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Can school shrink your brain?

Stress, often caused by multiple demands, is damaging the memory, learning ability and attention span of teachers and students, says Stephen Briers.

Opposite, he offers his five-point plan for helping children manage stress

In clinical settings pupils and teachers often present with a common complaint. Staff and pupils can feel pressurised, under-resourced and overwhelmed, and unable to meet the multiple demands they are facing.

Psychologically, this perception is a surefire recipe for stress.

Worryingly, the latest research suggests that, left unchecked, chronic stress not only compromises cognitive performance but actually causes physical damage to the brain.

The hippocampus is a region of the brain that plays a key role in memory, learning and the allocation of attention. It is also particularly vulnerable to certain stress hormones. In the brains of Vietnamese sufferers of post traumatic stress disorder, a condition that bathes the brain in cortisol for sustained periods, researchers observed an 8 per cent shrinkage of the hippocampus. But you don't need to have been through a recent near-death experience to trigger your body's stress response: the cumulative build-up of even minor stressors can elevate cortisol levels significantly.

Educators need to take the impact of stress seriously because it has such profound implications for children's capacity to learn. Experimental evidence suggests that raised cortisol levels can make it difficult to think and affect long-term recall. Studies with rats also suggest that the hippocampus is critically involved in associative memory formation.

Indirectly, chronic stress may therefore also prevent the storage of new information. We know, too, that when under duress the focus of our attention narrows.

As task shedding takes place, the capacity to process new information is reduced, the consideration of new possibilities is foreclosed and mental resources are selectively channelled towards the perceived threat. As exposure to stress continues, motivation levels drop and individuals are more inclined to assume a response of "learned helplessness" that in turn can promote susceptibility to depression.

There is more evidence than ever to support the view that chronically stressed children do not make good learners. I would argue that more effort needs to be committed to teaching children the psychological life skills to manage their stress levels and build their self-confidence.

Whether in the form of Sats or the daily demands of the national curriculum, we should keep a close eye on the level of pressure to which our children and our teachers are exposed. Not only could we be making it harder for them to learn, but we might even be doing them permanent neurological damage

* Teach children to become 'thought detectives'

Children need to learn that when we get anxious or sad our thinking processes get skewed and we tend to focus only on the negative. Teachers can help them find the evidence to be more positive. Sit down and brainstorm all the experiences and facts that challenge their negative beliefs so they can learn how to do it for themselves.

For instance, a friend on the other side of the playground did not respond when invited to join in a game. The insecure child might think they don't want to be friends anymore. But are there other explanations that might make more sense?

Maybe they didn't hear, for instance? They seemed quite happy to play the other day. What further investigations might establish the truth of the child's feelings?"

* Teach them to draw the line

Stress usually results when we feel overloaded. Some children overestimate what is expected of them, or expect more of themselves than anyone can consistently deliver.

One of the most helpful things they can be taught is to set realistic goals for themselves. Many highly anxious children are also haunted by vague and shadowy fears of impending catastrophe. Adults can help by asking: "If your fear is true, what is the very worst that can happen?" Once children articulate the worst case scenario, many recognise for themselves how improbable it is.

* Provide opportunities for children to develop a sense of competence.

Children who enjoy a sense of mastery in one area will often transfer the resulting self-confidence into other areas of their lives.

While it is counter-productive to overwhelm them, some recent research has suggested that children who pursue a range of after-school activities are emotionally better adjusted than their more passive peers.

Children should also be given responsibilities in the classroom and at home that encourage their sense of competence. And schools should aim to deliver not only academic knowledge but problem-solving strategies and thinking skills to help children cope with the challenges life will throw at them.

* Teach children about the biology of stress

Some experiences are much more tolerable if you understand what's going on, and anxiety is no exception.

If children are taught that what they feel in their body at times of stress is a product of its preparation for a "fight or flight" response, they are likely to feel less distressed by the symptoms. And if they know why vigorous exercise may be one way to discharge some of the built-up tension - that it boosts production of chemicals such as serotonin that make us feel calm and happy - they may be encouraged to pursue it.

* Promote people skills in the classroom

It is easy to assume that children's stress at school results from academic pressure. But many children report higher levels of anxiety and stress as a result of personal relationships, both at home and at school. Teaching children about the nuts and bolts of how people work emotionally, and how they can relate harmoniously to each other, is particularly important if they are to develop real resilience

Stephen Briers is a clinical psychologist. In his next column, he will write about thinking skills. In future weeks, he will write more about promoting people skills in the classroom

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