How does stress affect their ability to learn and develop? Recent research has looked at this very issue.

student stressing over test

Before looking at what the research has found, it’s important to note one key finding about stress in children, according to Bruce McEwen, neuroendocrinology researcher at The Rockefeller University: "Stress effects are not 'brain damage' but [are] reversible or treatable." So… don’t let the following research stress you out. You should be concerned if your child is chronically stressed, but you should also have the confidence that it can be reversed.

Stress and Academic Achievement

Children, like adults, feel stress. Stress in anticipation of a performance or test typically melts away after the event, and the cortisol released in response to this stress, does not remain in the brain. But, continual stress can flood the brain with a continual release of cortisol, which, overtime, can eat away parts of the brain. A study conducted with lab rats found that when injected with a daily dose of cortisol for a four-week period, the rats began to appear depressed, anxious, fearful, immature, needy, and unable to learn new behaviors.

So, when looking at how stress affects your child’s brain development and academic achievement, it is continual stress that should concern you. This is because, as the Great Schools Newsletter so plainly put it: “Brains under chronic stress will have trouble learning new things and committing new material to memory.”

Over and over our customers give us feedback that students have a difficult time remembering what they have been taught and what they have read. It’s interesting to wonder if stress is a huge contributor as to why they are struggling to remember and retain what they have been taught. Of course, learning disabilities can also be a factor that affects a child’s ability to retain information. But if both a learning disability and chronic stress are present, the problem is going to be amplified.

And although we hopefully care about the well-being of our children more than just their academic achievement, it has been found over and over again that children with chronic stress (especially those in extremely stressful situations) have significantly lower IQ’s than their peers that live in safer, happier environments.

To look at the flip side, the benefits of a relaxed mindset on learning; an interesting study was conducted in Berlin in the 1990’s that looked at what separated elite violinists from the average at a prestigious arts academy. The researchers originally supposed that practice time would be the sole divider, interestingly; they found that both groups spent about the same amount of time practicing. What separated these two groups were two factors:

  1. The type of practice the elite students engaged in. The elite students spent an average of 3.5 of their daily practice hours working on skills that were difficult for them. The average students simply repeated their skills, often avoiding the more challenging skills.
  2. The elite students were more relaxed than the average students. The elite students got more sleep than their peers and participated in more leisure activities. Once they completed their daily practice, they set it aside and enjoyed their lives.

Staying up late studying and stressing does not lead to stronger academic performance.

What Causes Chronic Stress?

There are obvious causes of chronic stress such as living situations that include violence or abuse, but newer studies have discovered that chronic stress doesn’t have to be the result of an extreme situation. Chronic stress can result from “household chaos” and even a parent’s own stress levels. Everything in our environment affects us. Whether it’s a scary situation, or something as simple as the tension and stress a child’s parent is exhibiting.

How Can Chronic Stress be Cured?

So, what can you do? Here are three things that you can start doing today to help your child overcome chronic stress:

  1. Physical exercise – the “cliché” answer… but although we often ignore anything that we hear too often, doesn’t undermine its importance. Exercise has become the cliché advice for stress simply because it works. Next time your child is appearing stressed, work your hardest to get them doing something active as soon as possible. As Monica R. Fleshner, Ph.D., explained, "Maintaining regular physical activity is one way to help promote both stress resistance and stress resilience."
  2. Improve your home life – since everything in our environment affects us, work on improving your child’s environment. Make your home a happier, safer, orderly place. John Medina, author of Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, highlights the importance of a sound home life by saying: "The emotional stability of the home is the single greatest predictor of academic success. If you want your kid to get into Harvard, go home and love your spouse." (Not only so they can get into Harvard, but so that your child can be happy as well).
  3. Keep your own stress in check – you can’t pretend life is always a perfect bubble; stressful things will happen that you and your family have to deal with. But you can demonstrate healthy ways of coping with stress to your child. Use good communication skills, exercise, try not to yell and get irritable, but rather communicate concerns and come up with productive solutions with those that may cause/contribute to your stress.

If you feel like your child is experiencing chronic stress, you should use your best judgment to decide if counseling would be helpful for your child (it often is).