This morning was like any other. I begin the day reading about such things as children of employees of a local fishing tackle factory having elevated lead levels in their blood due to lead dust being transported home on the clothes of the workers. Wildfires continue to burn in California while others in California endure power shutdowns to prevent sparking of additional wildfires. Each day numerous articles document the journey towards a presidential impeachment.

Children wear bullet-proof backpacks to school. That one can sit there for a moment.

We are living in an age of fear and continued stress. What is the impact of this on our decision-making and the ability to function and learn?

When our brains take in new information through one of the senses, it is first identified and unconsciously categorized by the reticular activating system as a normal sensory input or something out of the ordinary pattern and thus requiring immediate and focused attention. In conjunction with the amygdala, the unconscious decision is made to either send the information to the upper brain or the lower brain. If not so out of ordinary pattern and not perceived as a threat goes to the upper brain and processed and catalogued and eventually stored as long-term memory by the thalamus, cerebral cortex, and hippocampus. If it is an unrecognized pattern it is sent to the lower brain where chemical signals such as adrenaline and peptides such as the stress hormone cortisol are released to prepare the body for fight or flight. This is an immediate and unconscious process that evolved as a necessary survival mechanism (think predators on an African savanna), and still operates as a necessary survival mechanism, though, a list of what those stressors are in modern society have accumulated at a much faster pace then the rate of biological evolution of the neurological fight or flight mechanism that takes over during times of perceived or real imminent danger.

This process of sending the information to the lower brain has been called “downshifting.” Maybe we are collectively in a state of downshifting. And if so, what impact does this have on our kids’ ability to meet their learning potential in school? They are feeling these same stressors either directly or indirectly through the actions of their parents, teachers, coaches, etc., plus the normal stresses of school and childhood that might also induce downshifting. This might include such things as1:

  • Anxiety related to speaking in class, answering questions, or oral presentations
  • Fear of being wrong
  • Physical and language differences
  • Test-taking anxiety
  • Boredom as result of prior mastery or absence of personal relevance to the material
  • Frustration with material students believe exceeds their understanding
  • Feeling overwhelmed by the demands of school assignments
  • Inability to effectively organize time in response to the demands of academics, extracurricular activities, and out-of-school chores and jobs
  • Feelings of isolation or lack of acceptance by peers or teachers.

During a combination of such common and normal stressors, coupled with the heightened state of collective anxiety we appear to be in, this can lead to kids downshifting and acting out (fight) or zoning out (flight) behaviors. I’m not providing an excuse for kids to fail in school nor am I excusing disruptive behavior. I do believe this however: everyone wants to learn and to do well. When they are not, then we must consider what is occurring either externally or internally that is interfering with that innate nature to thrive. It’s our responsibility to recognize the cause and either remove the stress, or better yet, help that child understand and appropriately process, respond to, and manage that stress to avoid downshifting when fight or flight isn’t an appropriate neurological response.

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1 McTighe, Jay and Judy Willis (2019). Updgrade Your Teaching: Understanding by Design Meets Neuroscience. ASCD. Alexandria, VA.

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